Poco-Tipsy 2013 Best of SXSW
Spring is springing and as reliably as the Congress Avenue bats fly south for the winter, flocks of techies, filmmakers, musicians and music lovers (and people selling everything from cell phones to tampons) migrate to Austin for the annual SXSW Festival. Just as predictably as the influx of visitors is the profusion of “MUST SEE & DO IN AUSTIN!” lists. There seem to be two main types of these lists. First is the mainstream, Travel Channel-friendly version that includes old Austin standbys like Huts Hamburgers, Chuy’s and Amy’s Ice Creams. These places are certainly fine and they remind me of the Austin I grew up in, where it was just assumed that Hyde Park would win the best French fries award from the Chronicle each year. Then there is the hip list–this list will tell you to go to Uchi, Sway, Komé, La Condesa and Franklin BBQ. These places are all fabulous and I couldn’t recommend them highly enough. Except the thing is, I don’t have to, because so many people will do that for me.
So Crystal and I were thinking of the SX under dogs, the off-the-beaten-path treasures that the locals hang out at and will never be visited by Guy Fieri.
The Tamale House on Airport Blvd is truly a thing of wonder. Their prices are so low that the place seems to be stuck in a time warp. The place is staffed by a team of ladies that is so efficient, your food is sometimes ready before you’ve even filled your to-go salsa cups. The breakfast tacos here are still priced under a dollar and if you really want to splurge, you can get one of the “dinners” that will set you back a whopping $3.50.
Note: I’m not certain, but I don’t believe they actually have any tamales at the Tamale House.
Matt’s is one of those old Austin restaurants that seems to inspire the passions of its defenders and detractors alike. As with many natives, I have been partaking of this restaurant’s cuisine since I was a child, if not in fact in utero, and am therefore biased in its favor. But many of the gripes I hear about Matt’s result I think from a misunderstanding of what it is they’re trying to do. “It’s not authentic,” I will hear people say, or “it’s Mexican food for honkies.” Matt’s serves Tex-Mex, and I would say definitively so. They have been doing it for so long—they just celebrated their 60th anniversary—that they literally created some of the standards of Tex-Mex cooking. They are not rocking out regional specialties like Sazón, and they are not striving for culinary art, like La Condesa. They serve cheese enchiladas—the yellow kind with chili gravy on top. The Bob Armstrong Dip (queso with ground beef and guacamole) is a nearly perfect appetizer when served with their crispy, thick tostadas and salsa. I also recommend the Shrimp a la Matt’s, Matt Jr Fries, nachos with ground beef, and Fajitas. The service is usually quick, the prices are reasonable, and their patio is one of the best in town.
Polvo’s is a South Austin standby that has been slowly decomposing for years—the restaurant appears to be held together with duct tape, but it keeps on cranking. Though they have an entire menu of offerings, there is only one thing that I order there, the Pescado al Mojo de Ajo. I have seen people devouring other menu items there, but this Pescado is the only trick for this one-trick pony. Tilapia filet that seems to be crusted in buttery garlic, served with rice and beans. So good. They have a self-serve salsa bar with several housemade salsas and escabeche that is definitely worth making the trip.
While this restaurant is certainly not off the beaten path, I feel like the overtly sexual décor and sometimes night-clubby atmosphere in the bar give people the false impression that they do not take the food seriously. Vivo’s richly charred salsa is perhaps my favorite in town, and the cheese enchilada with chili gravy is classic Tex Mex. At Vivo, as with most comfort food places I frequent, I am a one-trick pony, and my one trick at this place is the Emma’s Choice—your preferred enchilada paired with your choice of puffy taco, rice, beans. I get a cheese enchilada with chili gravy and onions with a beef puffy taco.
The Hoffbrau turns 80 next year, an astonishingly long run in a town as young as Austin. This classic dive restaurant is one of those places that you couldn’t concept if you tried. It is an impossibly simple establishment: they serve steaks, yes, but not in the steak-and-chophouse mode. These babies are like ½” thick, no prime beef or creamed spinach in sight. There is a salad—just one—that consists of chopped iceberg lettuce, green olives, and diced tomatoes “wilted” with a lemony vinaigrette that is garlicky enough to slay vampires. The salad comes with a bread plate stacked high with sliced Mrs Bairds white and wheat bread—I usually bypass this and opt for the saltine crackers. If you ask for Ranch dressing with your salad you will immediately out yourself as an out-of-towner. When your steak comes, it will be swimming in a puddle of “steak sauce” that is made, as best as anyone can tell, from a blend of margarine and lemon juice. While you may not have a choice of 7 different potato options as you would at any of the finer steak establishments downtown, you will not be let down by the oversized crispy steak fries that come automatically with your order. You can pick out a long-time Hoffbrau patron by observing their potato protocol. Those in the know are the ones who will deftly mash the fried potato into the sauce (being careful not to splash it all over you) and eat it with the divine satisfaction of knowing that you are participating in a ritual that has been pleasing Austinites for generations. The old fryer that these potatoes come out of looks to be about the same vintage as the restaurant itself, and miraculously keeps cranking out the goodies. I recommend eating about half the steak, then sending it back to be re-sauced, with a couple more potatoes. That is a fat boy confession I don’t believe I’ve ever made publically.
I know it may not look like it, but the Hoffbrau really has come a long way since I was a kid. They used to refuse payments other than cash, and there was a sign above the bar that said they do not process to-go orders. It was hot as f*ck. Of course, they never had a menu, the waitress (the waitstaff has always been women, as far as I can tell) just told you what the options were.
But some time in the 90s they added that grilled chicken breast to the offerings. Lately they’ve started accepting CC payments and processing to-go orders. Mercifully, they got some air conditioning in there. I noticed they’ve experimented with printed menu, but I think they abandoned that. I imagine that within the next 30-40 years they might start offering a choice of salad dressing but I’d be okay if I never lived to see that day.
This divey Mexican joint on East Riverside is one of my favorite spots in town. It doesn’t hurt that we live walking distance from the place (except how it probably hurts our cholesterol levels). They have a trailer by the same name out in the parking lot; I recommend dining inside, where you can have an ice cold beer, and where the Bandamax is blaring on the tv in the corner.
Whereas some pastor is done in a pan, at Rosita’s they still roast it on the trompo, a vertical rotisserie that slowly spins the seasoned pork as it cooks. The entire pastor menu is awesome—tacos, chile relleno, and even a pastor & eggs breakfast special. I also recommend the Burrito Tejano, a house specialty consisting of a giant flour tortilla stuffed with Carne Guisada, fried, and topped with chile con queso. Their salsas are delicious and available for bulk carryout for the incredible low price of $2 for a 16 oz cup.
The sit-down restaurant used to be open breakfast, lunch & dinner, but sadly they now close at 5pm, after which point you will have to mosey down the parking lot to the trailer.
There are several locations of this juice/smoothie mecca, and each one has its own personality. They all just feel so Austin-y, weird, and funky. You can get any juice or smoothie combination you like. My favorite juices: the Moderator (apple, ginger, beet, lemon) – add kale and carrot; Ninja Bachelor Party (pineapple, jalapeño, celery, kale, spinach, parsley and salt), and the Tree of Life (carrot, turmeric, coconut, ginger, lime, cayenne, beet). For a more filling smoothie, I love the Ginger Kale (peach, kale, ginger, agave), the Wundershowzen (spinach, banana, peanut butter, hemp protein, rice milk), and the Originator (fresh apple juice, banana, blueberry, cherry, peanut butter, rice protein, spiraling, flax oil).
This has such an awesome family-run, small town feel to it. It’s always busy, closes at 3pm, and has a tendency to play old Selena songs. Go for breakfast and try the menudo or the caldo de res (beef soup). The refried beans and the bacon are out of this world, so definitely try to fit some of those in. Afterward, pick out an empanada or a cookie from the bakery for the road.
This tiny yellow trailer serves legit tacos and gorditas. They take a bit of time, since the cook fries and griddles up everything to order. Do not miss the gorditas, so fresh and crispy and like mama makes (I mean, my mama, anyway). I’d skip the menudo – though the broth is good, it’s mostly tripe with no hominy.
There are several fruterias in town, but this is far and away my favorite. There’s always someone there that speaks a little English, but just order from the menu and you’ll be fine. The fruit cups are the thing to get here – huge styrofoam cups filled with freshly cut fruit doused with lime juice and sprinkled with red chile powder and salt. It’s so refreshing, a mix of savory and sweet. You can choose any fruits you’d like (my favorite is watermelon-banana, though my husband always adds strips of fresh coconut and oranges). If you’re thirsty, opt for the rusa – it’s a funky but amazing mix of fruits, juices, Mexican soda, chile, and lime juice. Don’t knock it till you try it.
I feel so lucky to work with Foreign & Domestic – Ned and Jodi just GET it. Their food is so playful and delicious and approachable and great. Jodi will be hosting her super-popular Bake Sale during the last SXSW weekend, so get thyself to F&D and get in on the goodness. You can load up on amazing macarons, gruyere popovers, red velvet cake, sausage and cheese croissants, or whatever else she feels like baking that week. Note that they sell out quickly, so arrive before the 10:00 opening time and expect a line.
There are some really good pizza options in Austin. If you want Neapolitan or wood-fired or New York-style, we’ve got it. But Spartan is a bit different. It’s a trailer, so plan to pick up your pie and take it home, or dine al fresco on the picnic tables. The crust is awesome and the toppings are fun and delicious. My absolute favorites are the Agamemnon (cilantro pesto, chicken tossed with Salt Lick bbq sauce, red onion, jalapeños) and the Hades (tomato sauce, Italian sausage, green olives, herbed ricotta, red pepper flakes).
People. Go here now. This place (with two locations) is cheap, fast, and AMAZING. A couple of bucks gets you a rich bowl of consomé de cabrito, a brothy soup flecked with red chile and fortified with hominy and tender goat meat. The pozole is also great, and comes with a hefty portion of toppings, including freshly fried tostadas, radishes, cabbage, and onions. Tacos (especially on corn tortillas), ceviches, and aguas frescas are equally awesome. The salsa bar alone is worth the visit.