If you’re like me, your taste buds tend to dictate where you like to travel. And for incredible barbecue, Tex-Mex cuisine, and even sushi, Austin, Texas, should be the next culinary destination on your list. I try to head to Texas’s state capitol at least once a year, when my cravings for icy-cold margaritas, overstuffed burritos, and spicy queso can’t be ignored.
Here are five of my favorite, can’t-miss places to eat in Austin.
The first time I took my boyfriend Andy to Chuy’s, I tried to warn him about the size of the burritos. “I’ll be fine,” he nonchalantly replied. “I’m really hungry.” Then he was served a burrito the size of a rolled-up newspaper, surrounded by a good helping of refried beans and rice. He looked down at the burrito; its stream wafted back up at him, tauntingly. I could see the wheels turning in his head.
“Don’t do it,” I insisted. “This is one competition you’re not going to win.”
Here’s what awaits you at Chuy’s: Spicy burritos that will stuff you for days. Endless refills of fresh salsa and toasty-hot tortilla chips. Crispy cool frozen margaritas, with just the right amount of salt to balance the tangy sweetness. Flautas that perfect the balance of meat, guacamole, and chipotle. And your choice of six hot sauces to top off your dish. My preferred sauce is tomatillo, which packs a mouthful of the namesake green gems, garlic, and cilantro.
The decor is kooky-cool, too—a throwback to the fifties, the restaurant seats patrons against a backdrop of chrome, neon, and decor furnished in vintage peaches, aquas, pinks, and blues. At any given time, the place might be packed with families chowing down, a horde of UT students pigging out, or hungry couples out spicing things up. I love people-watching here almost as much as the food itself.
(Oh—Andy ultimately ate half his burrito, then took the rest for lunch the next day.)
The Green Mesquite
I love a good barbecue joint, and the Green Mesquite doesn’t disappoint. Visitors are greeted with lots of funky neon signage, and mouth-watering aromas of good smoky meats and greens. Choose from two-, three-, or four-meat plates and stack your platter with pulled pork, brisket, pork ribs, and a variety of smoked poultry, sausage, or ham. There’s plenty of catfish, chicken-fried steak, and jambalaya, too. And if you’re up for trying a local specialty, order the Frito pie, an awesome gut-busting combo of chili, sour cream, cheese, and (of course) Fritos.
Sides include perfect fried okra, potato salad, and corn on the cob, among other traditional favorites. In the past, my friends and I have chosen the okra as our individual side, then for good measure, ordered an extra for the table to split—it’s that good. Finish up with a slice of cobbler and a scoop of ice cream, then waddle out the door.
Magnolia is usually my first stop after I get off the plane, and the last place I go before heading back to the airport. The cafe is always open (24/8 is their motto), and always delicious. Once I slide into a comfy, well-worn booth, I tend to deliberate over a cup of coffee between breakfast (migas—scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, jalapeno, tortilla chips, cheddar cheese, and black beans) or lunch (fish tacos or the Flamingo—a tasty sandwich with avocado, tomato, sprouts, and Swiss cheese). Usually I’m the last of my group to order, so hard is it to commit to just one tempting dish.
I also tend to get distracted by the wait staff. You usually see a great variety of hairstyles, colors, and accoutrements here. On a recent visit, my host sported beautiful elbow-sweeping dreadlocks, and a waitress rocked a Cookie Monster-blue streak, highlighting a perfectly side-swept part. The patrons usually have plenty of eye-catching styles, too.
Magnolia has two locations, one on South Congress, the other on Lake Austin Boulevard. I tend to favor the South Congress location, if for no other reason than it’s close to many of my favorite shops.
Great sushi in Texas? Believe it! A fixture on the Austin dining scene since 2003, Uchi offers some of the freshest, most innovative sushi dishes around. It’s one of my favorite family-style dining experiences in recent memory: Go with a group to taste the full palette of Executive Chef Tyson Cole’s creations, and have everyone try a different dish or roll. After stuffing myself silly, I had a hard time choosing which I liked best.
Some rolls did stand out among the rest: Bond (avocado, sundried tomato, white soybean paper), Endo (sea bass, snow crab, roe in rice paper served with frozen grapes and cucumber—after eating this, I’ll now be freezing grapes at home), and Hakujin (salmon, grilled asparagus, rolled with warm tempura flakes). Cole and his staff’s attention to textures, temperatures, and taste all work in concert for a feast of complementary contrasts.
With Uchi’s intimate setting—the restaurant is actually a restored home—you’ll inevitably be told there’s a wait for a table, every night of the week. No matter. Get a cocktail or sake from the bar, and head outside to the peaceful courtyard for a little pre-dinner relaxation. You’ll find the meal, once seated, to be incredibly worth the wait.
If you’re craving Tex-Mex and barbecue, Trudy’s might be a wise choice, as you can have both! Choices include BBQ-smoked chicken tacos, chicken-fried steak with cheese mashed potatoes, burritos and enchiladas, and a “stuffed avocado” (a breaded-and-fried avocado filled with chicken, cheese, and choice of sauce—try it, you’ll like it).
The drink specials are tempting as well. With a different option featured every night, you could visit daily and not have a repeat. Saturday’s killer sangria margarita is a popular choice, as is Top Shelf Tuesday, where top-of-the-line margaritas and martinis cost the same as the house versions. Even better—a draft of Shiner Bock (possibly my favorite beer) is on special every day.
I’ve barely made a dent on all the possibilities Austin has to offer. To start putting together your own list of favorites, check the listings on the Austin Chronicle and the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Happy delicious travels!