In the mid-20th century, Austin’s north-south highway, Interstate 35, drew a cultural boundary between the city's east and west. While that border hasn’t completely disappeared, the east side is becoming increasingly gentrified. Bearded hipsters now outnumber the region’s original residents. In the restaurant realm, the area is an eclectic mix of old and new, with rustic barbecue joints next to gourmet vegan eateries.
Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Austin, Franklin Barbecue serves simply spiced brisket that people are willing to wait in long lines for. The meat is cooked for about 15 hours and has a crust and juiciness unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. The pulled pork is also consistently excellent, and some people even rave about the turkey. The interior is small, so most people bring lawn chairs and coolers, enjoy a beverage or three, and get an order to go.
Places that appeal to the hipster crowd often come and go quickly, but Justine’s has been going strong for several years now. While Justine’s is as much of a scene as a restaurant, the little French eatery has earned a loyal following primarily because of the expertly prepared food. The loyalty of Justine’s clientele is even more amazing given the restaurant’s location — in far east Austin. The scallops and mussels are the standout entrees. Try the chocolate pear tart for dessert. Opt for outdoor seating if the weather is reasonable. The interior dining room often gets raucous.
A somewhat pricey yet casual neighborhood eatery, Salty Sow makes food that doesn’t fit neatly into any category. If you’re not counting calories, get the meal started with triple-fried duck fat fries, perfectly topped with poached eggs. For a slightly healthier option, the crispy Brussels sprouts leaves are an unusual delight, served with golden raisins and Pecorino. They do a lot of amazing things with fat here, as evidenced by the stellar candied pork belly with collard greens and the bacon and gruyere roasted bone marrow. Finish off the meal with Mexican vanilla bean crème brulee.
The Hightower serves small, expertly crafted plates of “New Texan” fare, such as hush puppies with smoked honey butter and a beef tartare tostada with chile-lime powder, tomatillo cream and an egg yolk. The flavors are drawn from Mexico and Eastern Europe, reflecting the cultures of many early Texans. Desserts are equally creative. Don’t miss the refreshing ice cream trio, with Mexican mint marigold, dreamsicle and blackberry lime flavors. For an after-dinner drink, consider the Hispania, with Spanish liqueur, bourbon, pecans and cream.
Contigo is an ideal choice during cooler weather since most of the seating is outdoors. It’s like a backyard party with an excellent cook. If you’ve had a tough day, start with a Frozen Painkiller, made with a mix of rum, coconut, pineapple, orange and nutmeg. While it may not sound appetizing, the Ox Tongue Slider is the best-selling appetizer, and the crispy green beans come in at a close second. For entrees, the chicken meatballs are a cultural mash-up, served with baba ganoush, harissa (a North African pepper paste) and parsley salad. Leave room for buttermilk pie with figs and whipped cream.
Revelry's relaxing vibe will wash over you as soon as you walk in and see the open, airy space decorated with rustic woodwork. For a creative starter, opt for the fried portobello made with buttermilk batter and a dusting of parmesan. Most everything here has at least a hint of spice, such as the crispy redfish tacos, with Cajun seasoning, avocado salsa and pico de gallo. Don’t miss the sweet potato tots side dish. Revelry’s signature drink is the Eastcider Paloma, with Silver tequila, agave and ruby red grapefruit juice.
While Mexican restaurants are everywhere in Austin, Suerte has carved out its own niche by focusing on traditional dishes and new creations most Americans aren’t familiar with. For example, the Squash Tamal includes quinoa, egg yolk puree and chile vinegar. The Suadero Tacos are a spicy invention made with confit brisket and avocado salsa cruda. Meat lovers can’t get enough of the Goat Shoulder Barbacoa, made with a mint epazote rub and served with charred tomato salsa and queso fresco. For dessert, opt for the mango cake topped mango frozen yogurt, chile lime and honeycomb.
While Lazarus Brewing is primarily a brewpub, the tacos are so good that even non-beer-drinkers come here regularly. The carnitas and carne asada tacos are particularly amazing. The beer menu is ever-changing, but there’s always something for every taste, including ales, IPAs and French Saisons. There’s even a house-made root beer on the menu sometimes. Plus, there’s plenty of free parking and a dog-friendly patio, so what are you waiting for?
All the tables are shared, so this may not be the best place for an intimate date. However, the communal seating adds to the fun vibe. It’s hard to go wrong with the Tonkotsu Original bowl, with pork bone broth, mushrooms, scallions and ajitama (seasoned boiled egg). All of the dishes can be made spicier with the addition of various “bombs,” such as Thai chile and habanero paste. You may need to cool down your mouth with Yuzupioca, a citrus tapioca with strawberry and basil.