My childhood friend Dalia and her honey Hussein are coming to town for 4th of July weekend, and when Hussein asked me to send him a list of my favorite restaurants, I told him I’d write up a post for their trip instead of sending him a numbered list.
My picks have to be stellar for many reasons. First off, Hussein is a chef. In fact, he just got promoted to head chef at an incredible restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona called Zinc Bistro. The upscale, French-inspired bistro was featured on the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” for their French onion soup, and I was lucky enough to try it last year -– along with several other mouth-watering Zinc menu items –- and can report back that it is indeed one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, too. I never did a blog post on Zinc because the restaurant is dimly lit and my pictures were total crap. But I digress.
Hu-Hu, as he is affectionately known, specifically asked me for my top 5 breakfast, lunch and dinner spots.
I think I’ve nailed them down – with a couple of happy hour spots and the like thrown in good measure -- but I’d appreciate any additional comments in the comments section.
I’m secretly – okay, openly and loudly – hoping these two will eventually pack it up and move to Austin. Hu-Hu is a huge Longhorn fan despite never having actually lived in Texas, and Dalia and I grew up together, five hours’ south of here, so I continue to insist she needs to move back closer to home.
Hussein and Dalia are aware that Austin has a great food scene, but Hussein hasn’t spent much time here. So we’ve got to show him just how much Austin has to offer. I’m thinking these suggestions will help:
Counter Café/24 Diner. There are so many reasons to go to Counter Café – or 24 Diner just a few doors down when the wait’s too long at the teeny, tiny counter that once housed my friend Reid’s unforgettable, irreplaceable slider joint. Counter Café has won best burger accolades -- #2 in the state, says Texas Monthly. -- but for breakfast, their ginormous, fluffy blueberry pancake won the hearts of my mom and my grandmother (and me!) on a recent visit. And you’ve never had anything like their pimento cheese sandwich. Next door at 24 Diner, I love their budget-friendly breakfast scramble. It’s a smaller portion of their regular breakfast scramble (but still plenty of food!). With a cup of coffee and nice tip, it’s a great under-$10 breakfast. Others go to 24 Diner for righteous burgers – rightly so, as they rival their award-winning neighbor – and for their chicken and waffles.
Frisco’s. Home to the best biscuits, sausage and gravy this side of the Mississippi. Or at least in Austin. Also, the original owner, Harry Akin, was the first on the Austin restaurant scene to hire black staff and integrate Frisco’s.
Curra’s. Oaxacan coffee is the best mug in south Austin. Great breakfast tacos and chilaquiles. Everything about this place screams "south Austin" - in a good way.
Stubb’s Gospel brunch. Okay, this isn’t the best brunch food in town, but it’s damn tasty for a buffet. They have big silver trays filled with bottomless crispy bacon and the creamiest grits you can find in Austin. And then there’s the LIVE GOSPEL CHOIR to which you can shake your groove thing after you’ve had seven slices of bacon. Unfortunately, Stubb’s ‘indoor’ seating is not all too well ventilated to begin with, but nearing noon in early July it just might not be worth it. Sad face.
Cuban Sandwich Café. The best café con leche in town. Cuban breakfast plate for $5.50 includes eggs, ham or bacon, fries and baguette made in-house. Breakfast tacos and pastries abound. (Cream cheese and guava croissant is my favorite, but Mike likes to mix it up and try something new with each visit.) They’ll be featured on The Food Network later this summer. The owner, Enrique, is a Cuban-born former resident of Miami who keeps his place clean and his prices low. Oh, and it’s in my ‘hood!
Franklin Barbecue. This should be on the breakfast list, because you have to get to Franklin early if you want to eat there. But don’t take my word for it. See what Hitler has to say. The bride & groom at the best Austin wedding of 2011 (after my own, of course) were kind enough to feed us all Franklin’s. I am still grateful.
Torchy’s. Sure, there are far more authentic tacos to be had in this town. But my pals are coming from Arizona and Dalia is from south Texas. These people know authentic tacos, but they’ve never had a Brushfire. If they decide they want authentic, our neighborhood strip mall tacos will more than suffice.
Frank. Fancy hot dogs. Fancy bloody marys. Fancy coffee. Yes, coffee. They have a couple of talented baristas who will serve you some of the best lattes and cortaditos in town. (Oh, and Dalia doesn’t eat pork, but not to fret – most of their dogs are 100% beef and there’s a veggie dog on the menu as well.) I’m looking forward to trying their corn cup -- grilled corn served off the cob with chili mayonesa, lime juice, cilantro and cotija cheese. I used to make this all the time with Valentina hot sauce.
Blue Dahlia/Haddington’s/Foodheads three-way. My friend Dalia will appreciate the name of the first recommendation, but all of these picks get points for Austin-y ambience and fresh, fun twists on regular ol’ sandwiches. I’d probably choose Blue Dahlia over Haddington’s and Foodheads for the pretty factor. The place is just freaking adorable. But I love the patio most, and the patio at Blue Dahlia and outdoor seating at Foodheads will likely be too hot to handle come 4th of July weekend. So I gotta go with Haddington’s. My gourmet grilled cheese with sundried tomatoes was good enough to try re-creating at home, but through most of my meal, I was eyeing my sister-in-law’s fish and chips. I’m going back for those.
Koriente: Dalia and Hu-Hu are health-conscious, so I’m trying to balance things out a bit with this suggestion. Koriente is awesome for about a million reasons. Their sweet potato noodles and mixmix bibimbop are reasons #2 and #3. But my #1 reason for loving this family-run restaurant is this message painted at the back entrance to this downtown gem.
Fino. Sangrias, bee stings, fried anchovy olives, blistered Padron peppers with sea salt, Mediterranean-inspired patio and menu. I got to attend a food blogger happy hour there long before I had my own blog. I went in Jodi's place (fortunately for me, she had to work late and offered me her spot in exchange for this post). Fino doubles as a favorite Happy Hour and favorite brunch pick, in my book.
Contigo. I haven’t blogged about this one yet, despite two visits, but you can trust Jodi. I’ve sampled many of their menu items since we’ve gone with a group that is willing to share. Nothing has disappointed, but the fried potatoes & pigs ears and ox tongue slider are OMG-musts. It’s going to be hot as balls July 4th weekend, and while the patio is seriously cool – the weather may not be. Dalia is even more heat intolerant than I am. Contigo may have to wait for a future visit.
Uchiko. Just go there. Trust us. And by “us,” I mean every Austinite who has been there.
Foreign & Domestic. Since Uchiko is a little out of our budget these days – saving for late honeymoon in Argentina! – we will hopefully cement our plans for dinner at this Hyde Park spot on their first night in town. My recent hanger steak with fried orzo was memorable, and I wanted to swim in my friend David’s bowl of homemade pasta – but the crispy lamb ribs dusted with sumac and za’atar? If the Food Network asks, I’d say it’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate. On this next visit, I’m getting my own plate of ribs.* Not sharing. Nope. I don’t care if you drove here from Arizona and this is your first Austin experience, guys. Get your own ribs. Love you. Mean it. (Side note: The owner of F&D caught some flak earlier this year for an interview with Eater, and I personally think he came across a bit jerky. I'm not alone. I mean, the guy insulted Thomas Keller (not to mention every brand of Austinite to be found south of the river) -- and my friends know I publicly stalk Thomas Keller. I have dedicated evenings to him. Still, as long as Ned Elliot hasn't murdered anyone, I'm going to continue to support his endeavor with many future purchases of crispy lamb ribs.)
Barley Swine/Odd Duck + Gordough’s. Barley Swine is the air-conditioned, grown-up iteration of the Odd Duck Farm to Trailer concept that knocked my socks off a couple of years ago with its grilled duck wings and pork belly sliders. Even the asparagus was elevated to levels I’ve yet to achieve in my kitchen. So given that we’re all on budgets, I’d suggest Odd Duck for a taste of Barley Swine. And I’d suggest Odd Duck because it’s next to Gordough’s. Gordough’s is a ridiculous, divine, indulgent, do-NOT-mention-Weight-Watcher-points star of the Austin trailer food scene. I’ve heard too many people say too many things about how it’s just too much. Too ridiculous, too divine, too indulgent. “They’re just so big!” “Ugh, I can’t eat one of those things. So sweet!” And to them I say, get the hell over yourself and take a few friends. Get a coupla donuts and split them up. No one’s forcing the whole thing down your throat. Now, if you’re on a diet (as I should be) or you just don’t like donuts (get off my blog NOW), I get it. But if you like donuts and if you like sharing with your friends, give this place a try, enjoy every bite and don’t beat yourself up over it, for crying out loud.
Asia Café. This isn’t New York City, and our version of Chintatown is nothing to write home about if you just moved here from New York (or, say, China). But we’ve got some solid options for Asian fare in our town – and Mike and I (and many of our pals) are keen on the mapo tofu, fried rice, noodles, salt and pepper shrimp, water spinach, baby bok choy and various other offerings at Asia Café. (To be fair, Asia Café is not exactly in our town. It’s a twenty-minute drive from our house. Worth the carbon footprint.)
House/Homeslice/Little Deli. I realize I’m cheating with these multiple picks, but the fact is, there are so many good options within any given category. And for me, pizza deserves not only its own category but its own post. This will have to do for now. For me, each of these picks makes the list because they offer both respectable, delectable crusts and fresh inventive toppings. (Note: Eastside Pies wins the Most Inventive, but they are almost exclusively a delivery pizza place.) House and Homeslice are probably better choices for Austin newcomers; Little Deli is a family-friendly neighborhood joint, and I’d confidently recommend it to locals with children. (If you aren't sure what to order, the House goat cheese and potato pizza was the bomb! A minor complaint, as evidence in this picture not even taken by me is that their crust shows up with a few burnt spots most of the time. For some, however, this is a good thng.)
Chi’Lantro. Everyone will tell you to hit up Kerbey Lane or Magnolia (blech and blech) while you’re in Austin for late-night grub. Thankfully, 24 Diner (see above) is there for those of us who have been here too long to be impressed with mediocre food and bad service. There are others, too, but when you just want a little snack go find the Chi’Lantro truck and get yourself some Sriracha-soaked kimchi fries. I’ve yet to have these fries at the trailer, but my kimchi-fry obsessed friend Johnny Rollerfeet had more than a half-dozen varieties available for us at his birthday gathering recently, and let’s just say you don’t have to be hungry to enjoy the hell out of these smothered papas. You can find ‘em downtown, super duper late – 3AM? I haven’t seen 3AM in a decade! – and I can’t think of anything better for soaking up booze.
Cake & Spoon. Austin’s downtown farmer’s market holds many treats – hello, Bola breakfast pizza and Dai Due biscuits and sausage! – but for someone who doesn’t live here and can’t take the goods home, I recommend picking up a key lime or chocolate hazelnut tart from the Cake & Spoon folks. They did our wedding groom’s tarts in lieu of a groom’s cake. I can’t say enough about these tarts, from the flavorful fillings to the thick, crumbly crusts. So much goodness in such a little package. Cupcakes are jealous.
*How much for one rib?