When I first moved to Austin in 1998, there were some solid Tex Mex options, but not much else. Now that we’re all cosmopolitan and full of Californians, the restaurant and bar scene has gotten legit. There are so many great options, from amazing barbecue, to world-class sushi, to Japanese-Texas fusion that you can't find anywhere else.
The Alvies staff will be sharing some of our favorite Austin bars and restaurants on the blog. And we wanted to start with a tribute to some of the long-standing restaurant institutions — many of which are hurting due to the corona shutdown. These are the joints that have weathered a ton of change over the decades, but still manage to keep that Austin spirit alive.
Cisco’s was founded in 1943, making it one of the oldest restaurants in town. Until recently they only served breakfast and lunch, so for me it’s mostly been a place to get Tex Mex breakfast (one of life’s great joys is eating chips before noon). For that, I recommend the migas plate (served with biscuits, which is just the kind of weird combo that people who sell boots and flip-flops can get behind).
Dirty’s is on The Drag (aka Guadalupe St.) near The University of Texas, where it has served burgers to students and other Austinites since 1926. It’s so old that the original restaurant had dirt floors. When they switched to a new-fangled concrete foundation in the 50s, customers who fondly (?) remembered the dirt floors nicknamed the place Dirty’s. Which hopefully makes you feel better about eating there, because they have solid burgers, tots and limeade.
One of my personal favorites, Fonda opened in 1975 and was the first interior Mexican restaurant in Texas. At the time, Tex Mex was the only kind of "Mexican" food you could find. The food is all great, as are the margaritas. And even though it’s a Peruvian drink, they make a phenomenal pisco sour. The wait can be long without a reservation, but an Austinite pro tip is that they serve the full menu in the bar, which is first-come first-served seating. And you can chat with the real-live parrot while you hover over a table hoping to snag a spot.
Hoover’s has brought homestyle cooking to the East Side since 1998. The menu is like a sampling of different Southern cuisines, including barbecue and Cajun. But most of us have trouble ordering anything but the chicken fried steak with gravy — and then slipping into a two-day food coma.
Joe’s has been an East Austin staple since 1962. They only serve breakfast and lunch, and while they don’t have alcohol, they’re the go-to place for our co-founders Alvie and Clay after a night of supporting the local bar industry. They serve old school Tex Mex with daily specials, and you can easily walk out for under $20. Alvie and Clay always get the Joey Rocha Plate: two eggs any style served with pork carne guisada, potatoes, beans, sausage or bacon, and two tortillas.
What makes a person eat four tacos worth of bacon, potatoes, eggs and cheese heaped onto a single tortilla, aka the Don Juan? And what drives an even rarer person to eat more than one, and as many as NINE? It’s not common hunger that drives someone to such a feat. No, it’s the same reason why people climb Everst — because it’s there. Juan in a Million opened in 1980 in East Austin, and since then Austinites have been taking the Don Juan challenge, eating as many of the densely delicious tacos as possible. Winners get their picture on the wall and eternal glory.
Since 1980, Kerbey Lane has been slanging all-day breakfast and other comfort food to the overserved and hungover of Austin. The original location on Kerbey Lane (it’s not just a clever name) and most other outlets are open 24 hours, which makes them busy at 2am when the bars let out, and again at 11am when the patrons from the night before start to roll out of bed. The pancakes and Kerbey Queso are legendary.
Matt’s is a classic Tex Mex place that has been in Austin since 1952. It was originally downtown but is now in a larger building south of the river, where even with a huge dining room and massive patio they still have a long wait most weekend evenings. The Alvies crew loves the chips and salsa, Bob Armstrong dip (queso with ground beef and guacamole), chicken fajita nachos, the asadero tacos, and the Tex Mex Burrito. Wash it down with a Knockout Martini (Matt’s version of a Mexican martini). Then mosey over to see our favorite work of art: a photo of Matt Martinez finishing a marathon wearing a pair of boots.
The Chili Parlor has been around since 1976. It’s famous around town for being a low-key place to get a classic bowl of red (no beans) and a Shiner. And don’t sleep on the nachos. But it was immortalized for non-Austinites in the Guy Clark song “Dublin Blues.” Which goes a little something like this:
Well, I wish I was in Austin. Mm-hmm.
In the Chili Parlor bar,
Drinkin’ Mad Dog margaritas,
And not carin’ where you are.