SXSWXF (South by Southwest by Food): A Glutton’s Guide to Austin

Ed. note: This article was revised on Aug. 11, 2019, to reflect restaurant closures and location updates.

The motto of the average Austinite is “Keep Austin Weird,” but there’s nothing strange about Austin’s chow. Food in this town sits upon tried and true pillars of alcohol, beef and bold, grilled tastes; culinary oddities are nowhere to be found. Instead, cuisine is wholesome, robust, alarmingly consistent and consistently great. After all, when Texas mainstays like BBQ, hamburgers and Tex-Mex are done this well (and this cheaply), there’s no reason to heavily improvise. Here’s a sampling of some of the great eats that can be discovered in Austin.

Salt Lick BBQ (airport)
It’s not the original Salt Lick—that one is roughly 30 miles south of Austin proper—but the fast food-like booth still houses delicious barbecued goodness. The chopped brisket sandwich is packed with smoky beef chunks and smothered with a lightly peppery sauce that helped bring out the taste of the meat. The sliced brisket, while good in its own right, didn’t command the bold flavors of the chopped brisket. The bread is adequate at best; perhaps a platter of meat is a better idea. But whether sandwiched between buns or piled next to some sides, having some Salt Lick beef is an excellent way to celebrate a successful airplane ride.

Amy’s Ice Cream (airport and other locations)
Aside from the Salt Lick, another Austin staple can be found in the airport: Amy’s Ice Cream—which is actually only one booth over from the BBQ specialists. Amy’s specializes in a wide assortment of creative flavors, such as apple pie made with crust and apple schnapps or ice cream packed with coconut shreds. Don’t expect a brain freeze or a numb tongue; Amy’s doesn’t over-freeze their ice creams, which leaves taste buds unscathed enough to fully appreciate the delicate flavors. Also, make sure to watch the plucky counter worker flip your ball of ice cream into the air before neatly catching it in a cup or cone.

Casino el Camino (516 E 6th St.)
Although much has been said about this hamburger bar dive, one must visit Casino el Camino to fully appreciate the experience. The walls are covered in bizarre graffiti and art work, classic video game machines stand opposite to the bathrooms, old-school punk and garage rock blares from the speakers, and subtitled ‘70s and ‘80s horror films play on suspended TV’s. None of this kitsch can steal the show from the real star of Casino el Camino: the thick, juicy hamburgers stacked with a variety of ingredients. The king of the griddle is the humble buffalo burger, a simple burger patty sprinkled with blue cheese and smothered in buffalo sauce that can be ordered with mild, hot or explosive spiciness. Surprisingly, explosive packs a lot of flavor and although the heat kicks, it doesn’t build up, leaving your tongue safe to revel in beefy goodness. Bored of hamburgers? Chili-smothered foot-long hot dogs provide a worthy—if not-so-healthy—alternative. Sure, the service can crawl when the bar is packed, but the chow is well worth the wait.

Lamberts (401 W 2nd St.)
Lamberts is a well-known staple, partly due to its goal to evolve barbecue’s inherent roughness into upscale. The oak décor may be rustic, but the tablecloths, jazz band and prices (entrees run roughly $12-$18) aren’t. Thankfully, Lamberts’ food is inventive enough to match up to its upper crust airs. The restaurant’s oak smoked sliced beef brisket with a coffee and brown sugar rub had a pleasantly subtle flavor. A lion’s share bucket of waffle fries benefited from a dash of smoked paprika. However, the most surprising dish was the Mexican rice-stuffed quail. Topped with a quail egg, the diminutive bird was packed with flavor. Crack it open and the rice stuffing spills out, soaking up the red bell-peppered flavored ranchero sauce. Mix the meat up with a bit of egg yolk, some sauce, a bit of stuffing, and—what the heck—a bit of that excellent cheese enchilada on the side and voila, the most ingenious huevos rancheros hybrid is ready for the palate.

El Chilito (1623 E 7th St., 2219 Manor Rd., and 4501 Manchaca Rd.)
It doesn’t get much more southern hipster than this: a combination taqueria and coffee house. The café served decent breakfast tacos with a good balance between eggs, vegetables and starch (although one taco allegedly contains a nigh undetectable chorizo). Tacos can be ordered wrapped in either a flour tortilla or the superior soft corn tortilla, which adds a gritty, fragrant flavor. Those tortillas, and the excellent coffee, are the real heroes at El Chilito.

Iron Cactus (606 Trinity St.)
Occupying prime real estate on the corner of 6th Street and Trinity, the Iron Cactus is best known for its extensive tequila menu. Its food, however, can’t be underestimated. The double-decker restaurant offers a hefty number of Mexican-inspired seafood dishes which are worth chowing down on. Whitefish tacos are perfect for hot temperatures thanks to a refreshing papaya salsa garnish. The restaurant’s generous chicken fried steak also deserves a mention for its sheer size and tastiness of its salty batter. The sides, unfortunately, could use a bit more work. The veggies that came with both dishes—grated turnip salad and corn relish—were both watery weak. Mashed red-skinned potatoes are too densely packed with cheese to handle. But the biggest disappointment might be the deeply flavored Mexican rice which arrived undercooked and hard. Still, the main entrees are excellent and while the prices are high enough to match Lambert’s, the location is tough to beat.