I’ve always been partial to the off-the-beaten path finds. The hole-in-the-wall eateries and drinkeries that I just stumble upon and that don’t have all of the attention (but deserve it!). For the purpose of this post as part of the City Guide by the Austin Food Blogger Alliance in preparation for the influx of SXSWers, we shall call these: hidden gems. Maybe they’re just spots locals know and talk about, but we want Austinites looking to expand their horizons and visitors looking to experience the city like a local to know the inside scoop on some of the best finds. I could talk about this list forever, but I’ll try to keep it concise and easy to follow:
- Easy Tiger (East 6th, just West of I-35) – A bakery up top (street level), restaurant and bar downstairs hidden underground and a beer garten in the back yard, great for late night noshes, even early breakfast to get moving before a big day at SXSW or a place to unwind among all the madness. Who can go wrong with a freshly baked pretzel and a beer? Easy to miss (but shouldn’t be missed) if you try to avoid ‘Dirty 6th’ between Congress and I-35.
- La Condesa* (Bar/Happy Hour) – A restaurant I described after my first visit at ‘Mex-Mod’, but because their menu is so unique (flavor combinations like you’ve never seen before), diners end up wanting to try many dishes and split them, which can add up. So, try the bar area (to the right and up the small flight of stairs upon entering) for happy hour for fantastic specials, incredible ceviche and drink deals. If you can get your hands on the Crab and Green Apple Guacamole, do it!
- Lucky’s Puccias – Looking for a simple but filling meal before you head on your way to the next event? Although Whole Foods Market is a sight to see for newcomers and a house favorite (me=house), tucked away just behind it in the Southeast direction on 5th Street is this delicious food trailer serving up freshly-baked Italian sandwiches on the patio of Tiniest Bar in Texas. Inside the airy baked-on-the-spot bread come ingredients like artichoke spread, pesto, fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, mushrooms…shall we go on?
- Royal Blue Grocery – It describes itself as a ‘compact urban grocery’ and has three locations (247 West 3rd Street, 360 Nueces Street, 609 Congress Ave) downtown and will nourish you like none other in the simplest way. I ‘Rebeccammend’ the 360 Nueces location to get away from the crowds. Grab a pice of fruit to replenish your energy, a cup of coffee or a juice, or a made-to-order sandwich (even hot pressed!) or salad that will make you happy you thought to dine at a grab-n-go instead of a full-service tourist attraction. Although, you can eat at the picnic tables placed on the sidewalk if you want the full cafe experience. A side of people-watching with that sandwich?
- Sweetish Hill Bakery (Satellite location – truly hidden!) – The best tuna sandwich in Austin (in my humble opinion) hides inside the Baker Botts building located at 98 San Jacinto. In fact, you might even miss it if you worked in the building if you weren’t looking for the chalkboard with the daily lunch specials in the hallway leading to the secret shop. You can get this at the main location on W. 6th Street, but for SXSW goers, this location is MUCH closer, and well, hey, there’s something special about knowing about the hidden gem. *Note- only open on weekdays.
- TRiO – This restaurant sits downstairs at the Four Seasons Austin Hotel also on San Jacinto Boulevard with a beautiful view of the hotel grounds overlooking Town Lake. Dine here for happy hour if you want to catch some SXSW celebrities, quiet from the crowds, and some top-notch specials on appetizers/drinks. The Tuna Tartare is the best I’ve had – graced with a sweet soy glaze, served atop soft avocado.
- Violet Crown Cinema Lounge – This boutique indy film theatre on 2nd Street may be screening films for the SXSW film portion of the festival, but for Interactive and Music-goers, the lounge could be a quiet retreat from the buzzing streets. Need somewhere to meet a colleague or report back to your team all of the knowledge and experiences you soaked up? This could be just what you need. Hey, if you sneak in a movie on your stay, even better!
West Downtown (West of Lamar)
- Fabi & Rosi – If you arrive in Austin a few days before the festival (because flights were hard to come by), or leavea few days after, this could be the perfect restaurant to dine at just outside of the city center. Serving fresh dishes and local ingredients, Fabi & Rosi is housed in a little cottage a little bit South and just West of Downtown. I dined here for the first time during Austin Restaurant Week 2011 with a new friend I met on Twitter at SXSW last year!
- House Wine – I.love.this.wine.bar. It truly is located in a little house tucked away just West of Lamar and is easy to miss if you’re driving by! A good landmark to find this gem is P. Terry’s burger stand (turquoise) on the corner of Barton Springs and Lamar. It’s just adorable and just the right place to put your feet up and unwine-d in the afternoon or evening/on the weekends. Skip the main attractions on Barton Springs and show your crew you know where you’re going by turning onto little Josephine street leading to House Wine.
South Austin (South of the River/Cesar Chavez)
- Elizabeth Street Cafe – I JUST visited for the first time and boy is this the place to be. There was a wait. And people waited. If you can go early or grab a drink while you wait, it’s worth it for Vietnamese tastes like their perfect Spring rolls with three dipping sauces and more than generous bowls of soup (Pho). Their dessert menu looked incredible too. Located on South First Street, this mod cafe is clean, quality, and full of flavor.
- La Mexicana Bakery (open 24 hours!) – Located on South First Street near Wilson Street, La Mexicana is the place to get a traditional Mexican baked good like an apple empanada (guilty) or a traditional taco any time of day. 24 hour bakeries are just ingenious to me.
- Lulu B’s – I’m jumping up and down as I get to this bullet point! In fact, there’s not much necessary to say about it because it’s just that good. Period. A Vietnamese trailer on South Lamar, there’s always a 20 minute wait (at least, even if you call in your order), but it is just my favorite! Their BBQ or Lemongrass Chicken Sandwiches (Banh Mi) served on crispy baguettes with picked vegetables and what I call Chinese Chili are just the perfect sweet, spicy lunch! Top it with their red sriracha sauce and you have THE winner. Lunch of Champions. (Oh yes, their spring rolls are also fantastic.)
- Olivia – I don’t think my friend Jerrod will mind that I’m sharing this photo of him taking a hunk out of the burger (with an egg on top!) showcased in the photo gallery at the top of this post. Olivia is easy to drive by on South Lamar, but its farm-to-table philosophy makes their menu a treat worth treating yourself to. This is a nicer option if you’re looking for an Austiny restaurant to get a glimpse of the city’s culinary angle and have a real meal (versus on-the-go options abounding during the festival). Weekend brunch is a great way to experience this quality menu at a more manageable price.
- Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop – Just go. My favorite cupcakes in Austin, this little bakeshop on S. First Street knows how to make ’em. And, I’m not the biggest cupcake person, but if I go for one, this is where you’ll find me. That’s all.
East Side (East of I-35)
- Gourmands – Just a stones throw from the dive bars on E. 6th Street (East of I-35), Gourmands is so modest, but it shouldn’t be! With a URL of: lovethysandwich.com, their menu is truly sacred, along with their homemade cripsy potato chips, housemade picked vegetables, and serious sandwiches that call out your name to take a BIG bite. Located on E. Webberville just off of E. 7th Street.
- Hot Mama’s Cafe – This little Mediterranean Cafe’s mantra is power to the women of the world or, the hot mamas if you prefer. Their lemon garlic hummus and homemade toasty pita bread is just the perfect snack or lunch accompanied by fresh vegetables. Their cookies are pretty darn good too. Stop by for a cup of coffee, Mocha Coke and other bubbly bevs, and just a place to unwind inside or out on their enclosed patio. Located on E. 6th (East of I-36).
- Rio’s Brazilian Cafe – Cheese Breads. This is house Rio’s got started, selling their Brazilian cheese breads at the farmer’s market on weekends, and now they serve these soft savory round doughy treats out of their cafe on Pleasant Valley (East of I-35)! Their menu is delicious – everything I’ve ever eaten there is simply fantastic – fresh and flavorful. Great outdoor patio and the inside cafe looks like you’re dining in someone’s home. Owners Ben and Elias will make you feel at home the moment you step into the cafe.
- Uncorked Tasting Room & Wine Bar – This wine bar sits atop a hill on the East Border of I-35 at E. 7th Street. Other than a perfect place to grab a glass of wine and watch the crowds buzz by from their high-up outdoor patio, this is a great spot for late night dessert!
North Austin (North of 6th Street)
- Apothecary Wine Bar & Cafe – North of 45th Street on Burnet, this wine bar is a regular of mine. In fact, I think I’m there at least once a week, though living in the neighborhood makes it very convenient. Coffee, tea, European-style all-day menu with delicious bites like roasted red pepper hummus, olives, bruschetta, crepes, salads, and even mini pretzel bagels with lox and creme fraiche. Great place to wind up for the day at brunch or wine-d down in the evening. GREAT business meeting spot too!
- Food Heads – Favorite sandwich shop in Austin. Their fresh breads, build-your-own sandwiches or hard-to-choose-from menu will have you saying ‘you complete me’. Serving up winning lunches (and extended hours now into the evening), this little house just off of Guadalupe Street on 34th Street is simply on-point. (Look for a Rebeccammendations sticker on the front door window!)
- Foreign & Domestic – Hidden for sure, in a residential neighborhood off of 53rd Street, this gastronomic and gourmet spot is both urban and homey. Get ready for adventurous ingredients and a quirky experience but foodies in Austin continue to buzz about this complex find.
- Salvation Pizza – My favorite pizza in Austin. (No, I haven’t tried it all, but when I find what I like, I stick to it!) Just two doors down from FoodHeads (above), it’s simply fresh and flavorful. No rubbery cheese, no flavorless ingredients. The thin and crispy crust holds each bite of flavor and helps you savor your slice. Also served out of a red and yellow house, you’ll feel like you’re sharing big ol’ pizzas with your neighbors on their porch on a Sunday evening when you dine here.
What are some of your favorite hidden gems that I missed? I’m always looking for new ones!