Austin, Texas: Navigating the Food Trailers, Trucks, Barbeque, Tacos, Mexican, and Asian Fusion

How soon is too soon to go back to Austin? We’d been there (mostly) for fun five times in three years, with a little work thrown in (if you call an eating tour of barbeque restaurants “work,” which, lucky for us, we get to do).

But the forecast in Minneapolis (more accurately referred to around the office as “Narnia” these days) was grim; it’s a short, direct flight; a bunch of new restaurants have popped up… And the forecast (70s and sunny) was irresistible

So: Not too soon at all.

Austin has become an incredible food town. Its combo of casual street energy and truly great restaurants make it a real contender for one of the better eating cities in the country.

But it’s still a place where the best of the best restaurants aren’t in… Buildings, per se. Many of them started (and often stayed) in containers/food trucks/food trailers/Airstreams/metal boxes/dumpsters… Mostly because I think everyone in this city secretly likes to stand in line. Now the very crème de la crème (although they’d still scoff at being referred to in such a bougie way) have created more permanent homes. But, alas, the lines remain.

Before we really get into the food, you’ve gotta stay somewhere.

In our well-traveled opinion, the best option is the South Congress neighborhood. It’s just across the river from downtown, and is a cool area with character and personality to spare. But do note that it’s gotten immensely busier and more touristy, especially on weekends (so much for secrets). Our favorites to stay:

  • Hotel Saint Cecilia: A little quirky, extremely friendly, and a perfect blend of luxury-boutique-meets-hipster-cool. The interior courtyard/small bar area is actually one of the best hotel hangouts we’ve seen. They’re also building another hotel/addition next door, so the room options will grow even bigger and better.
  • Hotel San Jose: Saint Cecilia’s sister property is just down the street and is another fun choice, with Joann’s Fine Foods (don’t miss) bright, cheery, and calling out to you from the front.
  • South Congress Hotel: A bit bigger, with food and retail on site, and thoughtfully designed. The bar, Central Standard, is actually quite good.

You can also opt to stay Downtown, where  a host of new hotels has opened or are on the verge (i.e., the highly reflective Fairmont). One option is The Line, a new boutique property in an old Radisson/Sheraton, but with a pole position location and a buzzy restaurant (Arlo Grey).

What to do, what to do…

This time, we got smart and rented bicycles. The city streets are not what I would call “bike-friendly,” but there are tons of paths and hills in and around Austin that are incredible.

In addition, we decided to food-truck-hop up and down Cesar Chavez using our trusty bikes. Parking is crazy; walking takes too long between tacos. We hit la Barbecue (which now has a more permanent home), Veracruz All Natural, and Micklethwait Craft Meats (further north and closer to Franklin Barbecue). All good choices; if you’re in the mood for lines, Cesar Chavez Street is food-truck central.

Beyond that? Eat. Eat. Eat. And drink.

The restaurants are decently spread apart across the South Congress and Lamar Boulevard, Downtown, and East Austin. There are great spots further afield, but we believe in a zone approach (it’s really all about efficiency).

BBQ-ish

  • Don’t miss Loro. I think it was our top of the top of all places we ate at last year and this year. The owners of Uchi and Franklin Barbecue came together; what more do you want?
  • la Barbecue is this ’hood’s line-worthy BBQ joint (Franklin and Ruby’s are further north. You will stand in line at Franklin’s, no matter the weather or time of day, so be prepared and call me after to let me know if it was worth the wait).
  • Micklethwait (see above)

All-Day Favorites:

  • One group owns a number of incredible location choices, including a handful of our favorites: June’s All Day, Joann’s Fine Foods, and Elizabeth Street Café (don’t miss the kouign amman). They’ve perfected the all-day model, meaning we can eat something great any time. We’re here for it.
  • The original Hopdoddy still has lines after all the years. The burger is good, but not worth the line (sensing a theme here?).
  • Torchy’s Tacos (Everyone will tell you to go there. If you do, get the queso for an app and move on.)
  • Lenoir (A pretty little spot with a destination-worthy wine garden in the back.)
  • Uchi and Uchiko (Almost-famous sushi joints, on opposite ends of Lamar Blvd.)
  • Odd Duck and Barley Swine (Barley Swine’s technically moved across the river, but they’re both actually-famous don’t-miss sister spots for food that’s highly creative, unpretentious, and really delicious—take a second to admire Odd Duck’s bar-centric action)

Mexican, Asian, or Otherwise-Influenced

(I know, I know, too general and stereotypical—but these joints have the trifecta of being clever, creative, and hard to categorize.)

  • Kemuri Tatsu-Ya (A Beard nom for Best New Restaurant this year, it’s a Texas take on Izakaya.)
  • La Condesa is classic Mexican with a cool vibe.
  • Suerte (Our second favorite to Loro.)
  • She’s Not Here is the new kid, with a great name and signage, clever food, and great happy hour
  • Domo Alley Gato (next to Ramen Tatsu-Ya) —go for the name alone and the eye catching red in the open storefronts.

Pizza/Italian-ish:

  • Vespaio Enoteca and Restaurant (It’s more old-school Italian in South Congress, but we’ll often start our night here for a drink and app, or have lunch on their patio.)
  • Home Slice Pizza (Yes, lines, but also has a takeout window) for old-school deliciousness.
  • Bufalina (Classic Neapolitan pies in Texas if you absolutely must eat pizza here.)
  • Happy hour at Red Ash is one not to skip.
  • 40 North for pizza is huge, bringing some weekend energy to Downtown dining.
  • Via 313 now has a spot next to Suerte, so you don’t have to go in a weird dive spot to get your pizza.

And others… AKA, “we ran out of categories”:

  • The Brewer’s Table is the new critical darling, known for meat and… Meat. We love their outdoor backyard/front yard, and sitting in front of the chef’s hearth, watching the action. And it’s right across for the old-school French Justine’s, making a progressive easy.
  • Holy Roller for nostalgic dishes and a space emphasizing Austin’s music roots.
  • Emmer & Rye (A classic with dim-sum-style carts and a giant cookie, from a Beard favorite chef. It’s an oasis at the end of Rainey Street, which is riddled with bars and bar-food-driven trucks and restaurants.)
  • Launderette (A creative must-stop that popped up right in the middle of a neighborhood.)
  • Swift’s Attic is the place to be for drinks.
  • Fareground is the first food hall in town, just off of Congress on the north side of the river. Some of the vendors make it worth a stop if you’re nearby, but it hasn’t quite hit destination-worthy status.
  • Boiler Nine has a great rooftop and a cool glass-box look.

Come back full enough to brave the tundra.