Austin has gained a reputation as an alternative culture oasis in the middle of conservative Texas. They push the “Keep Austin Weird” motto, striving for uniqueness rather than homogenization. And food is increasingly part of that eclectic funk.
The city is moving beyond staples like barbeque and taco stands (though, to be sure, there’s plenty of excellent barbeque and tacos to be had in Austin) and incorporating locally-sourced meat and produce in edgy New American cooking – often prepared in a cramped food truck.
Austin will make your head spin with food choices. Here are a few of our favorite picks, ranging from high-end dining to low-brow food trucks to local staples and everything in between.
The Food Truck Scene
Austin’s food truck scene is thriving. It’s not uncommon to see clusters of trucks parked on busy streets or in parking lots – or even on the back patios of bars. Many food trucks cater to foodies with high-end offerings, but the food is always affordable. Take Top Chef winner Paul Qui’s East Side King, a chain of three trucks and one bricks-and-mortar restaurant scattered around Austin. He parks one behind The Liberty bar, where picnic tables are spread out in the dusty Austin dirt. Grab a beer and munch on Qui’s version of Japanese street food, like fried potato noodles with pork and kimchi stew, pork chop sandwich, fried chicken fried rice, and a side of crispy-skinned beet fries.
For a helluva snack, hit up the Gourdoughs Specialty Doughnuts Airstream trailer. Gourdoughs specializes in enormous sweet and savory doughnuts, which come in over 20 creatively named flavors, including the Boss Hog, a pulled pork doughnut topped with potato salad and drizzled with honey barbeque sauce. Then there’s the Heavenly Hash, a chocolate doughnut with marshmallows, chocolate fudge icing, and hunks of fudge brownie candy.
Let’s not forget the barbeque and the tacos. Mellizoz Tacos serves guacamole or chili con queso while you wait for your order. Tacos range from fried avocado to tempura shrimp to portabella shroom. Meat lovers should head to Micklethwait Craft Meats, with melt-in-your-mouth brisket, homemade sausages, and mustard-spiked potato salad on the side.
Austin’s chefs are increasingly drawing from regional farmers and ranchers when they source their menus. And the outcome is delicious, especially if the perpetual line outside of Hopdoddy Burger Bar is any indication. The humanely-raised Texas beef, lamb, and goat finds its way into an incredible array of burgers, like the Greek, with lamb topped with feta, arugula, pickled red onions, cucumber and tzatziki sauce. Or El Diablo, made with Angus beef complimented by pepperjack cheese, caramelized onions, habenero and Serrano chiles, salsa roja, and chipotle mayo. These premium ingredients are sandwiched between housemade buns, baked fresh daily.
24 Diner elevates diner fare with farm-to-table sourcing. Chef and Texas native Andrew Curren runs the show here, spinning out chicken and waffles, meatloaf with sweet onion gravy, and bacon Gorgozola burgers with local and organic ingredients wherever possible. Chef Curren oversees the sourcing personally, and overhauls parts of the menu to match the seasons.
Darn Good Staples
Don’t think for a minute Austin has lost sight of its roots in Mexican fare and finger-licking Texas barbeque. In fact, these are still some of the most common restaurants in Austin, and there are several memorable ones to try out.
There’s the aforementioned Mellizoz Tacos and Micklethwait Craft Meats food trucks. Eastsiders love Juan in a Million, which goes the traditional Mexican route and is a favorite for breakfast. Try the rich Don Juan El Grande taco, stuffed with potatoes, eggs, cheese and bacon, or the indulgent Con Queso Breakfast, a plate of creamy queso, carne guisada, refried beans, potatoes and two flour tortillas to pile it all in.
Polvo’s Mexican Restaurant aims for authentic dishes from Mexico’s interior. They’ve got unique salsas on offer at the salsa bar and tasty margarita pitchers. You can’t go wrong with the espaditas, corn tortillas baked to crispy perfection, smothered with shredded cabbage, beans, sour cream, pico de gallo, and your choice of beef, chicken al pastor, vegetables, shrimp, or fish.
Barbeque aficionados swear by Franklin Barbecue in East Austin. They open at 11 a.m. and close whenever they run out, which always happens early in the day, so that’s your first indication this place is the real deal. You’ll have to unhinge your jaw to down a pulled pork or brisket sandwich. If you can’t stay, the array of smoked meats and sausages are available by the pound to go, and you can find Franklin’s sauces in 150 HEB stores throughout Texas. You’ll need a bib to eat at La Barbeque, where locally-sourced meat slow smokes with seasoned post oak. Dive into beef, pork, turkey, and sausage, available until the restaurant runs out for the day.