Guest post by Sheryl Williams
Austin may be located within the confines of Texas, but its “keep Austin weird” vibe, constant renewal from the influx of 50,000 or so University of Texas students, the associated tech community, and of course, live music separates the city from the rest of the state. This provides for an eclectic array of restaurant choices, many of which foodie media stars like Anthony Bourdain have championed.
Lucky for all of us, even in this car-dependent city, there are great places to try that you can walk to from the Fling hotel or by hopping a bus or grabbing a cab (both human and gasoline powered). All the major hotels have decent restaurant fare, and there is a P.F. Chang’sright down the street.
But I want to point out some places that are distinctively Austin – or at least want to convince you that they are (*wink*). No matter where you go, it’s Austin casual, no need to dress up, and anyone you see who might have taken the trouble to do so is usually from Dallas. (Local joke.)
There is no such thing as bad barbecue.
Barbecue in Texas is all about beef. If you’ve traveled in the South, you know that each region has its own version of preparation, sauce, sides, and meat and will take a hit for the team to defend it. In Texas, everything here is “the best.” Just accept this and move on. You can gossip about us when you get home.
There are two things that you need to know right off the bat.
1. Sauce is served on the side.
2. Brisket is what separates true Texas BBQ and people who just go outside to burn meat.
One of my favorites is just a whip and a spur from the hotel: Iron Works BBQ. It’s not full of hipsters, and you don’t have to wait in line. Their brisket is very good, and I’ve gnawed on my share of rib bones there. No limit on the number of napkins you can use.
Other notable locations are Stubb’s (great live music and a little further to hike) and Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que. If you’re up for an all-day adventure you can make the pilgrimage to the original Salt Lick BBQ (just so you can say you’ve been there, done that), which features an incredible drive through the Texas Hill Country. Be advised that it’s cash only and BYOB, which is why you will see people lugging coolers.
Don’t quite know what you want to eat? The South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery has something for everyone about 1.5 miles away. The food can be quite exceptional and usually comes with a good story to tell folks back home. That’s because it’s outside, and if you find seating you’ll probably have to share, although eating at the curb is not discouraged too much. Leaning on someone’s truck is okay but only if the driver is amenable and you’ve got some beer to share. Otherwise, come prepared to eat in your car, back at the hotel, or a nearby park.
No meat? No problem! No wheat? No problem! No dairy? No problem! No [insert your choice here]? No problem!
Most places that are not dedicated meat palaces have vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. However there are a couple of really good restaurants downtown that are beacons for plant eaters. Just under 2 miles away is the Bouldin Creek Café. They do an amazing job, and it’s a fun place to people-watch in one of Austin’s hipster neighborhoods. Just over a mile away is Blue Dahlia Bistro. Although not 100% vegetarian it has a lot of choices and is a way to get your requisite French food calories. Further north about 4 miles is Mother’s Café. Mother’s is in the Hyde Park neighborhood – a treat to visit all on its own, but you’ll probably need a cab or bus to get there.
Behold, I give you the taco!
The second most popular religion, behind barbecue, is taco worship. The taco scene has somehow evolved from Mexican street food into cuisine snobbery of the highest order, with TexMex thrown in there just to keep the fat content up.
You will see taco food trucks everywhere, especially around the convention center (do sample as many as you can), but there is a huge rivalry between who has the BEST tacos. It’s a contest between Torchy’s Tacos and TacoDeli. Both have several locations and are best enjoyed in the University District, where a 17-year old can wax poetic on which taco should be consumed after binging on an array of cheap alcoholic beverages. For Torchy’s, you can take the Congress Avenue bus up the hill to 2801 Guadalupe St, or if you want to walk just under 2 miles there’s a location at 1311 S. 1st St.
Other notable locations
Whenever I miss my grandma’s cooking I head over to Threadgill’s, about 1 mile from the hotel. It’s a great place for Southern-style food, and a lot of times I go there and just order side dishes, although I must say that their chicken-fried steak is one of the best (if there is such a thing). It’s an Austin music institution, where it’s fun to look at old photos.
Just up the street is B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub, which is kind of a chain but has the best Irish stew I’ve never made myself, plus friendly service and no-cover live music.
Probably our most famous restaurant is Uchi, a sushi place here in landlubber Texas. It really is spectacular – and expensive. But, the locals have learned that you don’t need a second job to afford their happy hour, and it’s a way to say “of course I’ve been there.” You’ll definitely need a cab.
Barley Swine, Odd Duck, Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue, and others you may have seen on TV are truly wonderful, but the wait time is horrific. Only venture to those if you have nowhere you need to be and can evoke a quick Plan B.
Just for the heck of it
South Congress Avenue, or SoCo if you’re hip, is also a hoot. I like Magnolia Café (exceptional migas), Perla’s, and South Congress Café, all under 2 miles away. While there, go try on boots at Allens and see if that pair costing $3,000 makes you feel special. Sadly, my feet are too wide to fit into them, so let me know how it works out for you.
If you STILL can’t find what you are looking for, or just want to slam down margaritas at Chuy’s, let me know!
Sheryl Williams, an Austin transplant by way of Portland, Oregon, blogs at Yard Fanatic. She’s a regular Flinger, a connoisseur of great food, and a fun-loving and cheerful ambassador for our taco-scented city. Read Part 2 of How to Eat Like a Texan for info about which meals you’ll be on your own for at Austin Fling, plus a list of restaurants within a short walk of the hotel.