Every city has its signature items, and Austin is no exception. Whether you're hosting visitors from out of town or assembling your own personal checklist, here are 10 essential Austin dishes to try, including some that are at their best when enjoyed stateside (hello, breakfast tacos) and others that are almost impossible to find elsewhere (see: Frito pie).
Outside of Texas, breakfast assumes many different forms: sandwiches, crêpes, egg plates, burritos, even the occasional breakfast pizza or burger. But the elusive breakfast taco is rarely seen outside of Texas. (And, when spotted, they rarely live up to our Texan expectations.) So get 'em while they're hot in the Lone Star State. In addition to tons of breakfast taco trailers and restaurants from which to choose, visitors should be sure to stop by Tacodeli at least once for a taste of local favorites like the Jess Special (migas, jack cheese, avocado, pictured below) or El Popeye (scrambled eggs, spinach, queso fresco).
Most people have never even heard of kolache, let alone tried one. Brought to central Texas by Czech immigrants, this pastry typically enjoyed for breakfast is usually filled with sausage or sausage and cheese, though look also for versions topped with jam and sweet cheese. They're typically found at donut shops and roadside markets like Czech Stop (on the way to Dallas) and Hruska's (on the way to Houston)....but the best ones by far are coming from Kerlin BBQ, where they bake off a limited amount of brisket and sausage kolaches plus a specialty flavor (like pastrami and kraut or roasted red pepper and fontina)! They drop off fresh batches each Wednesday through Sunday morning at Brew and Brew, where they're hot and ready for pickup.
500 San Marcos St., #105; 512-493-0963
Jess Special tacos from Tacodeli
Yes, there is such thing as Frito pie. And yes, Texans consider it an actual meal. Now that you've let that sink in, try to toss aside all pretenses and give the dish a try. We have a feeling you won't be able to put it down...especially if it's the hearty bowl of the salty corn chips topped with chopped beef, queso, chèvre and pico de gallo Lambert's Downtown Barbecue serves at their bar every day (and topped with an egg for a brunch Frito pie.)
401 W. Second St.; 512-494-1500
One of the crown jewels of Tex-Mex is a devilishly good melted cheese called queso. It comes in many incarnations, most not made entirely of real cheese per se (more like the Velveeta variety of "cheese product")...but quit asking questions and just get a bowl of it in front of you stat! And preferably bring some friends to help because once you start dipping, there's really no stopping. One of the best versions in town comes from Torchy's Tacos, loaded with green chiles, queso fresco, guacamole and a drizzle of Diablo hot sauce on top.
Bone-in rib-eye from Jacoby's Restaurant & Mercantile
It wouldn't be right to leave Longhorn country without sinking your teeth into some locally raised beef. Head to Jacoby's Restaurant & Mercantile, where all the meat on the menu comes from the Jacoby family ranch out west in Melvin, Texas. The butcher cuts vary daily, but you really can't go wrong with any of them — or signature items like the savory stuffed Salisbury steak.
3235 E. Cesar Chavez St.; 512-366-5808
Dr Pepper was created from a mysterious blend of 23 flavors just due north of Austin in Waco, Texas. (If you don't know, now you know.) Pay homage to the magical not-quite-cola-not-quite-root-beer soft drink with a visit to Cow Tipping Creamery, where the soft-serve wizards have created a sundae called From Texas With Love, a signature "stacker" layered with vanilla soft-serve, honeyed pecans, Dr Pepper cherry sauce and a Frito saltine chocolate toffee bark. The addictive sauce is also available as a topping to any of your own ice cream creations.
2512 Rio Grande St.; 512-538-4039
From Texas With Love at Cow Tipping Creamery
No trip to Texas is complete without brisket. It's just a matter of how long you want to wait for it. BBQ aficionados will set their hearts on Franklin Barbecue and wait in line half a day for a tray full of the Texas trinity (brisket, ribs and sausage). Others will head to La Barbecue and wait in a significantly shorter line for thick slices of their tender, much-loved beef brisket (where they even offer rarely seen night hours Thursday–Sunday). Others will hit up popular (but not quite as insanely crowded) eastside trailers like Micklethwait Craft Meats or John Mueller Meat Co. Still others will opt for indoor seating at restaurants like Ruby's BBQ, Freedmen's or the very recently opened Cooper's BBQ on Congress Avenue. Wherever you decide to go, be sure to eat brisket — and eat it often — while you're in Texas. Because there's really nothing else quite like it.
Sure, great burgers can be found in other states too. But it would be silly to leave Austin without sinking your teeth into a thick, juicy burger from Hopdoddy Burger Bar. The locally born chain, which has since expanded to Dallas, Arizona, California and Colorado, begins with humanely raised cows (never given hormones or antibiotics), grinds their beef in-house and serves the patties on housemade buns alongside fries made from hand-cut Kennebec potatoes. There's a reason locals line up to come here and it's not for the craft beer, cocktails and creative milkshakes — though that certainly sweetens the deal.
Chicken-fried steak from Jack Allen's Kitchen
Though Austin is home to more Tex-Mex joints than interior Mexican spots, visitors should be sure to enjoy at least one real-deal Mexican restaurant while in town. And there's no better place to visit than the iconic Fonda San Miguel. The colorful 41-year-old establishment — filled with fresh flowers, Mexican tiles and stained glass — is known for its decadent Sunday brunch buffets, but their enchiladas are available for dinner too, of course. Choose from chicken, cheese, pork or vegetable fillings rolled into their freshly pressed corn tortillas, then topped with mole, salsa verde or enchiladas suizas (topped with a creamy tomatillo sauce).
2330 W. North Loop Blvd.; 512-459-4121
"Chicken-fried steak" may be a bit of a misleading name for newcomers to Texas. No, there's absolutely no chicken in it (fried chicken is called "chicken-fried chicken," of course!). It's simply a steak that's been pounded thin, battered and fried into crispy perfection, then topped with gravy. Head to Jack Allen's Kitchen for the unbelievable, homestyle brunch buffet and you might just be lucky enough to sample chicken-fried chicken, steak and pork all at once. Otherwise, find a whole "chicken-fried" section of the lunch and dinner menus (even chicken-fried ribs!) and order up one of the golden-battered New York strips, which comes topped with green chile gravy and nestled with smashed red potatoes and seasonal veggies.