Austin’s Tex-Mex all started with Old Mexican town — what is now Republic Square Park at Guadalupe and Fifth streets. That’s where the first Mexicans lived — right in downtown Austin. Families who emigrated from Mexico and other parts of Texas settled in Austin in the 1870s. A handful of immigrants came here for better lives and worked as soda jerks, ranch hands, and workers in tortilla and chili factories.
During the Depression and extending into the 1930s and 1940s, Austin experienced the emergence of Mexican restaurants to cater to the general growing population of Texans and well-to-do Mexicans, including El Charro Restaurant (Red River and Ninth Street), El Charro #2 (on Speedway by the University of Texas), and La Tapatia, all of which are now closed. During a time when the Mexican community was establishing itself, the 1928 City Plan for Austin forced Mexicans to move into the east side of town as part of an effort to segregate minority communities. Mexicans and Latinos have a culture of being entrepreneurial, and soon more restaurants were established, including El Mat, aka “home of the crispy taco” (1947); El Matamoros Restaurant (1957); Matt’s El Rancho (1952); Tamale House (1958); and El Azteca (1963). Local east side favorites like Joe’s Bakery (1962), and Cisco’s Restaurant Bakery (1959) settled in East Austin and are still open today.
The goal of these Tex-Mex restaurants was to serve their customers food just like they would make back at home. Since access to traditional Mexican ingredients was sparse in America, and some recipes changed due to the availability of these components, this led to the demand for a different type of Mexican food. The influence of the American palate changed the way Mexican food was made, it was less spicy and less rich, while adding new, more affordable elements, eventually evolving into what we know as Tex-Mex: part-Mexican, part-American, and 100 percent Tejano. And to this day, Austinites love waking up to breakfast tacos, enjoying migas plates, and professing their love for queso.
With that in mind, Eater put together the ultimate glossary to all things Tex-Mex in Austin, complete with suggestions for where to try each dish:
Tex-Mex: Los Dishes
Bean and cheese tamales: Take the creaminess of refried beans and cheese, stuff them into corn masa to make tamales, and you get a simple meal that even vegetarians can enjoy. Pro tip: Smother it with queso or chili con carne.
Best bet in Austin: Tamale House East, 1707 East Sixth Street, East Cesar Chavez
Breakfast tacos: Nothing like waking up to warm flour tortillas stuffed with your favorite breakfast items: chorizo con huevos, bacon egg and cheese, barbacoa, carne guisada, y más.
Best bet in Austin: Joe’s Bakery, 2305 East Seventh Street, Holly
Brisket tacos: It’s where Tex meets Mex. Slow and low smoked brisket wrapped up in a fresh flour tortilla topped with salsa, onions, and guacamole. Tejanos have been working on this masterpiece for generations.
Best bet in Austin: Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, 11500 Manchaca Road, Manchaca
Burritos: Carne asada, picadillo, chicken, rice, sour cream, guacamole, pico, and yellow cheese. That’s how you roll with the burrito in Texas.
Best bet in Austin: La Cocina de Consuelo, 4516 Burnet Road, Rosedale
Carne guisada: Stewed meat, aka beef chuck roast with gravy.
Best bet in Austin: Marcelino’s, 901 Tillery Street, Govalle
Cheese enchiladas: Rolled tortillas, sometimes baked, sometimes fried and dipped, stuffed with yellow cheese and smothered with chile con carne sauce.
Best bet in Austin: Enchiladas y Más, 1911 West Anderson Lane, Crestview
Chili con carne: As the official state dish of Texas, chili has earned its rightful place in Tex-Mex kitchens and campgrounds. As all Texans know, real chili has ground chuck, chili pepper spices, and no beans. Repeat: no frijoles.
Best bet in Austin: Texas Chili Parlor, 1409 Lavaca Street, Downtown
Chimichangas: Take the burrito to a whole ’nother level. A burrito, or, dare I say it, tortilla wrap, deep-fried and smothered with queso.
Best bet in Austin: El Nuevo Mexico, 911 West Anderson Lane, Crestview
Combo plate: Hot plate, hot plate! How many bites does it take to eat through a Tex-Mex combo plate? The variations are limitless. Not really, but make sure it includes crispy tacos, cheese enchiladas, tamales, queso, guacamole, iceberg lettuce, and a few pieces of tomatoes as garnish.
Best bet in Austin: Amaya’s Taco Village, 5804 North Interstate 35 Frontage Road, North Loop
Crispy dogs: That’s not Mexican food! You’re right. It’s Tex-Mex. And what better way to feed the hungry bellies of Tejano kids and adults alike but a weenie wrapped in a fried tortilla. It’s a hit at all the T-ball games.
Best bet in Austin: n/a. Instead, head to San Antonio to M.K. Davis Restaurant & Bar, 1302 North Flores Street
Crispy tacos: Deep-fried corn tortillas stuffed with picadillo and topped with spinach, tomatoes, and yes, yellow cheese. See a pattern here?
Best bet in Austin: Mellizoz Tacos, 1311 South 1st Street, Bouldin
Fajitas: Rooted in the Rio Grande Valley, grilled fajitas or skirt steak was a throwaway meat, but now it’s a staple at your local Applebee’s. Who would’ve thunk it?
Best bet in Austin: Habanero Mexican Cafe, 501 West Oltorf Street, Dawson
Flour tortillas: La Tortilla, aka the Tortilla — flour, that is — is an essential part of Tex-Mex. Introduced in South Texas region, this combination of flour masa, lard, water, and salt has been feeding Texans for generations. Remember, you can’t have a breakfast taco, burrito, chimichanga, or any Tex-Mex staple without the flour tortilla.
Best bet in Austin: La Cocina de Consuelo, 4516 Burnet Road, Rosedale
Migas: Don’t throw your chips away, put ’em in your migas. With the Tex-Mex version, just add fried corn tortilla chips, huevos, pico, and cheese, and you got yourself some great-tasting migas. Born out of necessity, migas have been feeding Texans for generations.
Best bet in Austin: Veracruz All Natural, 1704 East Cesar Chavez Street, East Cesar Chavez
Nachos: The best nachos can be found in the West Texas border town of El Paso. If you want to upgrade from chips and salsa, get yourself some nachos, where fried tortilla chips are layered with refried beans, cheese, and pico de gallo. Go even further by adding fajitas.
Best bet in Austin: El Taquito, 1713 East Riverside Drive, Riverside
Picadillo: This term describes the fillings that go into your crispy tacos or burritos. Picadillo is a blue-collar special made with ground beef, papas (diced or mashed), onions, garlic, y tomatoes.
Best bet in Austin: Mi Madre’s, 2201 Manor Road, Central East Austin
Queso: Preferably yellow cheese (Velveeta, anyone?) melted with just a bit of diced onions, sliced jalapenos, and tomatoes — or, dare I say it, a can of Rotel?? Some non-Texans refer to it as cheese dip, which is wrong.
Best bet in Austin: Matt’s El Rancho, 2613 South Lamar Boulevard, South Lamar