March 12, 2010

Food, Drink, and Fun in Austin for SXSW and Beyond

I initially wrote about some of my favorite Austin restaurants and hangouts for campaign workers during the 2008 primary election. Since then, I have updated my listing for visitors and renters, so I thought I would post it for the yearly deluge of SXSW visitors, and for interested locals as well. Bon appétit, y'all!

Ruby’s Barbecue – 512 W. 29th, 78705:
All-natural meat and tasty sides in an Austin institution. Festooned with the autographs of traveling blues musicians who were playing at Antone’s, which used to be next door in the EcoClean /I Luv Video building. Not to be confused with Rudy’s, which is a chain and just OK.

Trudy's Texas Star – 409 W. 30th St., 78705:
A long-time student favorite, Trudy's has Tex-Mex, burgers, breakfast, outdoor seating, draft beer, a full bar, and kick-ass frozen and rocks margaritas and Mexican martinis. Sit outside at the downstairs bar for lunch/brunch Thursday through Sunday, or for happy hour on a nice day. Inexpensive Tex-Mex food, burgers, salads, sandwiches, and chicken fried steak/chicken (don't ask about the redundancy of that dish's name).

Taco Shack: Breakfast tacos made locally at several locations, including in the Frost Tower downtown. The "Burnet Road Burrito" is a great, filling breakfast item. And their coffee is good, too.

Little City 916 Congress Avenue, 78701: Fantastic locally-roasted coffee, right on Congress. Their lattes will make you feel so warm and fuzzy and huggy you'll wonder if they spiked it with E. Too bad they abandoned their location on the Drag near campus. Also kind of a gay hangout, just in case you were wondering why the men are so darn friendly!

Hotel San Jose 1316 South Congress Avenue, 78704: The courtyard is Nouveau Austin Central, serves drinx and snax, and is a see-and-be-seen scene.

Spider House Café – 2908 Fruth St., 78705:
Located just north of the UT campus, the quintessential Austin coffeehouse and restaurant has WiFi, coffee, draft beer and a full bar, a nice shady porch and garden, and serves breakfast all day. There's always a DJ or live music, and during SXSW, there is free music every night, no wristband required. It's located in an old house, and has a shaded porch and garden furnished with mismatched cast-off metal furniture and Venus-de-Milo'd garden statuary. There are twinkly lights and DJs at night, and a wide assortment of hipsters, Bali-Shag-smokin' bearded intellectuals, over-35 locals, and just plain oddballs. Their iced toddy coffee is cold brewed like Lionel's song--All Night Long, so watch out--if you haven't had caffeine in a couple of days, it will Kick. Your. Ass.

Thai Kitchen – 3009 Guadalupe, 78705:
Delicious Thai food at reasonable prices; available to eat in or take away.

Guero's 1412 S. Congress Ave., 78704:
I personally think their margaritas are kind of bitter (spend a bit more for top shelf, mos' def'), but the SoCo address is great for people-watching, and there is free live music during SXSW. Oh, and it was a location for the Tarantino/Rodriguez “Grindhouse” movie.

East of South Congress at 614 E. Oltorf is Curra's, which not only has Tex-Mex, but an especially tasty menu of interior Mexican dishes such as Cochinita Pibil, from Yucatan. Try the avocado margarita, which is thick, but super-yum.

Speaking of “Grindhouse,” the Texas Chili Parlor at 14th and Lavaca was also a major location, and is also a fave hangout of legislators, downtown workers, as well as grizzled aging-hippie Austinites.

Cisco's, which is over on the East side, at E. 6th and Chicon (1511 E 6th St.), is one of those insiders' spots, and is a long-time hangout of Texas pols, movers, and shakers, including LBJ, Ann Richards, Bob Bullock, and the like. More lively when the lege is in session, but always popular with locals. Last time I was there, I saw golfer Ben Crenshaw. Decorated with 40+ years of memorabilia and testimonials to Rudy Cisneros, the late founder, namesake, and cantankerous ol' guy who harassed and insulted everyone equally, no matter how famous or powerful. If you've never had migas, a Mexican breakfast item, try them here.

Another great Eastside place for the El Cheapo Breakfast is Juan in a Million, way east at 2300 Cesar Chavez, rockin' the '02 zip code. If you're on a budget, or are nursing a hangover from too many tequila shots, the "Don Juan Taco" is a mountain of potato, egg, bacon, and cheese which will fill you right up. Order a couple of extra tortillas, because you'll need 'em.

Central East on Manor Rd. (pronounced "MAY-nor," BTW) is El Chile, which has high-quality Mexican food and really great drinks, including prickly pear margaritas, and micheladas, or giant chile-rimmed schooners of Mexican beer mixed with lime juice. Forget that Miller Chill mess. This is the real deal. The owners/chefs are alumni of Jeffrey's, the city's premier fine dining estab., so the food is more authentic and a big cut above the usual Tex-Mex. Oh, and did I mention that the table salsa is this smoky tomato-y wonder that you will want to keep on scooping it up until you explode like the fat guy in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life." Don't say I didn't warn you. They're selling jars of this salsa now, and trust me, you'll want to buy some to keep with you for those late nights with nothing to eat but bags of leftover tortilla chips. Also in a new location: 1025 Barton Springs Rd.

Just a block farther east at 2219 Manor is El Chilito, a taco/burrito/coffee stand that's the quick-n-tasty little sibling of El Chile. The food is good, cheap, and authentic, and is also a great place to spot bed-headed hipsters, musicians, film people, and slackers who are getting their caffeine and capsicum fix. They even serve beer and sangria along with the kick-ass coffee, in case you're wanting to nibble both sides of the mushroom.

The Sixth Street district tends to be more focused on places where barely-legal drinkers wearing cheap, trendy clothes and too much makeup can get real drunk real quick, although there are exceptions to the venues and the clientele. The police block off a big section of the street for SXSW and on weekends, and it can be entertaining watching the under-25s stagger down the street propped up on the shoulders of their friends. For about five minutes. Shakespeare's has been there for ever, and has a decent beer selection. Casino El Camino is a popular alternative hangout with big-ass burgers for your late-night cravings. The best food on Sixth, in my opinion, is the pizza tattooed wildmen sell out of a window on the north side of the street, while death metal blares out of the kitchen.

If you're in Austin for SXSW, you'll probably end up at Emo's punk club sooner or later. Outside of South By madness, the venue still has cool bands like Gogol Bordello, and a wide cross-section of patrons. The coolest thing on Sixth is the newly relocated Alamo Drafthouse Theatre at the Ritz, where you can eat and drink real food, wine and beer while you watch your movie, which is always preceded by well-researched movie-specific vintage trailers, commercials and other features. Also, the projectionists know what they're doing, so the film is always perfectly framed and in focus and bright. No cheaping out by turning down the bulb brightness here. There are several locations of the Drafthouse, on South Lamar, and in the Village shopping center on Anderson, but be sure to go to one of them while you're in Austin. Tarantino talked about this kinda theatre in "Pulp Fiction," he thanks owners Tim and Karrie League in his "Kill Bill" end credits, and it's a fave hangout when he's in town.

I have to put in a plug for the Austin improv scene, since I took improv classes for a year. Coldtowne Theatre is over on Airport, and features a lot of refugees from the wreckage of the NOLA improv scene. The Hideout coffeehouse and bar at 617 Congress is a great place to watch improv; the Friday and Saturday-night shows are always good, although the theatre is dark during SXSW this year.

Farther west on Sixth is another newish group of bars, including the Belmont, which has a clubby, Rat-Pack decor, serves food until late, and usually some kind of live jazz inside. Outside is nice on warmer nights. Mother Egan's Irish Pub has trivia on Tuesday nights, and a good selection of beer. Opal Divine's has food and a great beer and single-malt scotch selection. Katz's does have NY-style Jewish deli food, but it's always been at NY prices, too. Marc Katz ran for mayor a few years back. Eddie V's is kind of expensive, but they do have good seafood.

The Fourth Street/Colorado district, including Cedar Street, Fadó, Péché (a new absinthe bar) (Málaga, the tapas bar that was next to Cedar Street has moved to 440 West 2nd Street) and Saba, has been around for 12-15 years now, and is more upscale and popular with slightly older partiers. 219 West has these nifty little appetizers, including mini-burgers which are cheap and filling. They are also one of the few bars to serve real mint juleps.

In the new 'hood around the expanded convention center are some bleah chain restaurants like P.F. Chang's, but also a thrice-relocated Old Austin standby like the Cedar Door, which claims it invented the Mexican Martini. Nice to sit outside on a warm day. Around the corner, past the Convention Center and next to some of the oldest houses in Austin is Moonshine, at 303 Red River, which is open during the week and has a good happy hour with yummy corndog shrimp thingies on skewers, but most importantly, has a fabulous Sunday brunch buffet with migas, steak fingers, fluffy biscuits, and these green chile cheese grits that are to sell your grandma for.

Wheatsville Co-Op – 3101 Guadalupe, 78705:
Newly renovated and expanded, this super-granola grocery store is on Guadalupe just north of 30th, and has organic food, including fresh dairy, fruits, vegetables, and coffee, and a deli with prepared food. Open until 11 p.m. A little history: Wheatsville was the name of the freed slaves colony that used to be on the other side of Guadalupe.

Central Market – 4001 N. Lamar, 78756:
The original location of HEB’s gourmet market opened here in the mid-90s, and has a wide selection of superb fresh produce and artisan bread, cheese, and prepared food, as well as an excellent beer and wine selection. The café has free WiFi and serves breakfast and lunch/dinner until closing at 9 p.m. Live bands daily.

HEB Hancock Center – 1000 E 41st St., 78751
HEB S. Congress –  2400 S. Congress, 78704
Convenient locations of the big, reasonably-priced grocery store are at 41st St. and I-35 in the Hancock Shopping Center, and at S. Congress and Oltorf, in case you’re stocking up on soda and snacks for the week, or the road trip home.

Whole Foods Market – 525 N. Lamar Blvd., 78703
The building, which also houses the corporate offices, takes up an entire city block at the southeast corner of 6th and Lamar. The flagship in the WFM empire, the store’s 80,000 square feet contain a dizzying array of minibistros serving all kinds of prepared and made-to-order food, including pizza, sushi, pasta, barbecue, fish, soup, and salad, and a walk-in beer cooler. You can buy a bottle of wine or beer in the store at retail price and drink it with your meal at one of the in-store restaurants. Kind of the eighth wonder of the world, it’s worth a quick stop just to check it out and wonder at its sheer size. The original WFM used to be down the street in what is now the Cheapo Discs building on Lamar.

Waterloo Records – 600A N Lamar Blvd, 78703; 512-474-2500:
On the northwest corner of 6th and Lamar, Waterloo is an independent store, and a great place to check out free in-store live shows, usually with free beer, stock up on local music, buy gear, such as Daniel Johnston’s iconic T-shirt designs, and get tickets for touring shows. Great used CD selection.

Cheapo Discs – 914 N. Lamar Blvd., 78703; 512-477-4499
At Whole Foods Market’s original Austin location, this has a great selection of new and used CDs.

The entire South Congress district south of the river is teeming with cool shops and restaurants. One of my favorite places is Parts and Labour, at 1604 S. Congress, where you can find Will Heron and other local artists’ clever T-shirts (Baracoli, anyone?) and lots of one-of-a-kind but reasonably-priced jewelry and accessories. (Attention gift shoppers!) Jo’s Coffee has live music, and is a de rigeur stopoff.

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (at UT)
Without LBJ, President Obama would never have been possible. Free admission (a donation is only suggested) and there’s often an excellent actor playing LBJ who answers questions about the Texas icon.

Harry Ransom Center (at UT)
Houses both art and the papers of many of the world’s most eminent writers, actors, musicians, and artists, with rotating exhibits.

The Blanton Museum (200 E. MLK Blvd., south end of UT campus)
A brand-new building with attached café has rotating displays spanning the history of art since the Renaissance.

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