Best of Austin: Dining

Austin long ago shed its reputation for offering only Tex-Mex and tofu. we’ve ranked fifteen restaurants that are serving up some of our favorite dishes in the state.

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Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni


1. Fonda San Miguel

If you’ve never been to a hacienda in Mexico, this beautiful restaurant is the next best thing. Open the elaborately carved wooden doors and walk into a stunning indoor courtyard with a fountain and various nooks in which to sit and enjoy conversation and cocktails while waiting for a table (suggestion: make a reservation so you don’t have to wait all night). The main dining room is massive, with the focal point being an elegant flower arrangement atop a large, dark table. Punched-tin light fixtures hang from the green ceiling, colorful artwork perks up the walls, and Saltillo tile covers the floor. We sat in an adjacent room, which was smaller but similarly styled and just as crowded (there were two tables with more than fifteen people apiece). We started with out-of-this-world handmade flour tortillas (the corn were fabulous also) and fresh ceviche (mixed with avocado, onion, and tomato). From the many offerings (think tacos al pastor to chorizo verde), we decided to stay focused on seafood and went with the camarones al mojo de ajo, good-sized Gulf shrimp sautéed in garlic butter. For a split second we thought about a decadent dessert, but in the end, an after-dinner glass of pinot grigio sounded just as delightful. We’d be remiss if we didn’t tell you to go for Sunday brunch. 2330 W. North Loop Blvd., 512-459-4121 or Dinner Mon—Thur 5—9:30, Fri & Sat 5—10:30. Brunch Sun 11—2. $$—$$$

2. Curra’s Grill

We dig the from-scratch red-corn tortillas at this funky South Austin restaurant that bills itself the “Mother of All Mex.” And we like the Indian murals both inside and out, which provide a nice visual context that complements the delicious interior Mexican food. We don’t like that the chips aren’t free (unless you order them with chile con queso, ceviche, guacamole, or escabeche), but we’re willing to overlook it. On a recent breezy but nice evening outside on the patio—luckily we arrived around six-thirty, just before the rush—we thought about ordering carnitas, Michoacán’s traditional meal of pork marinated in Coke, milk, and orange juice and then fried (sounds outrageous but works) but instead went straight to the tacos al carbon, which tasted mighty fine, as did the accompanying slightly spicy black beans and Spanish rice (perfectly fluffy and not the least bit greasy). But we couldn’t deny that the pollo chipotle was better. The grilled chicken breast came smothered in a peppery sauce tempered by fresh avocado, Monterey Jack cheese, and grilled onion. We washed it all down with a cold cerveza—and wondered how soon before we could make a return trip. 614 E. Oltorf, 512-444-0012 or Open daily 7—10. $$

3. Matt’s El Rancho

It is hard to fathom Matt’s El Rancho’s not serving incredibly cheesy enchiladas or delicious chiles rellenos, but back in 1952, when Matt Martinez and his wife, Janie, opened the tiny restaurant on East First Street, the menu featured chicken-fried steak. Luckily, some things change. What kind of world would it be without Matt’s famous Bob Armstrong Dip (queso with picadillo and a dollop of guacamole)? We don’t dare think about it. We do think of Matt’s almost every time we want to take family and friends somewhere fun. Though you should be prepared to wait, Matt’s is kind enough to provide a guy who’ll keep the kids happy, blowing up balloons and painting their faces. If you can, get a table out on the spacious patio; children will enjoy spotting fish in the fountain while adults nosh on chips and salsa and sip margaritas. On a recent outing our entrées included steak tampiqueña (grilled sirloin with onion and bell pepper and a cheese enchilada on the side) and the No. 1 dinner (a beef taco, a beef enchilada, your choice of a tamale or chile con queso, rice, and refried beans). Oh, we were in heaven all right. And we didn’t even miss the chicken-fried steak. 2613 S. Lamar Blvd., 512-462-9333 or Open Mon, Wed, Thur, & Sun 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—11. Closed Tue. $$—$$$

4. El Chile

We spent a pleasant evening at this east side spot, which specializes in interior Mexican and turns out terrific Tex-Mex. As usual, the place was buzzing with hipsters, hippies, frolickers, and families. After a short wait, we were seated outdoors at one of the red tables with a top bearing the Coca-Cola logo. The corrugated tin roof provided needed shade, while the hanging baskets of ferns added a touch of green. We soaked in the festive vibe, enjoying cold Mexican beers and strong margaritas as we waited for our chips and queso to arrive (bonus: the chips were thick tostadas). Entrées range from fish tacos with fresh tilapia to the ubiquitous (in Texas, at least) cheese enchiladas, but we decided to try a few of executive chef Jeff Martinez’s interior specialties. And, as always, he impressed: Our camarones a la plancha—grilled shrimp with tomatoes, onions, and serranos atop a bed of white rice—proved quite flavorful in spite of the heat level (we should have heeded the warning on the menu). The hands-down star of the night was the pollo con mole rojo, seared chicken breast smothered in a deliciously chocolaty Oaxacan red sauce and sided with rice and refried beans. A fantastically moist tres leches cake did us in. 1809 Manor Rd., 512-457-9900 or Open Mon—Sat 11—10, Sun 11—9. $$

5. TacoDeli

There are only a few tables indoors and a handful on the deck at this tiny spot, but it’s the place to go for big tacos on a lazy Saturday morning. The line at the counter moves quickly, so don’t freak at the number of people ahead of you. And the crowd is friendly—a nice mix of college students, trendy types (think pooch in a purse), and outdoors aficionados (an access point to the Greenbelt is across the street). In addition to the custom breakfast tacos (build your own with egg, cheese, chorizo, potatoes, and the like), there are more than twenty specialty items on the menu, including the Thunder Heart Bison Picadillo (ground bison seasoned with roasted garlic, tomato, caramelized onion, melted jack cheese, and jalapeño and topped with queso fresco and fresh cilantro), the cochinita pibil (Yucatecan-style roasted pork marinated and cooked in citrus and achiote and topped with pickled purple onion and serranos), and the Florentino (fresh spinach sautéed in olive oil and sherry and tossed with onion, mushrooms, and red bell pepper). On a recent morning we couldn’t help ourselves and went with the house favorite (ours too), the Otto: smoky refried beans with bacon, avocado, and cheese. We lingered a bit over fresh grapefruit juice, luxuriating in the warm weather while people-watching to our heart’s content. 1500 Spyglass, 512-732-0303 or Open Mon—Fri 7—3, Sat & Sun 8—3. $


1. Asti

Austin’s historic Hyde Park neighborhood attracts young families, University of Texas students, and stalwart old-timers who’ve been around since way before the area became hip. Asti takes care of all comers. The slender, contemporary space has a bit of a classy-diner feel, with its red-topped tables and stainless-steel accents, but soft, sheer curtains lessen the edgy effect. Changing with the seasons, the menu might surprise you, for example with a starter of house-made mozzarella and roasted sweet peppers along with mixed greens tossed with bits of Bartlett pear and shallot dressing. Seafood is a good direction for an entrée: On one visit seared scallops took a homey turn, surrounded by tomatoes braised with pancetta, and on the next, their flavor popped with a truffled Meyer lemon relish. But the needs of meat eaters are never ignored; those of a carnivorous bent can expect the likes of pink duck breast in an irresistible fig mostarda (a condiment with a subtle nip) sided by lovely soft white polenta. By the meal’s end, if you have a bit of room, go for something simple like cinnamon-dusted beignets and an affogato (vanilla bean gelato with a shot of espresso poured over it). 408 E. 43rd, 512-451-1218 or Open Mon—Thur 11—10, Fri 11—11, Sat 5—11. Closed Sun. $$—$$$

2. Fino

Fino’s broad second-story concrete patio is perfect for sipping a drink on a comfy sofa. It’s also just right for a leisurely lunch or dinner amid the treetops. The only frustration you might experience at this appealing, contemporary space is deciding what to order from the menu. Are you in the mood for Italian? There’s plenty to be had. If you’re feeling like something a bit less mainstream Mediterranean, there’s also French, Spanish, Greek, Lebanese, and North African. One of the best ways to start is with a signature gazpacho martini (margarita meets Bloody Mary). Then quell your rising hunger with an appetizer like the Spanish-style pork pinchitos, a mini-kebab. The suggested dining style here is sharing numerous small plates, although regular-sized entrées are available as well. A survey of past hits from the ever-changing menu would include the chicken tajine, succulent pieces of meat atop fluffy almond-and-currant couscous. Another would be the cornmeal-crusted salmon filet with oyster mushrooms in a porcini cream sauce. Desserts never resort to clichés: Witness the petite almond-crusted fritters with a dollop of sultry orange-mascarpone cream. 2905 San Gabriel, second level; 512-474-2905 or Open Mon—Thur 11—10, Fri 11—11, Sat 5—11. Brunch Sun 11—3. $$—$$$

3. La Traviata

Just a block outside the warehouse district, La Traviata seems removed from the frenzy of the area. Nevertheless, tables at the quaint spot, with its hardwood floors, antique bar, and crystal chandeliers, are booked well past nine o’clock on a weekend night. If you want to avoid the din bouncing off the rough limestone walls, try for one of the desirable tables set in the two bay windows up front. Ensconced there, you can actually chat while you wait for your basket of bread and seasoned olive oil to arrive. Salads are always good, especially the arugula with roasted red beets, goat cheese, shaved fennel, and tapenade with crostini—an all-time favorite. The list of entrées might collectively be described as creative Italian comfort food, and each one has its fan base. There are customers who have never ordered anything other than the spaghetti alla bolognese (with its mix of ground veal, beef, and pork in a rich, cheesy, tomatoey ragù). Ditto for the veal picatta with lemon-caper sauce. If these folks did want to branch out, though, they could switch with the customers who’ve never strayed from the rigatoni with spicy lamb meatballs, basil, and pine nuts. As the saying goes, it’s all good. 314 Congress Ave., 512-479-8131 or Lunch Mon—Fri 11:30—2. Dinner Mon—Thur 5:30—10, Fri & Sat 5:30—10:30. Closed Sun. $$

4. North

The busiest restaurant in Austin’s classiest shopping village is North. If you make an impulse dinner visit at eight o’clock on a weeknight, the cool, lofty dining room will be abuzz. If you stroll by at lunch on the weekend, you might have a short wait to get an umbrella table on the stone patio. (Later on, the adjacent grove of giant oaks provides plenty of shade for a sundowner.) As the name suggests, North focuses on the dishes of northern Italy. The ever-popular prosciutto, fig, and goat cheese pizza is a simply brilliant mix of flavors and textures. So is the dauntingly rich strozzapreti (loosely rolled ribbon pasta lavished with Parmesan cream speckled with mushrooms, wilted spinach, and pine nuts). If you’re in the mood for pasta but counting your carbs, try the classic angel hair tossed with fresh tomato, basil, and ricotta. You can often find pan-roasted Alaskan halibut on the menu, served atop vegetable risotto and sided by a tomato and pea-sprout salad. It makes a lighter entrée, while the likes of oven-roasted New York strip with vegetable ragoût and whipped potatoes will keep any carnivores in your group purring like contented lions. Domain shopping center, 11506 Century Oaks Terrace, 512-339-4400 or Open Sun—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—11. $$—$$$

5. Enoteca Vespaio and Vespaio Ristorante

Consider this a twofer: sibling restaurants at the same address. The little brother is casual, serving pizzas, pastas, desserts, and a handful of entrées (that would be Enoteca, as locals shorthand it). The older brother is more formal but not by much, offering beautifully prepared Italian entrées and pastas (that would be Vespaio). The only question is, How big a deal is your meal? Enoteca—with its tile-topped tables spaced elbow to elbow—is oddly often easier to get into, even though it’s smaller. Vespaio has the more ambitious menu, and its spare dining room, with dark woodwork and cream-colored walls, is many people’s destination for that important but fun night out. Almost everything that chef Ryan Samson prepares for the happy, noisy crowd is excellent, especially his veal-filled raviolini in grappa-accented tomato butter. Among the main courses, his oak-fire-grilled Niman Ranch hanger steak with Chianti reduction, fried potatoes, and sautéed baby spinach straddles the line between Italian and American.1610 S. Congress Ave.
Enoteca Vespaio, 512-441-7672 or Open Mon—Sat 11—10. Brunch Sun 10—3 $$
Vespaio Ristorante, 512-441-6100 or Dinner Sun & Mon 5—10, Tue—Sat 5—10:30. Reservations taken Mon—Thur & Sun until 6:30. $$—$$$


1. Shady Grove

Don’t be put off by the trailer park down the street. In fact, embrace your inner park personality and wash up in the kitschy Airstream trailer restrooms behind the restaurant before diving into your chicken-fried steak or “Big Thicket” Cajun meat loaf. If veggies are more your style, bite into a Hippie sandwich (grilled vegetables with pesto and mozzarella). In true Texas fashion, we prefer the country-fried-chicken salad, with juicy tenders that melt in your mouth. Of course, it’s easy to melt in the Texas heat; one of Shady Grove’s frozen margaritas is sure to keep you cool out on the massive patio, with its umbrella-shaded tables and cozy lights (despite persistent rumors, your canine friend is not allowed). From April to mid-September take advantage of Unplugged at the Grove, a weekly showcase featuring artists like James McMurtry, Brave Combo, and Carolyn Wonderland, or watch a classic silent film at the Starlight Theater. This fun family restaurant is just a skip from Barton Springs and Zilker Park, so head on over after a day of swimming, throwing a Frisbee, or just good old napping in the grass. 1624 Barton Springs Rd., 512-474-9991 or Open Sun—Thur 11—10:30, Fri & Sat 11—11. $—$$

2. Blue Dahlia Bistro

A romantic sanctuary in the middle of town, Blue Dahlia Bistro is a cute, European-inspired cafe that prides itself on using organic products whenever possible. Take, for example, the excellent salads, most of which are topped with a hearty vegan pesto that tastes as good as the cheesy variety. Each is served with fresh artisan bread on a tray with the requisite jams and jellies, but chocoholics will rave about the inclusion of Nutella. Sandwiches come open-faced on handsome slabs of wood or slate (try the chicken salad with pine nuts, pesto, and dried cranberries). We ordered sparkling wine that showed up flat, but the bread pudding that accompanied it was warm, gooey perfection. The real attraction here, though, is the luxurious backyard that transforms even a quick lunch into a lazy afternoon. With the sunlight filtering through the wood slats above your head, patterning your tabletop while potted trees and chimes sway in the breeze, you’ll feel as content as Buddha. The tables in this tiny courtyard go fast, but it seems like there’s always at least one waiting just for you. 1115 E. 11th, 512-542-9542 or Open Mon—Fri 8—10, Sat & Sun 10—10. $$

3. Sampaio’s

Let the sweet smell of jasmine envelop you as you savor the atmosphere of this upscale neighborhood restaurant, where the verdant vines twist through the metal fence on one side and strings of lights brighten the dusky patio all around. Sampaio’s is great for a cool summer night, either for tapas, drink specials, or a scrumptious evening meal. We started with mussels in a poblano-fennel broth with a sauté of onions and peppers, served with fresh-baked bread. Although the light sauce lacked oomph, the mussels popped with flavor. As the waitress set our main courses on the mosaic stone table, the tarps of caramel-colored fabric above our heads blew in the slight breeze. The porco grelhado, a coffee-crusted grilled pork tenderloin with a delicious cherry sauce sided by grilled asparagus and served atop mashed yuca with goat cheese, was definitely the best dish of the evening. As we savored the last bite, a cat purred at our feet, demonstrating that everyone in the Allandale neighborhood wants to relax on this fabulous patio. 4800 Burnet Rd., 512-469-9988 or Open Sun—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—11. $$$

4. Vivo

Who knew there was a lush jungle in the heart of Austin? Well, a sophisticated, romantic jungle with fans and waiters, that is. Entering Vivo, you’ll find beautiful stone pots housing bushes and trees with leaves as big as beach towels. Along the railings are dozens of flowering plants, purple and orange and yellow, all almost as vibrant as the exterior’s mod crimson. It’s easy to find a clandestine nook here for a dinner just for two. And if you aren’t quite cozy in the wrought-iron chairs, there are plenty of built-in benches with comfy cushions (we nabbed the sectional in the bar area of the patio). The food is pure Tex-Mex, complete with queso, puffy tacos, and fajitas. We opted for the traditional enchiladas verdes—a rich green sauce blanketed the enchiladas filled with moist, shredded chicken—and toasted the meal with one of Vivo’s many specialty margaritas. And what’s a romantic evening without flowers? After dinner, venture inside to find roses by the dozen (even the sink is filled with petals), and when you come back to your table, try not to blush as your waiter hands you a single long-stemmed rose to remind you of your gorgeous evening. 2015 Manor Rd., 512-482-0300 or Open Mon—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—10:30, Sun 5—9. $$

5. The Oasis

There’s a reason the Oasis is so popular. About seventeen miles from the city, this mostly outdoor restaurant overlooks Lake Travis and provides front-row seats to sparkling sunsets that morph from aquamarine to gold, ruby, and amethyst as the evening gives way to night. In this enormous establishment, you’re nearly guaranteed a good view of sand-colored cliffs and shimmering water as you savor (slightly overpriced) fare like crab cakes, chicken sandwiches, and fish tacos. The bar level offers an endless supply of drinks, and naturally it’s open-air too, so you can let the wind wash over you while you listen to live music from Sunday to Wednesday and special talent like Guy Forsyth and Django Walker on weekends. When we went there, the wait was longer than the line at the DMV, but we sat down immediately at the bar, ordered, and were eating within fifteen minutes. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the grounds; the complex is decorated with stone statues (a favorite is one of a boy diving from the decks), a grass hut, and even a flying saucer called the Starship Oasis, an apt name for a structure surrounded by refreshing water and the twinkling night sky. 6550 Comanche Tr., 512-266-2442 or Open Mon—Fri 11:30—9, Sat & Sun 11—10 (weather permitting). $$—$$$

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  • Eric Parker

    The Oasis? I agree that the view is great but the food isn’t worth the price and it’s not even close.