Feature

The 14 Best Austin Restaurants for Avoiding SXSW Crowds

By Veronica Meewes  |  March 7, 2016
Credit: Treehouse Kitchen

Another year, another South by Southwest. The annual music, film and interactive festival brings an estimated half a million visitors to Austin for two weeks of citywide panels, parties, film screenings and performances. Austinites have been known to have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the epic media takeover, which causes record traffic jams and shuts down local businesses that rent out their space for private parties and events. Life, as we know it, changes during SXSW; however, it does not stop. Nor do, for instance, cravings for awesome Japanese food. Hence, our SXSW survival guide: 14 great alternatives to the spots that are sure to see a ton of tourist traffic. All of the restaurants on the list below offer fantastic food and drinks without the massive lines or wait times, and while some are located conveniently close to the SXSW action, others are a peaceful distance from the madness. 

Inventive Japanese
Target destination: 
UchiUchiko
​Delicious alternative: Soto

Uchi and Uchiko are at the top of every Austin visitor's list — as they should be. But good luck booking a reservation during SXSW. If extraordinary sushi and creative Japanese dishes are what you seek, make the trip out to Soto, just northwest of Austin in Cedar Park. Enjoy dishes like hamachi toro tartare with osetra caviar (served on an ice block) and toro sashimi on a bed of shaved truffles with a creamy mushroom risotto made from sushi rice, of course. Between the fantastic food and the sleek, black interior, you won't even remember you're in the 'burbs.

11066 Pecan Park Blvd. #402, Cedar Park; 512-257-0788

Tacos
Target destination: Veracruz All Natural Tacos

Delicious alternative: Tacos Guerrero

The little eastside taco truck known as Veracruz All Natural has grown quite a fan base, and for good reason. On any given weekend, locals flock to the trailers on Cesar Chavez and Manchaca for melty tacos, tortas and quesadillas, plus fresh-pressed juices and aguas frescas. The wait during SXSW is sure to be longer than ever, so opt instead for Tacos Guerrero. The little family-owned orange trailer, located just a bit farther east on Cesar Chavez and Pleasant Valley, makes delicious carne guisada and carnitas, plus breakfast tacos with eggs, potato and chorizo. Bonus: although many taco stands close by 2 PM, this one is open every day until 10 PM.

96 Pleasant Valley Rd.; 512-939-2308


Breakfast tacos at Tacos Guerrero (photo by Veronica Meewes)

Creative Thai
Target destination: Thai-Kun
Delicious alternative: Thai Fresh

Paul Qui's East Side King trailers are always a popular pick for locals and visitors alike, and the Thai-Kun trailer located behind Whisler's has been known to attract a hefty line for delicious (and spicy) Thai street food. Though a brick-and-mortar location recently opened in the Domain, that one will likely be packed too. (Let's face it: it's surrounded by hotels.) Opt instead for a visit to Thai Fresh, a spacious restaurant and coffee shop located in the very central Bouldin Creek neighborhood. Nosh on sesame-coconut shrimp fritters with tamarind sauce, spicy basil fried rice, beef satay sandwiches, coconut-based ice cream and plenty of gluten-free baked goods.

909 W. Mary St.; 512-494-6436

Juice and salads
Target destination: Juiceland
Delicious alternative: Vinaigrette

Even with locations all over the city, the most central locations of Juiceland will surely attract festival goers like moths to a flame. After all, there's no better way to counter SXSW's flowing supply of booze than with delicious, nutritious juices, smoothies, quinoa and kale. Instead, seek out Vinaigrette, a brand-new salad spot just off South Congress. In addition to fresh-pressed juices, Vinaigrette offers a hangover-relieving ginger-turmeric tonic and a full menu of salads, sandwiches and soups. The idyllic patio is also the perfect place to seek solace from the chaos of downtown, ideally while sipping a Raspbeeta margarita or That Green Drink, made with fresh celery, kale, jalapeño, lime, ginger, tequila and pink Himalayan sea salt.

2201 College Ave.; 512-852-8791


Juice tonics at Vinaigrette (photo by Veronica Meewes)

Vietnamese
Target destination: Elizabeth Street Cafe
Delicious alternative: Saigon Le Vendeur

Elizabeth Street Cafe offers everyday French-Vietnamese-inspired breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a variety of housemade pastries and Vietnamese coffee. For a SXSW alternative, head east for banh mi at Saigon Le Vendeur. Though the hours aren't quite as extensive (they open at 11 AM and close at 7 PM most days, and they're closed on Sunday), the exquisite banh mi won't disappoint, and neither will the super-strong, super-sweet Vietnamese coffee. Had your heart set on breakfast banh mi? Put an egg on it!

2404 E. Seventh St.; 512-351-6916

Neapolitan pizza
Target destination: Bufalina
Delicious alternative: Quattro Gatti

​Bufalina's Neapolitan-style pies are so good, it would behoove visitors from pizza meccas like NYC to dine there. Not during SXSW, though, when both the tiny eastside bistro and the slightly larger Burnet Road location will be packed. Instead, head to Quattro Gatti, a pizzeria that's managed to maintain a surprisingly low profile, despite its unbelievably central location just a few blocks from the Capitol. Owner Gianfranco Mastrangelo grew up in the restaurant business in New York, where his family still owns a trattoria, and studied with master pizzamakers from Rome, Sicily and Naples before opening his own place. In addition to thin-crust pies made with naturally leavened dough, Quattro Gatti also offers a focaccia that's not to be missed.

908 Congress Ave.; 512-476-3131


​Gianfranco Mastrangelo of Quattro Gatti (photo by Veronica Meewes)

Burgers
Target destination: Hopdoddy, Casino El Camino
Delicious alternative: Jo's Coffee

On any given night, a famed 3/4-pound Casino El Camino burger can take as long as 40 minutes to prepare, so there's no telling what kind of patience you'd need to wrap your hands around one of those juicy bad boys during SXSW. The same goes for Hopdoddy, where winding lines are so typical that the South Congress location has shades along the side of the building and bar tables set up to make it easier to drink while waiting. Avoid all of that by heading to Jo's Coffee, located in the Warehouse District, a convenient walk between the epicenter of SXSW (Sixth Street) and the lively South Congress Avenue. Don't let the name deceive you; in addition to coffee, Jo's offers a full menu. The Angus beef burgers are no joke; choose from toppings like such as chili, sautéed mushrooms and onions, bacon and avocado, or a fried egg or avocado. Just don't try to order one at the South Congress location of Jo's, as they offer a far more limited menu.

242 W. Second St.; 512-469-9003

Texas BBQ
Target destination: Any Downtown BBQ trailers
Delicious alternative: Freedmen'sRuby's BBQ

Let's face it: all the barbecue restaurants or trailers near Austin's downtown will be slammed during SXSW. When visitors come a-calling to Texas, they want Texas-style barbecue and will stand in any line, no matter how long, to get it. If you don't want to spend a good chunk of your day waiting for lunch, venture away from the most highly trafficked areas. While Freedmen's, set in a historic building, is a fantastic option for great barbecue, it will be hosting an open-to-the-public live music showcase on March 18 and 19, so expect crowds. Ruby's BBQ is an Austin icon that's been around since 1988. Not only is the barbecue consistently terrific, but the structure itself is positively Austin. The wood-paneled dining room is mounted with longhorns and photos of musicians (many still loyal regulars), while the patio is clad with show posters of the past.

2402 San Gabriel St.; 512- 220-0953
512 W. 29th St.; 512-477-1651


A brisket and sausage plate at Ruby's BBQ (photo by Veronica Meewes)

24-hour sustenance
Target destination: 24 Diner
Delicious alternative: La Mexicana Bakery

Because one of the city's few 24-hour restaurants is located right at Sixth Street and Lamar Boulevard, it's safe to say it will be hopping around the clock during SXSW. Citywide locations of Magnolia Cafe and Kirby Lane Cafe (also open 24 hours) are bound to be just as packed. Instead, check out La Mexicana Bakery, a lesser-known favorite located just south of downtown on South First Street. While you might not find omelets and burgers, La Mexicana's tacos, gorditas, huaraches, enchiladas, tortas and Mexican pastries will surely tide you over until sunrise. 

1924 S. First St.; 512-443-6369

Farm-to-table fine dining
Target destination: Emmer & Rye
Delicious alternative: Apis

This fall, Emmer & Rye opened in Downtown Austin, pledging to use as much local produce and protein as possible in each dish, even milling regionally sourced grains into flour. The restaurant is a great way for visitors to get a true taste of central Texas; however, its proximity to Rainey Street, and the fact that it will be closed for private parties on some nights over the next two weeks, means you shouldn't count on eating here during the festival. Opt instead to take a pleasant drive into the Hill Country for a peaceful, quiet dinner at Apis. This Spicewood restaurant also mills flour in-house and uses local ingredients, including honey sourced from an on-site apiary. Be sure to call ahead for a reservation.

23526 TX-71, Spicewood; 512-436-8918


Grapefruit panna cotta (photo courtesy of Apis)

Modern Italian
Target destination: Juliet
Delicious alternative: Olive & June

Stopping for a quick bite of antipasti or indulging in a relaxing pasta dinner is a lot harder than it sounds during SXSW. If you were looking forward to Juliet's modern Italian menu, head north to Olive & June, another solid date-night choice that's tucked under a large oak tree in the Bryker Woods neighborhood. Much like Juliet, Olive & June features happy-hour deals, shared small plates (cheese, salumi, antipasti) and, best of all, entrees that won't leave you with the need to recline immediately after dinner.

3411 Glenview Ave.; 512-467-9898

American
Target destination: Shady Grove
Delicious alternative: Treehouse Kitchen and the Knotty Deck & Bar

If American fare is your jam, skip the crowd at Shady Grove and opt instead for a getaway just north of downtown. Treehouse Kitchen and the Knotty Deck & Bar (lead photo), located on the Renaissance Hotel rooftop, offers Hill Country views, a suspended fire pit and a relaxing patio area surrounded by oak trees. Executive chef Chris DeGweck and his team cure bacon, craft charcuterie and pickle vegetables from the on-site garden, and put out a steady stream of straightforward dishes like crispy habanero-and-ginger chicken wings and a rib-eye with sweet onion potato gratin, charred greens and brown butter sauce. 

9721 Arboretum Blvd.; 512-343-2626

​Texas-size brunch
Target destination: Moonshine
Delicious alternative: Jack Allen's Kitchen

Want to end your weekend with a brunch for the books? Moonshine's brunch buffet is probably one of the most decadent options in Downtown Austin, filled with all the right Southern staples. But you can bet the intimate dining space in a historic home will be a madhouse throughout SXSW. Not only is Jack Allen's Kitchen much more spacious, it's got three locations (in Oak Hill, Round Rock or Westlake), and offers a Sunday brunch buffet that's truly one of the best in town. Think chicken-fried steak, green-chile pork and eggs, tomato pie, biscuits and gravy and farmer's market produce. There's no better way to celebrate having made it through yet another SXSW unscathed.

Multiple locations


Jack Allen's Kitchen crunchy catfish and slaw (photo by Jody Horton)