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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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The goods at La Barbeque.
The goods at La Barbeque.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Austin

The goods at La Barbeque.
The goods at La Barbeque.
  • By Omar L. Gallaga
  • Photos by Ilana Panich-Linsman
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Change is inevitable in any city, but in Austin, it’s a particularly sensitive subject. New high-rises crowd the skyline, old music venues have shut down, and the sidewalks are clogged with scooters.

But it’s not all changing. While Austin’s restaurant scene has blossomed and its reputation as a high-tech hub has grown, the city has retained a lot of its laid-back, slacker vibe. It’s still a university and state-government town with idealists and budding artists trying to make their marks. “Keep Austin Weird” may not be exactly right these days, but with South by Southwest Music Festival, the “Austin City Limits” TV show and plenty of live shows every night, no one can argue it doesn’t still have a vibrant music scene.

Meet Omar Gallaga

Omar has lived and worked in the Austin area since 1997. He’s watched the city change and still loves how friendly and open to new experiences people are here. He’s always looking for that perfect bowl — not just a cup — of queso.

Want to get in touch?

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IN THE ACTION
South Congress
Don’t call it “SoCo” — the locals will side-eye you — but South Congress remains a gathering place for Austinites. It’s stacked with clothing shops and Austin-bred favorites such as Home Slice Pizza and Amy’s Ice Creams. The neighborhood offers short-term rentals in addition to lodging options at Hotel Saint Cecilia, Hotel San José, South Congress Hotel and Austin Motel. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
East Austin
The neighborhood from about East Seventh to East Cesar Chavez streets is close enough to downtown to make scooters or ride hailing feasible, without the headaches of limited parking and ongoing construction. The farther east you’ll go, the less expensive the food and lodging is and the closer you’ll be to the airport. You won’t want for coffee, tacos and traces of Old Austin in this area. Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
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
LUNCH
La Barbecue
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
LUNCH
Veracruz All Natural
“Tasty Tacos” and “healthy eating” don’t typically go together in harmony, but Austin’s Veracruz All Natural has built a reputation for that since its first food trailer opened in 2008. Now with six locations (three restaurants and three trucks), the local chain has become known as one of the most reliably excellent taco joints in the city. Its staples include migas tacos, open-faced chilaquiles tacos, mole chicken tacos and a cochinita pibil taco with sweet, fried plantains.
BTW: Skip the soft drinks; Veracruz has great juices and smoothies, including a refreshing cucumber agua fresca you’re unlikely to find at any other taco stand in town.
Veracruz All Natural, 111 East Cesar Chavez, Austin, Tex. 78701
LUNCH
Ramen Tatsu-Ya
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
DINNER
Loro
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
DINNER
Barley Swine
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
LATE-NIGHT
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
LATE-NIGHT
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
(Austin illustrator Kat Schober for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. Locals eat more than barbecue and tacos. We have a thriving dining scene, particularly restaurants that fuse those flavors with other kinds of cuisine, such as Korean or Japanese.
  2. Things inevitably get crazy during the Austin City Limits Music Festival and South by Southwest. But don’t blame us locals; many leave town during that time to escape the crowds.
  3. We don’t all walk around wearing cowboy hats and boots. You’re thinking of the rodeo.
(Austin illustrator Kat Schober for The Washington Post)

Do

The bats
Even locals who have lived in Austin all their lives are still wowed by the sight of about 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats soaring into the night sky. The bats emerge in a lengthy streak from the Ann W. Richards South Congress Bridge at about dusk, typically from March to October, attracting viewers to the bridge and to the Austin American-Statesman Bat Observation Center below. You probably won’t get a great photo with your phone, but you will witness an unforgettable spectacle.
BTW: The bats usually come out 15 minutes later than you expect. Be patient. It usually happens moments after sunset.
Austin American-Statesman Bat Observation Center, 305 S. Congress Ave. Austin, Tex. 78704
Pinballz Arcade
For gamers and anyone else who deems Dave & Busters soulless, this arcade is like coming home. Here you’ll find state-of-the-art pinball machines alongside vintage consoles kept in excellent condition. Guns N’ Roses, “The Munsters,” the Indiana Jones movies and entertainment brands are well represented on the pinball side, alongside ticket-redemption games such as Skee-Ball and retro favorites “Elevator Action” and “Galaga.”
BTW: There are two other Pinballz locations: one north, called Pinballz Lake Creek, and one south of Austin, called Pinballz Kingdom.
Pinballz Arcade, 8940 Research Blvd. Austin, Tex. 78758
Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater
The best live-music venue in Austin has a capacity of 2,750 yet feels intimate no matter where you’re sitting. With well-stocked and accessible bars, excellent sound and hallways bursting with musical artifacts, it’s a joy to visit for pretty much any show. But the real golden ticket in Austin is a pass to see a taping of PBS staple “Austin City Limits” here, featuring the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Janelle Monáe and Willie Nelson, to name a few recent highlights.
BTW: Standing on the floor level is fine, but the best seats in the house are dead-center mezzanine.
Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, 310 W. Willie Nelson Blvd. #1B, Austin, Tex. 78701
Hamilton Pool Preserve
Less than an hour’s drive from downtown, this gorgeous swimming hole lies beyond a quarter-mile hike. Just off the Pedernales River, it includes a pool and grotto alongside a 50-foot waterfall. You’ll want to take plenty of photos, and you’ll want to plan ahead; online park reservations fill up quickly and are required from March to October. Cost is $11 to reserve a spot online, plus $15 cash per vehicle when you arrive.
BTW: Even with a reservation, check the website for the water’s swimming status, road-construction updates and other updates to avoid a wasted trip.
Hamilton Pool Preserve, 24300 Hamilton Rd., Dripping Springs, Tex. 78620
Shopping at West Fifth and North Lamar streets
This intersection gives you options in all directions for great browsing or buying. Whether you want to wow yourself with the completely over-the-top food bars at the Whole Foods flagship store or check out an author reading/book-signing across the street at BookPeople, you won’t be disappointed. Also nearby: vinyl nirvana at Waterloo Records, comfort food at 24 Diner, ByGeorge boutique and Ruiz Salon.
BTW: Whole Foods has lots of underground parking, so it’s a good place to start.
500 N. Lamar St. Austin, Tex. 78703
Cathedral of Junk
Austin loves its junk. Back in the day, “art cars” covered with trinkets like toy dinosaurs, doll heads or elaborate beadwork were a common sight. These days, it’s a little harder to find Austin’s weird spots, but Vince Hannemann’s home in South Austin is one place you can still enjoy that magic. Since 1989, Hannemann has been using mostly donated junk to build a wonderland: part art project, part architectural feat, all repurposed. Enjoy the Zen Garden of TVs, ask to sit in the Throne Room or just take it all in from several observation spots. And don’t forget to bring the suggested $5 donation.
BTW: Because it’s a private home, visits are appointment only and fill up quickly.
Cathedral of Junk, 4422 Lareina Dr. Austin, Tex. 78745
Omar L. Gallaga
Omar has lived and worked in the Austin area since 1997. He’s watched the city change and still loves how friendly and open to new experiences people are here. He’s always looking for that perfect bowl — not just a cup — of queso.
Twitter
omarg
Instagram
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Ilana Panich-Linsman
Ilana is a contributing photographer for The Washington Post based in Austin. When not traveling on assignment, she’s swimming laps in Deep Eddy Pool; hiking the trails with her chocolate labradoodle, Dottie; or holding forth about the best barbecue in Austin.
Instagram
ilanapl

CITY GUIDES