Joy of Mex: Austin
Austin has its share of popular mainstream Tex-Mex places like Chuy’s, El Azteca, Matt’s El Rancho, and Maudie’s. But cafes and restaurants with interior-oriented menus are popping up too.
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3023 Guadalupe, 512-480-8226.
This bright little taquería near the university is great for a quickie (meal). The menu is minuscule, with mostly tacos and burritos, and you stand in line to order, but the corn tortillas are handmade right on the spot—a mesmerizing operation—and the food is not only good but also a great value. Best of all: fabulous aguas frescas (fresh fruit juices) like cantaloupe-watermelon and mango.
Guacamole: 3.5. Chips: 5 (medium thick, hot, not greasy). Salsa: 3.5 (pretty hot).
614 E. Oltorf, 512-444-0012.
A converted convenience store has metamorphosed into one of the city’s most interesting and authentic Mexican cafes. How many other places offer a big, fat shredded-pork tamal in a banana leaf? Where else can you get a chile relleno in a good (if strange) pecan-milk sauce—a take on the classic walnut-based nogada sauce? What about sautéed shrimp Chihuahua with guajillo chiles, goat cheese, and bell peppers? The truly macho try the Oaxacan margarita, made with mescal, Cointreau, and a splash of jalapeño juice.
Guacamole: 3. Chips: 4.5. Red and green salsas: 4.
6400 S. First, 512-441-2424.
The interior is bizarre—baby-pink walls, balloons in the shape of giant boxing gloves—and it’s a bit run down. But then the salsas arrive, and what a treat: six kinds, from basil-tomatillo to fantastic black bean—chipotle to a roasted-chile-and-tomato. By the time you finish sampling, your order is delivered. The stuffed poblano, still crunchy, is filled with a sybaritic mixture of white cheese and cilantro and topped with sour cream and pumpkin seeds. The beans are cooked with sausage and taste quite barbecuey; the white rice, light as a feather, is spiked with lime juice.
Guacamole: 3.5. Chips: 2 (fresh, but greasy). Salsas: 3—5 (six kinds).
FONDA SAN MIGUEL
2330 W. North Loop Boulevard, 512-459-4121.
Step into the courtyard, lush with ferns and bromeliads, and then into gracious dining rooms that capture the heart of Old Mexico. For 25 years Fonda San Miguel has been true to its mission of bringing real Mexican food to Texas. The chef, Roberto Santibañez, learned his craft in Paris and Mexico City. His chile ancho is filled with ground pork, raisins, and green olives and topped with a white queso panela sauce; the achiote-marinated shrimp come stacked on a homemade corn tortilla surrounded by a thickish black bean sauce. No humdrum custard, the flan is enriched with almonds. Be advised: Prices are commensurate with ambition.
Guacamole: 4. Chips: 5. Red and green salsas: 4.
1412 S. Congress Avenue, 512-447-7688.
You want celebrity spotting? Sandra Bullock, Quentin Tarantino, and Lyle Lovett eat at Güero’s. You want politico spotting? The El Presidente combination plate got its name after Bill Clinton ordered it. You want some pretty decent Mexican food in a breezy, bustling spot on the popular and funky South Congress shopping-and-dining strip? Here’s your place. Personal favorites include the salsa bar, huevos rancheros (eggs over easy are always perfect), all the tacos, and all the salads. Just be prepared for a wait at peak times.
Guacamole: 4.5. Chips: 5. Red salsa: 4. Green salsa: 5.
JUAN IN A MILLION
2300 E. Cesar Chavez, 512-472-3872.
Breakfast tacos are the ticket at Juan and Myrna Meza’s popular east side cafe, with its white-and-maroon-tiled walls and outstandingly friendly service. Machacado (dried beef) with scrambled eggs and serrano chiles is well seasoned and may also be had as a breakfast combo with chunky homemade hashbrowns and refried beans (glistening with oil). Almost everything needs salt.
Guacamole: 2.5 (plain mashed avocado, fresh but starting to turn). Chips: 3 (a little tough). Salsa: 4 (contains lots of jalapeño, served chilled).
211 Congress Avenue, 512-472-9357.
I like this little downtown cafe. I like the changing art on the walls (always by local schoolchildren and Hispanic artists). I like it that co-owner Cynthia Pérez sits down with customers to chat and that her sister Lidia Pérez (the other owner) tells you about her daughter’s birthday party when you pay your bill. But most of all I like the excellent food. The chicken enchiladas de Michoacán bask in a great tomatoey chile sauce with tender-crisp cabbage on top; the vegetarian tamal (in a novel mushroom-cream-cheese sauce) has attained mythic status; and it’s hard to find a better value than Paco’s Taco Plate (the beef fajita filling is best).
Guacamole: 3. Chips: 5. Salsa: 3.5.
310 Congress Avenue, 512-472-7555; 10201 Jollyville Road, 512-345-1042.
The fajitas are fine and the assorted pescado dishes deservedly popular. But as usual, God is in the details: dark, chile-infused tortilla soup like no other; perfect, fluffy migas with white cheese and serranos; impeccably fresh tuna ceviche. The Jollyville Road location has a wonderful patio and an interior with dazzling tropical colors that recall the work of architects Luis Barragán and Ricardo Legorreta, but Manuelophiles prefer the slick black-and-aqua Congress location for its slightly superior kitchen.
Guacamole: 3.5. Chips: 5 (great corn taste). Salsa: 3.5 (has a bite).
6534 Burnet Road, 512-452-9886, and four other locations.
This tidy, unpretentious diner could have been airlifted right out of Mexico, it’s so authentic. My favorite dinner is tacos al pastor (well-seasoned pork in a soft corn tortilla) with side orders of guacamole and grilled green onions—everything is fresh and delicious. One friend can’t get enough of the nopalitos salad (strips of cactus in a tart, vinegary dressing). Another swears by the chicken enchiladas in green sauce. Warning: Avoid the greasy pozole (hominy-and-pork stew).
Guacamole: 5. Chips: 4. Red salsa: 4.5. Roasted-chile-and-tomatillo salsa: 3.5.