SXSW. Winning.

Pollo en Mole Poblano from Fonda San Miguel in Austin. (Rick Bayless photo)

It’s almost time for the confab that keeps on growing. I’ve heard some locals longing for the more “open source” SXSW of yesteryear, when not every inch of grass near the Austin Convention Center was sponsored, and you could actually get into normally-lame places like Buffalo Billiards without being on a list. But as my mom always tells me, “it is what it is, you gotta face it.” And I kinda like the town being taken over for a few weeks. So many great reunions are had as smart people from all over the world descend on the 512. And sponsored everything means SO MANY FREE SNACKS!

But if you’re looking for some non-free recommendations, I did a lot of going out while I was in Austin, so listed a few of my suggestions. I tried to leave out the usual suspects like Cisco’s, Uchi or The Salt Lick, which are probably on every SXSW list out there.

Delicious Tex Mex For Less Than $7:
El Azteca, 2600 East 7th Street: Your reliable Tex Mex fare in an atmosphere that includes art of half naked Aztecs and a VELVET JOHN F KENNEDY! All the lunch specials here come with iced tea and sherbert included, which I love. I usually go with the combo that includes a cheese enchilada and beef taco.

Dario’s, 1800 East 6th Street: This family owned joint can turn around your order in about 90 seconds. The food’s always served on super hot plates (as it should be) and here, the homemade flour tortillas are the bomb. Like many of the East Austin Mexican places, it’s not open on Monday’s.

Maudie’s, several Austin locations: I’ve been sad ever since Maudie’s got rid of its blackberry mojito, but their ‘ritas still pack a wallop and the food is what I first rushed to eat when returning to Austin after my first few weeks in DC. I could drink their queso just as fast as their margaritas.

Breakfast Tacos, The Austin Specialty:
Torchy’s Tacos 2801 Guadalupe St, Austin (and other locations): Austin loves it’s breakfast tacos, but Torchy’s does tacos around-the-clock. If you like spicy stuff, the Brushfire’s the way to go. I like the vegetarian Fried Avocado Taco if I’m not eating a typical Torchy’s breakfast selection, like the Monk’s Special. Torchy’s also makes what might be my favorite queso in town, which includes a magic middle of guacamole in the middle.

Mi Madre’s: The favorite for many of Austin’s foodies, if you have time to get out of the Convention Center area to grab one, two  or 10 of these, it’s worth it.

Nicer Restaurants Worth Trying:
Braise 2121 East 6th St.: This cozy restaurant on the far East side boasts some delicious Osso Bucco beef, but I prefer their takes on pork. The grits and other traditional comfort foody selections are also delicious. You can bring your own wine and pay a small corking fee, which saves a ton of cash. Do what we did and order everything on the menu and eat it family style so you can try everything. Why not?

Justine’s Brasserie, 4710 East 5th Street: You’ll notice I’ve chosen a lot of places on the once-downtrodden-but-quickly-gentrifying-East-side of town. Justine’s is WAY East, but the frites are worth it! I love their cocktails and the French food is fantastic (but a little overpriced for what you’re getting.) Justine’s gets a pick for plentiful parking, attentive service and fun atmosphere. Nothin’ like hanging one of their  L’enfant Terrible cocktails on the front patio after a long day at work.

Fonda San Miguel, 2330 North Loop Boulevard West: They say they invented chicken tortilla soup at this interior Mexican restaurant in North Central Austin. I don’t know the truth, but I believe it, as their tortilla soup is tasty stuff. So are their margaritas, and anything else on the menu. (See photo above.) This place is going to be a bit of a drive from downtown, but as one of Texas Monthly’s top five Mexican restaurants in all of Texas, you might as well make the trek.

Get Your Drink On (as if you need more places to drink):
LongBranch Inn, 1133 East 11th Street: This is as simple as a bar can get, located right next to a rickety liquor store on East 11th Street. No food, no snacks, just lots of booze and a good jukebox. Speaking of good jukeboxes…

Donn’s Depot, 1600 West 5th Street: Many, many great Austin nights were had here, where the pour is heavy and your worries will become light. If you forgo choosing some George Strait selections on the jukebox there are two house bands, Donn and the Station Masters, and Murphy’s Outlaws, that croon old country hits on Thursday and Friday nights. Also, check out the bathrooms, repurposed out of old train cabooses.

The Roaring Fork, 701 Congress Avenue: This was our go-to place after work at both The Texas Tribune and among my closest pals in the Capitol Press Corps, mainly because it’s the closest place to our offices. But if you don’t mind running into lobbyists you can get great happy hour deals like $5 martinis and and take advantage of an extensive bar menu of munchies. (I recommend the fish tacos, the half-ass burger, or the chips and queso.) During SXSW you may have thread your way through the lines of film festers waiting to get into a showing at the nearby Paramount Theatre, so don’t miss the front door.

Fave Austiny Places:
P Terry’s Burger Stand, 404 South Lamar Boulevard: These are my favorite burgers in Austin, and director Robert Rodriguez’s too. Order through a window for locally grass-fed beef burgers or opt for a tasty veggie burger with cheese. I also can never wait to get home to consume their fries, which are always served in generous portions.

Alamo Drafthouse (Movie Theater/Food/Entertainment): It may be hard to get in to see a regular feature during SXSW, as the theaters participate in the SXSW Film Festival. But whether it’s mainstream movie or a film fest flick, try to go for the Alamo experience. Like I already wrote about previously, this place is way more than a movie theater.

Little City Espresso Bar and Cafe, 916 Congress Avenue: Quick, visit Little City before it has to close down (the building’s been purchased by a conservative think tank at the same intersection). Little City is staffed by people who always seem at least mildly stoned, and the food orders can take forever, but the place also has a clientele that ranges from state lawmakers to shirtless homeless guys that live in the alley nearby. Very Austin. Worth it.

Nau’s Enfield Drug, 1115 West Lynn Street: One of the rare drug stores that still has a soda fountain, this neighborhoody pharmacy/lunch counter has been around since the days of Betty Draper and if I remember correctly, the counter still doesn’t take credit cards. Bring your cash and order a simple cheeseburger and a shake or malt before picking up your Pepcid on the pharmacy side.

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