Learn about eight places to eat in Austin, the Texas capital, home to the University of Texas and the state’s primary hub for innovation, based on a trip from September 23-26, 2016.
Numbered establishments on the map correspond to information below for easy reference. Establishments also appear in alphabetical order instead of in order of preference.
Chef Andrew Wiseheart and Ben Edgerton co-founded Contigo, an open-air Northeast Austin restaurant with dirt floor and picnic tables, in 2011. The venue features a slightly raised dining room with corrugated metal walls and roof, strings of lights, and inviting bar. Contigo’s menu changes frequently and is fairly limited, but the food they serve is high quality. Bar snacks include deluxe pigs in a blanket with sausages swaddled in fluffy buns and served with Dijon mustard; and tempura battered green beans with sambal aioli. Small plates may include a creative salad with seared sucrine lettuce served on a watermelon slab in broth with pickled ramps and thyme croutons. House-made charcuterie includes pork liver pate served with razor-thin eggplant fritters, Texas honey, and crostini. Contigo offered no seafood, but did deliver rabbit & dumplings, a skillet with pulled rabbit meat, carrots, and cipollini onions in gravy, topped with sage dumplings, aka biscuits. For dessert, rich cheesecake accompanied persimmon sorbet, spiced hazelnuts, and a sesame tuile.
MUST ORDER: Pigs in a Blanket, Seared Sucrine Lettuce, Pork Liver Pate, Rabbit & Dumplings, Cheesecake
2. El Alma
Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas debuted her Tex-Mex destination, El Alma, just south of Town Lake in 2011. The sprawling space features a white facade, powder blue rafters, art-lined white walls, basket lanterns, and big back patio. Start with antojitos, shareable appetizers, including corvina ceviche marinated with lime, lemon and orange juices, tossed with serrano chiles, escabeche onions, tomato, and avocado and served with crunchy tostadas. Queso is Tex-Mex lifeblood, and El Alma crafts a great spicy version with molten Easy Melt, arbol salsa, rajas, onions, and mushrooms, served with thick fried flour tortillas from nearby El Milagro tortilleria. El Alma devotes an entire menu section to rellenos. I’d recommend their Ancho Relleno D.F., a roasted ancho chile stuffed with mushrooms, spinach and jack cheese, blanketed in black bean sauce. Tacos are also satisfying, including grilled black drum with Valentina aioli slaw and avocado; and plump shrimp al pastor with pineapple, corn slaw, and avocado, both available on a choice of flour or corn tortilla.
MUST ORDER: Ceviche Clasico, Queso Blanco y Rojo, Ancho Relleno D.F., Fish Taco, Shrimp al Pastor Taco
3. El Primo
Breakfast tacos are a right of passage in Austin, and the best version I’ve found is at El Primo, a cart that sports an avocado logo and parks on the side of South 1st Street. Jose Luis founded El Primo in 2005 and brother-in-law Humberto Reyes mans the griddle. They sell an array of tortas, burritos, and anytime tacos, but I’m partial to their migas-ham-egg breakfast taco. Julienne tortilla chips, ham, and egg join cilantro, onion, and melted yellow cheddar on a soft flour tortilla. Take your taco(s) to nearby green picnic tables and be sure to request squeeze bottles of house-made salsa. Options include mild green salsa with tomatillo with jalapeno and hot red salsa with chile de arbol and tomatillo.
MUST ORDER: Migas-Ham-Egg Taco
4. Emmer & Rye
This progressive restaurant from chef Kevin Fink resides at the base of a mixed-use development called SkyHouse on Austin’s raucous Rainey Street, within chirping distance of Congress Street Bridge bats. This seasonal restaurant opened in November 2015 and adheres to three culinary pillars: grains, fermentation, and periodic dim sum-style cart service. The space features a big patio, a dining room with wood tables and bar, fermentation closet, shelves of grain, and open kitchen. Dishes qualify as either Savory or Sweet, with unlisted “dim sum” dishes like “fried pig face” and chicken polpette and white Sonoran & chestnut Johnny cakes presented tableside. My family dinner at Emmer & Rye included more dishes than I can possibly describe, but I’ll share some highlights from the restaurant’s seasonally fluid menu. Their crusty Oklahoma winter wheat baguette formed the backbone of great pan e tomat. Pulled blue crab joined cherry tomatoes and potato mousseline in grilled cucumber broth. Cured and fried Italian eggplant accompanied fried bread, salsa verde and smoky charred eggplant puree. Juicy short rib carnitas appeared in a shallow hominy broth with pickled pico de gallo and a flaky disc of red fife wheat roti. Must-order pastas included Winter wheat mafalda with pork ragu, oyster mushrooms, and kale; and Blue Beard durum spaghetti “Cacio e Pepe” enriched with Challerhocker cheese. For dessert, don’t miss toasted grain ice cream and goat’s milk panna cotta, which both display bold contrasts.
MUST ORDER: Oklahoma Winter Wheat Baguette, Blue Crab, Italian Eggplant, Short Rib Carnitas, Blue Beard Durum Spaghetti, Winter Wheat Mafalda, White Sonoran & Chestnut Johnny Cake, Toasted Grain Ice Cream, Goat’s Milk Panna Cotta