Austin is brimming with hundreds of colorfully eccentric, locally owned eateries serving up some of the country’s most mouthwatering morsels. From savory breakfast tacos and delicately dressed chopped salads to sophisticated steaks, divine desserts and the more adventurous flavors of the world’s ethnic cuisines, Austin’s restaurant scene has plenty of delicious offerings to sink your teeth into. Here, restaurant critic Sam Armstrong expounds on his favorite new, local, high-end, unexpected and funky restaurants in town. So grab a fork, dig on in and chow down!
Best Local: Maria’s Taco Xpress
In gay culture, Kathy Griffin is pretty ubiquitous. “Where’s my gays?” she asks each city on her tour, and, yep, they’re generally all there to respond. In taco culture, Maria Corbalan is pretty similar. The creator of Maria’s Taco Xpress, Corbalan started her business in a South Austin trailer that has become an institution full of adoring fans that keep coming back for more. Back to Kathy, though. Her most recent show at the Long Center actually found her musing about the tacos at Maria’s. They’re so good, she said, that she felt like they must be putting heroin in the chicken. And even though heroin is so passé, it’s true – the tacos are tasty enough to make a person believe that someone might someday find himself in need of an intervention. Migas tacos and fajita tacos are great on the run, or enjoy a full bar and (wink wink) a great big meat plate during Gospel Brunch/Hippie Church, Sundays from noon until 2 p.m. 2529 S. Lamar Blvd., 444-0261, www.tacoxpress.com
Best High-End: Starlite
Much like the vexing young lady in the reproduction of Vermeer’s painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” that hangs above the bar, Starlite restaurant is devilishly beautiful and just as intriguing. Unlike some of the big boys of finer dining in Austin, though, the unapologetically swank Starlite doesn’t bother being pretentious; with exciting food, a remarkable wine list and gorgeously striking interiors, it doesn’t have to. The innovative dishes at Starlite boast tons of dimension. The tamarind and palm sugar glazed Atlantic salmon followed by Tupelo honey crème brûlée are clearly sexy dinner choices, but all brunch fans should make a note to stop in on Sundays after 11 a.m. to enjoy the Bangkok Breakfast – Thai crabcakes flirting with spicy sriracha butter, jasmine rice, poached egg and a light Asian herb salad. Wash it down with some cava or prosecco – Monday’s still light years away.
407 Colorado St., 374-9012, www.starliteaustin.net
Best Unexpected: Lamar Street Greens at Whole Foods Market
Face it. Whole Food Market may be a vegetarian paradise, but it’s also a total meat market. Everyone knows it’s a food fun land, too, complete with chef stations, chocolate fountains and just-cut barbecue. What everyone might not know, though, is just how genius the Lamar Street Greens bar is. For those who aren’t in a hurry (or in the mood to toss their own salad), this little area by the produce section is the perfect choice. Customers can take a seat at the bar and watch their salad (try the vegetarian taco salad) being made fresh to order. This is where it gets really good – not only can customers watch their salad as it’s created, they can choose from the Whole Foods Market sommelier’s wine selections, sit and enjoy eating their salad and watching the world go buy. And no one’s complaining if, as in this case, that world includes a herd of health-conscious hotties hand-picking delicious fruits and vegetables.
525 N. Lamar Blvd., 476-1206, www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/lamar
Best Funky: Koriente
Koriente is an unexpectedly awe-inspiring food find. Few words convey how cute and kitschy the interiors are, so “cute” and “kitschy” will have to do. This verging-on-cluttered restaurant just west of I-35 is a veritable feast for the eyes of anyone with a short attention span. But the busy décor isn’t by any means the most noticeable characteristic of Koriente. The family-owned business has got to be one of the friendliest eateries in Austin, and delicious dishes ranging from traditional bulgogi and japchei (clear sweet potato noodles) to a scoop of green tea ice cream on crushed pistachios with a drizzle of honey set it apart from some of its less passion- ate peers. A word of warning, boys – behave. Anyone guilty of acting batty from a green tea ice cream sugar high will find himself precariously close to the police station and municipal court.
621 E. Seventh St., 275-0852, www.koriente.com
Best Newbie: Sagra Enoteca Trattoria
For years, Austinites have chosen to spend an arm and a leg for amazing Italian food (you know where!) or spend less and, well, get what they paid for. Sagra Enoteca Trattoria opens those options up a bit, daring to offer something more lovingly prepared than the big box guys and at a more comfortable price than the top cani. Go for bubbly drinks and specialty pizzas with delicate handmade dough and house-made mozzarella, but revel in the fact that this well-groomed little white tablecloth bistro in the former home of MARS swims around in the best of both worlds, providing an environment that’s both chic and comfy. The first-rate service and subtle music are the perfect accessories to what’s proven to be a great new first-date choice.
1610 San Antonio St., 535-5988, www.sagrarestaurant.net