February 25th, 2024/ BY Jessica Dupuy

A Local’s Guide to Austin TX

This article originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2022/2023 print issue of Quench Magazine.

It’s often been said that Texas is a state of mind.

As a native of Austin, it’s not a stretch to say that the Capital City is the epicenter of the Lone Star State. For food, music, recreation, leisure, and school spirit at the University of Texas, Austin has quickly garnered a reputation as one of the most popular U.S. cities in recent years. And it has a booming population to prove it. But it hasn’t always been this way.

When my family arrived on the scene more than 40 years ago, the population was a diminutive 415,000. Today, the greater metro area is home to more than 2.1 million would be Austinites. Newcomers to town, whether recent transplants or visiting weekend warriors, are often searching for the hottest new restaurants, bars, and shops—for that, South Congress, Clarksville, downtown, and the east-side districts won’t disappoint. And while locals usually have a good pulse on the latest points of interest to hit the scene, there’s a definite layer of standard, longtime favorites that rest beneath the surface of all that is shiny and new. There are plenty of boxes to check when you visit Austin, but this is what you do when you live in Austin.

The Broken Spoke is a must venue for classic country-western vibe | photo credit: Carol M. Highsmith

For a city known as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin certainly lives up to its name. But not every venue is created equal, and sadly, in recent years, some stages don’t live up to the standard to match the hype. Still, there are a few spots that remain tried and true. Iconic spots such as The Continental Club on South Congress, Stubb’s Bar-B-cue, and The Mohawk on Red River are worth checking out for local and touring acts. The White Horse Saloon is a favorite East Austin honky tonk, and the Cactus Cafe at the University of Texas features a tremendous local lineup. The Broken Spoke is a must for a classic country-western vibe with ample space to do some boot-scootin’ on the dance floor.

There was a time when fans could line up outside the old Austin Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) station to earn free tickets to a taping of Austin City Limits, the longest-running American television music series in history. It was one of the most intimate venues in town to catch acts such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, and the Black Pumas, but these days you have to buy tickets for tapings at the new Moody Theater downtown. (You can enter to win “space available” seats via a random lottery drawing online.)

Though it lacks the vintage feel, the modern venue is one of the best in town for acoustics. As for festivals, the SXSW music festival in the spring and the ACL Festival in the fall were once musical celebrations of Austin-based talent, but in recent years, they have grown beyond their local caché. Instead, smaller options include the Hot Luck Food & Music Festival in late May.

When it comes to dining, there are typically two cuisines most visitors should investigate first: Barbecue and Tex-Mex.

Texas barbecue is best defined by large, iron off-set smokers slowly smoking meats (primarily beef brisket) bearing a secret recipe of peppery dry rubs—no sauce, please. The holy trinity of any barbecue plate includes brisket, sausage, and ribs (pork or beef), but you’ll also find chicken and turkey on many menus as well. And it’s worth noting that barbecue, Bar-B-Q, and BBQ spellings are interchangeable.

In Austin, there aren’t many smoked meat lovers who haven’t heard about Franklin Barbecue. This east Austin icon does serve some of the best brisket, well, anywhere. I’ve even called it “unicorn meat.” But plenty of other places rank up there as equally impressive, namely Interstellar BBQ, a north Austin spot heralded for its peppery smoked brisket and peach tea-glazed pork belly. Leroy and Lewis BBQ is another go-to central Austin spot for next-level ‘cue (the Mexican-inspired barbacoa is remarkable, and the Deluxe Frito Pie with spicy beef chili is pure Texas soul food). Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ is a South Austin favorite serving up a delicious hybrid of barbecue and Tex-Mex (breakfast tacos here with brisket and scrambled eggs are legendary).

And let’s talk Tex-Mex. Of Texas’s many influences in its culinary tapestry, Mexico has undoubtedly been one of the greatest. After all, much of the Lone Star State was actually a part of Mexico at one point in its history. But as the cultural landscape evolved over the past century with German, Irish, and Polish immigrants along with settlers from other parts of the country, the amalgamation of cuisines became more Tex than Mex, yielding a unique identity that was a departure from authentic interior Mexican food.

Today Tex-Mex incorporates a few significant dishes and sides, namely enchiladas (with corn tortillas, not flour), tacos (crispy beef is a Texas original), nachos, and fajitas (grilled skirt steak, onions, and peppers served in flour tortillas). No Tex-Mex meal is complete without salsa and an order of chile con queso, locally referred to as “queso,” served with tortilla chips. House-made guacamole is also a standard. And don’t forget the margarita. Frozen or on the rocks, this salt-rimmed, tequila, and lime-based cocktail is a thirst-quenching refreshment that owes its origins to the Tex, rather than the Mex side of the cuisine.

In Austin, there are a few iconic spots long loved by locals, including Matt’s El Rancho on South Lamar, where you can find almost every combination of Tex-Mex delight you can think of. Originally opened in 1952 by the Martinez family, every longtime Austinite pays a visit here every so often. Cocina ATX gives Tex-Mex a dressed-up feel and is worth the higher price tag (the tequila selection is excellent). Further north, La Mancha and Taco Flats are local haunts that more than satisfy.

Of course, most people prefer to stay near home when getting their barbecue or Tex-Mex fix. It’s sort of like having the neighborhood pub or watering hole. Fortunately, good options tend to be plentiful. In my case, I opt for Treaty Oak Distillery or The Salt Lick for barbecue, and Flores, a small family-owned chain for Tex-Mex. Each is about 15 minutes away, which is all you need if you want to avoid a big production of heading into town for dinner.

But Austin has much more to offer than smoked meats and cheesy Mexican-inspired fare. Dan’s Hamburgers is a classic with three park-and-order locations around town for good ole greasy-spoon burgers. Pool Burger near the historic Deep Eddy Pool—a spring-fed swimming pool off Lake Austin Boulevard—serves up excellent burgers, tiki cocktails, and a fresh, vibrant scene. Mighty Fine Burgers and P. Terry’s checks all boxes as local chair fast-casual burger joints.

For fine dining, it’s hard to beat longtime sushi favorite, Uchi. The original location on South Lamar opened in 2003 under the helm of James Beard Award-winning chef Tyson Cole, and has since grown to include sister restaurant Uchiko, and fellow Uchi locations in Dallas, Houston, Denver, and Miami. Here, traditional sushi and Japanese heritage are honored, balanced by innovative presentations and unique preparations of some of the freshest cuts of fish from around the world.

Jeffrey’s on West Lynn St. is the place for delicious steak and expert service. It is well worth arriving early for pre-dinner drinks in their chic living room bar. Fonda San Miguel has long been a north-central favorite for an interior Mexico feel. Tucked in a neighborhood alcove off of North Loop, this enchanting eatery serves up classic Mexican fare such as enchiladas mole poblano, and carne asada a la tampiqueña in a luxe Hacienda-style environment reminiscent of Puerto Vallarta. Among the newer additions to town, the Caribbean-inspired Canje is the latest rage, and sister restaurant, Hestia, a modern American grill, is equally as enticing. Pecan Square Café in Clarksville offers a flavorful, upscale menu of local, seasonal ingredients.

Lately, great wine bars have increased in variety. For a well-appointed diversity of offerings, Apt 115 is an excellent little wine bar tucked into a mixed-use development on the east side. On the same side of town, the Cape Bottle Room is a popular stop for a wide selection exclusively devoted to South African wine. Over on the west side, the Austin Wine Merchant is the go-to place for the best wine retailer in town, but to sit and enjoy a glass, the new Neighborhood Vintner in the Westlake neighborhood is a swanky wine bar and shop worth stopping in for a glass or two.

When it comes to apparel, By George on South Congress, Adelante Boutique on North Lamar, and Vintage Soul in Dripping Springs are go-to spots for unique frocks and accessories. For him, Austin-based Howler Bros. Outfitters offers a laidback Texas vibe to outdoor threads. And you can’t say you’ve experienced Austin without selecting a pair of real-deal cowboy boots from Allen’s boots on South Congress. Here locals have already stocked their closets with at least two or three pairs from shelves upon shelves of this landmark boutique.

For a wide selection of vinyl records and the latest releases from Texas musicians, Waterloo Records has been an Austin institution since 1982. It’s also a great spot to catch live music from acts such as Spoon, Norah Jones, and Willie Nelson. Food aficionados need to check out Central Market, which offers a culinary paradise as fresh as the weekend farmer’s market, and stocks of ingredients equally as diverse in flavors from around the world. The market has north and south locations on Lamar Blvd.

For a taste of artistic inspiration, the Blanton Museum of Art is a regular haunt for checking out the latest exhibits. Boasting one of the country’s largest private collections of old master paintings and drawings, the Blanton is part of the University of Texas’ center for research and training in visual arts. It is the largest university art museum in the country. Permanent exhibits include Renaissance and Baroque work along with 20th and early 21st century American and Latin-American art. Still, it’s worth keeping tabs on the calendar of special visiting exhibitions as well.

While it’s true Austin is no longer the small college town it once was—and it has the traffic to prove it—the deluge of attention and fanfare hasn’t diminished the city’s charm. Though locals may sport t-shirts that offer the tongue-and-cheek slogan “welcome to Austin. Please don’t move here,” the underlying sentiment is that the Capital City is a great place to be, especially if you can look beneath the surface of the trendy newfound veneer.

Jessica Dupuy is a wine and spirits columnist, certified sommelier and WSET Diploma candidate. She is the author of several books including Uchi: The Cookbook; The Salt Lick Cookbook: A Story of Land, Family and Love; The United Tastes of Texas; Tex-Mex: Traditions, Innovations, and Comfort Foods from Both Sides of the Border. Her latest book, The Wines of Southwest U.S.A. covers the emerging wine regions in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Dupuy lives in the Texas Hill Country, just west of Austin, with her family. Among the things she enjoys most are cooking with her kids, sharing great wine with friends, and fly fishing with her husband.

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