This ever-growing city of Austin is the epicenter of oak-smoked barbecue and the greasy foothold of Tex-Mex fare. There are just so many restaurants and food trucks taking advantage of the surprisingly abundant bounty the hot climate provides. This guide cuts through all the noise out there, delivering you straight to the heart of an incredibly exciting dining and drinking scene in the heart of Texas.
Welcome to the Land of Tacos and Meat
It's no secret that Austin strives to keep things weird, and this sentiment extends to its culinary scene. The ample selection of excellent Tex-Mex and barbecue is a given at this point. But not everyone knows that this is the city where everyone tests out ideas with food trucks, which pop up every which way to see what dishes really stick enough to expand with their own physical restaurants. The city also takes pride in sourcing locally, despite the heat and levels of drought Central Texas often faces. It all fuses together to create that specific oh-so-very Austin brand of eating and drinking.
Currently, as COVID-19 cases increase in Travis County and Austin, the area is in the highest stage of its coronavirus risk-based guidelines. Austin Public Health urges unvaccinated and high-risk people to wear masks while indoors, which includes restaurants and bars (people are allowed to take their masks off while seated for eating and drinking purposes). The local health department also urges all eligible people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. As with all businesses, be sure to call ahead to make sure each place is still open or if there are updates on current offerings and service models, as things do change.
For a quick Austin food snapshot, don't miss Franklin Barbecue's perfectly tender brisket, the mighty migas taco from Veracruz All Natural’s food trucks, cauliflower tater tots and the ideal queso from Better Half, the craveable gelato from Dolce Neve, and surprisingly amazing ramen from Ramen Tatsu-ya.
Where to Start on Eater Austin’s Best Maps
Eater puts out a lot of maps, updating them regularly to guide the hungry and curious. There are the basics, like brunch, cocktails, and coffee, alongside other necessities, like pizza, burgers, patios, and much more. Looking for faster answers? We’ve highlighted several top points from the most popular and crucial maps to save time.
Hot Restaurants: South Austin gets its very own specialty Japanese grocery store with the expansion of Asahi Imports to Barton Hills. Along with a stellar inventory, there are wonderful bento boxes, onigiri, and other Japanese foods available.
Essential Restaurants: Wonderful barbecue and sides can be found over at Eater Award-winning truck Distant Relatives in McKinney. Find juicy chicken, tangy tamarind-molasses barbecue sauce, and ridiculously amazing hearty buttery lima beans.
Bars: The best bar for everyday drinking for any taste is Central East Austin bar Nickel City, where one can find everything from excellent cocktails to fun tiki drinks to beer and shots. Natural wine seekers should head to East Austin bar and retail shop LoLo.
Barbecue: Along with Franklin Barbecue (obviously), partake in the city’s other two best offerings: LeAnn Mueller-owned La Barbecue and Kerlin BBQ, the latter of which boasts both barbecue and klobasniky (savory kolaches).
Breakfast Tacos: For the ultimate egg-filled tortillas, you can’t go wrong with Veracruz All Natural’s options. Otherwise, head to the no-frills truck El Primo on South First (bonus: you can place online orders for both).
If you’re an out-of-towner visiting Austin: scope out these maps and guides, curated just for you.
Austin Food Neighborhoods to Know
It's easy to split Austin into three regional parts: North Austin, Central Austin, and South Austin. But those sections comprise separate neighborhoods — each with its own identity. The following are the areas of the city food lovers should get to know very well, complete with plenty of recommendations.
On the other side of Highway 35, East Austin has changed over the years as the center of rapid gentrification. Developments led to a slew of newer restaurants right next door to older establishments. Go back in time with a simple plate of migas and biscuits from Cisco’s, a Tex-Mex greasy spoon full of political history. For caffeine, dip down to East Fifth for stellar cafe Wright Bros. Brew & Brew. From the multitude of food trucks in the area, the not-that-far trek to East Cesar Chavez for one of the city’s best and most affordable taco trucks Las Trancas (opt for one of the offal ones). Or if you want drinks, head to Whisler’s for thoughtful cocktails or natural wine bar LoLo’s for its well-curated list. End the evening at dive bar White Horse, full of two-steppin' and cheap beer.
The laid-back vibe of Austin lives on across the Colorado River within the South Austin area. Go straight for the area’s main artery South Lamar Boulevard. Here, you can wake up in the morning with well-made lattes and pastries from Patika. Book dinner at Odd Duck, brimming with local ingredients and bread. New-school sushi might seem surprising for such a landlocked city, but you’d be wrong to write Uchi off. Take advantage of the great deals found during the sushi restaurant’s sake social hour. Line up at Ramen Tatsu-ya for restorative noodle soup in a fun space. Those seeking thoughtful wines paired with excellent dishes should seek out Aviary. Under-the-radar barbecue truck Brown’s Bar-B-Que is worth a stop for stellar smoked meats. Night owls can take a spin through P. Terry’s drive-thru for solid burgers.
As hotels, high-rises, and office buildings go up, restaurants and bars continue to open in the center of the city, feeding the growing crowds of locals and tourists gaping at the Texas State Capitol or waiting for the bats to emerge. Coffee fans should hit up Houndstooth, where the baristas care deeply about every cup poured. A Top Chef fan? Check out the Line Austin Hotel’s flagship restaurant Arlo Grey, from Season 10 winner Kristen Kish. Brave the Dirty Sixth hoards to find your way into hidden-within-a-parking-garage bar Small Victory. Dance the rest of the night away at LGBTQ patio bar Cheer Up Charlie’s.
For a break from the tourist-heavy neighborhoods in Austin, check out Cherrywood, northeast of downtown. It’s home to some excellent casual restaurants like Hoover’s — the place to go for down-home Southern fare like chicken fried steak and pie — and Patrizi’s, a trailer with fresh pasta in an open-air bar (look out for the residential cats). Fans of farm-to-table dining must check out Dai Due — chef Jesse Griffiths runs his own hunting and butchering classes. And for a complete night out in one building, head to Mi Madre’s for excellent tacos and Mexican fare before going upstairs to Techo Mezcaleria & Agave Bar for an agave flight.
Austin Glossary of Terms
Bowl of Texas red:
Real Texas chili, no beans at all.
The crispy bark from the often-fattiest portions of brisket.
Kolache and klobasniky:
The first are pastries filled with sweet cheese and fruit, and the latter is a savory pastry filled with meat.
A mix of eggs, fried tortillas, and cheese, with optional vegetables, served on a plate, with tortillas or in taco form.
A margarita served in a martini glass, with olives.
Heavy, creamy cheese dip that is often made with low-grade cheese and served with chips. A Tex-Mex restaurant is often measured by the quality of its queso.
A highly popular sparkling water brand. It works well on its own, mixed in cocktails, or paired with coffee. It’s what many bars and restaurants turn to as their non-alcoholic beverage of choice since Topo Chico was purchased by Coca-Cola thereby making what had been Texas’s go-to sparkling mineral water far too expensive. See also: Richard’s Rainwater and Waterloo.
Reservations to Make in Advance
Barley Swine, Dai Due, DipDipDip Tatsu-ya, El Naranjo, Emmer & Rye, Foreign & Domestic, Hestia, Jeffrey’s, Kemuri Tatsu-ya, L’Oca d’Oro, Lenoir, Odd Duck, Otoko, Small Victory (drinks), Suerte, Tsuke Edomae, Lutie’s, Midnight Cowboy (drinks), Uchi, Uchiko
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