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.
Wed December 31, 1969 6:00 am
Best of Austin: Food
Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni

MEXICAN

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 fondasanmiguel.com. 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 currasgrill.com. 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 mattselrancho.com. 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 elchilecafe.com. 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

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