Juan in a Million
This breakfast and lunch restaurant covers a wide swath of landlocked Tex-Mex cuisine, from barbacoa breakfast tacos to carne guisada and tres leches cake. Don’t expect coastal seafood dishes but do expect to get a very inexpensive meal with traditional beans, rice and lots of cheese. It’s far enough from downtown that there’s usually enough parking and seating, so you probably won’t be waiting too long before your belly is filled with fresh flour tortillas and queso.
BTW: You can cover more culinary ground by ordering a variety of tacos a la carte and sharing sides.
Juan in a Million, 2300 E. Cesar Chavez St. Austin, Tex. 78702
Maria’s Tacos Xpress
You’ll know you’re at the right place when you see the rooftop statue of owner Maria Corbalan raising her arms in pride as South Austin’s taco queen. The restaurant, which narrowly avoided closure in 2017, has rightfully rebounded and continues to serve Austin staples such as migas breakfast tacos and chilaquiles — both made with fried corn tortilla pieces and the latter accompanied by fried egg, avocado, potatoes, beans, cream and queso fresco. There’s plentiful eating at a covered, two-level outside patio, and inside, the decor is junk-culture casual, with surfboards on the ceiling. But the real star attraction is a salsa bar with pico de gallo, tomatillo salsa, pickled jalapeño and fresh cilantro.
BTW: Wash down your tacos with an agua fresca, available in jamaica (hibiscus), limonada or horchata.
Maria’s Tacos Xpress, 2529 S. Lamar Blvd. Austin, Tex. 78704
The food trailer where people lined up for some of Austin’s best brisket and other barbecue has become a bricks-and-mortar grocery store, bar and restaurant that still serves long lines. But an hour-or-so weekday wait for pork ribs, sausage and overflowing meat-dream sandwiches is still more than worth it. And when you weigh the quality of meats against the queue, it’s a more sensible, no less delicious alternative to Austin’s most famous brisket house, Franklin Barbecue.
BTW: Plan carefully. The restaurant isn’t open past 6 p.m. and is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
La Barbecue, 2027 E. Cesar Chavez St. Austin, Tex. 78702
The middle of Texas is not where you’d expect to find one of the finest bowls of ramen, but Ramen Tatsu-Ya has overperformed for years, outgrowing its North Austin strip mall beginnings and expanding into three locations. Tatsu-Ya South Lamar has reasonable wait times, especially for lunch, and supplements its regular menu of bowls with seasonal favorites such as crawfish ramen and spicy chilled ramen for the summer months. The milky bowls of pork or miso broth, noodles and meats are Instagram-ready and will make even your New York and Los Angeles friends drool.
BTW: Try the sweet and sour yodas (Brussels sprouts), and don’t skimp on extra ramen toppings such as a chile bomb or extra ajitama (seasoned half-boiled eggs).
Ramen Tatsu-Ya, 1234 S. Lamar Blvd. Austin, Tex. 78704
This fusion restaurant that brought together James Beard Award winners Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue and Uchi chef Tyson Cole has been welcome addition to South Austin’s dining scene. The result is a counter-service smokehouse with room for happy-hour get-togethers, big screens for watching sports and food that tastes more expensive than it is. Even the bar-food appetizers contain surprising ingredients such as Thai chile vinaigrette or kimchi emulsion. You won’t go wrong with any of the pork belly dishes, the Texas sweet corn appetizer and a brisket-topped burger served only at happy hour.
BTW: The mango sake boozy slushie is only $4 during the 2-5 p.m. happy hour on weekdays.
Loro, 2115 S. Lamar Blvd. Austin, Tex. 78704
Austin’s maturation into a fine-dining destination owes a lot to owner and executive chef Bryce Gilmore’s restaurant, which takes its local-sourcing mission seriously. The dinner menu changes often and includes snacks as well as entrees such as fried duck leg and pork shoulder steak, with lots of tasty options in between. But for special occasions, you’ll want to do the $95-per-person tasting menu that you’ll happily struggle to finish. You’ll have vivid dreams about tiny ham-and-cornbread biscuits if they’re featured on the menu that day.
BTW: The wait staff is knowledgeable about local beer and spirits. Have them direct you to a proper pairing.
Barley Swine, 6555 Burnet Rd., Ste. 400. Austin, Tex. 78757
Casino El Camino
One of the only reasons to go to Sixth Street late at night if you’re older than 30 is this dive bar. There are old Mexican monster-movie posters on the wall, the interior is dark with red lighting and the music is loud. While you’re waiting for songs by Public Image LTD, the “Repo Man” soundtrack or the Donnas to play on the jukebox, order a Pitts or K.C. Burger. The burgers take a while, but once they arrive, they will take all your attention.
BTW: If the bar area is too crowded or noisy, try the spacious lounge upstairs with booths and pool tables.
Casino El Camino, 517 E. Sixth St. Austin, Tex. 78701
Texas Chili Parlor
If you think it’s a joke how seriously Texans take their chili, just try to argue with one about whether beans belong in it. Things will get loud. Texas Chili Parlor does the classic as well as any restaurant in town, with spicy gradations going from mild to say-goodbye-to-your-loved-ones hot. For the whole Texan experience, try the Frito Pie, the Parlor’s bowl paired with Fritos, onions and melted cheese.
BTW: Seriously, don’t order chili with beans in it.
Texas Chili Parlor, 1409 Lavaca St. Austin, Tex. 78701