Attend conference but also eat at interesting downtown Austin places whenever possible, while on FOOT. Plus cocktails.
Minimizing waiting for a table. Prioritize eating at the bar or food trucks due to long waits, packed schedules (sessions 9:30-6pm), and lots of events happening simultaneously. All while de-prioritizing the pizza, Italian, French, authentic Asian (mostly) that I can get at home in NYC.
I hadn’t been back to Austin since 2011 and it was interesting to see all the new condos and hotels that have been put up since then. I’d also done a lot of Austin trips and BBQ road trips previously so didn’t feel the need this time (Smitty’s, Black’s, etc.). Previous trip for SXSW 2011:
A lot of the restaurants had such good cocktails that visits to cocktail bars sometimes seemed unnecessary.
It is ALWAYS very difficult to eat in a timely fashion during SXSW Interactive, especially with more than one or two people. The focus for me was on lunch, esp. since lunch at the bar during SXSW was easier than dinner simply because the conference had a huge number of sessions during the day (9:30am-10:30, 11-12pm, 12:30pm-1:30, 2-3, 3:30-4:30, 5-6pm etc) with only 1/2 hour breaks. This meant many people were eating at odd times (or not eating sit down meals, or eating real meals at all). Some sessions also fill up well ahead of time so you need to get there early (sometimes they’d be full 30-60 min ahead). And dependent upon your interests you might be walking from your hotel to the Long Center to the Driskill to the Convention Center to the Hyatt Regency and then over to 6th Street in the course of one day. (Sorry, but the “where to eat during SXSW” lists that have you going 2 miles out of your way are so unrealistic given 30 min between sessions, traffic, all the road closures, etc).
Dinner was often crazy packed since the last SX Interactive session of the day always ended at 6pm. Plus, getting in and out and walking around the JW Marriott was terrible -- they put a bunch of panels in this hotel, but the hotel had just opened, and the sidewalks & driveways around the JW were clearly not designed to handle that many people. Second Kitchen and Bar looked jammed most of the time, too, so unfortunately never made it there (had been previously).
Some places were closed randomly due to buyouts with no warning or only signage on the door. Nothing on their web site or Twitter or Facebook page.
Midnight Cowboy was closed during the entirety of SXSW Interactive but they did post to Twitter a few days beforehand that they were completely bought out. Easy Tiger was mostly open; their patio was bought out for an entire day for a private party, IIRC, but they also posted to Twitter beforehand about it.
My new rule is now to CALL AHEAD during SXSW. You never know if something is going to be closed. Perhaps better to assume everything downtown is closed for some private party unless otherwise specified...
FOOD TRUCKS & SOUTHBITES
Micklethwait Craft Meats was operating at the official SXSW food trailer lot (SouthBites) and was always closed/sold out when I went by. The Veracruz location on E Cesar Chavez was moved/closed so that they could even do SouthBites, which was something that a lot of “where to eat at SX” roundups missed entirely. The lines at Chilantro were always stunningly long, despite having multiple locations (one at SouthBites, another at the Convention Center itself). I prefer Peached Tortilla.
Also any food truck during SXSW going to have a stripped down menu so that they can get food out as quickly as humanly possible. So it won't necessarily be comparable to your regular experience. I think Thai-Kun/East Side King at SouthBites had only like 2-3 tacos on the menu and a few sides... Most of the places at SouthBites had long lines, especially mid-day.
Qui - Did the tasting room with a friend. Bought tickets a few weeks beforehand; very limited availability during SXSW Interactive, ended up going on a Thursday before SXSW even started. Overall a fun, casual, delicious meal, with a good amount of food but not enough to stuff you silly, and excellent service. Started at the counter. Pre bottled Campari cocktails in a bucket of ice. A card with a tiny key was presented, the tiny key opened the lock to a large wooden box, with a bluetooth speaker inside playing hip hop and a lot of random kitchen ephemera. Kitchen prep to do lists. Cookbooks from Spain.
Your meal starts at the counter and then towards the end of the meal, you switch to booth seating in the area behind the counter (where the sliding doors are). Lots of great fresh seafood on offer, with some Japanese influences, and some luxe ingredients. Playful sensibilities and not very formal at all. Freshly sliced amberjack, seared in front of you. Spot prawn with the head still attached. Chawanmushi served in a ceramic egg. A single buttery cube of wagyu. Delicate raw scallops in a dashi. Caviar served in a tin with foie mousse underneath. A lighter hand with dessert, also in the Japanese sensibility. Petit fours included a green tea macaron, green tea chocolate, tiny jelly, etc. served in a cigar tin. It was a good meal, about 2.5 hours long, lots of fun.
La Condesa - Tried to grab a bar stool for dinner and they were all completely full at 6pm. Tons of people standing around waiting for a patio table. Eventually grabbed an inside lounge seat, made friends with the people next to me. The host was taking down names for tables, and it did seem like they were able to squeeze people in, despite the dining room and outside seating looking completely full. Had some wonderful crab tostadas, hamachi ceviche, and grilled sweetbreads. Great drinks and vibe. Potentially had one too many Alma Blanca cocktails, which were wonderful. Irresistibly spicy & fruity, and the corn in the drink takes it to another level. Extremely crowded and noisy in the bar area, but the food and drink were worth it.
Came back at a later, quieter time, with a colleague, and had the fantastic guacamoles & salsas tasting (I liked the chipotle and crab ones more than the traditional and or pomegranate but all were excellent) and some shrimp ceviche outside on the patio. A much more chill, quiet, late boozy lunch. Would definitely come back.
Lambert’s - Grabbed lunch here at the bar one day, having had good experiences in the past. Their patio had a private event, as did the second and third floors (so 3 separate private events) and the restaurant was hopping and completely booked up in the dining room. Ate some great upscale queso and wild boar ribs with blue cheese sauce at the bar. Most people around me were ordering a quick BBQ lunch, but I find that a lot of the other items on the menu at Lambert’s are excellent. Nice to see that this place is still around.
El Naranjo - The ONLY place on Rainey St without a horrific number of people standing on the sidewalk waiting to see Amy Poehler or ENGAGE WITH SOME BRANDS on a weekend night during SXSW. Some friends and I hung out at the bar, eventually ordering a bunch of cocktails and food. The dining room was completely booked up. Excellent cocktails. I had mole negro de oaxaca with seared duck breast. Dark, complex sauce, well executed. Very authentic tasting and flavorful cooking. A friend had the chorizo tasting. Another friend had the salbutes. Everything was great, especially every cocktail we tried. I especially enjoyed the Mezcaliña with mezcal, serrano peppers, basil, agave, lime juice, and pineapple. Would definitely come back, even if just for a drink or two.
Moonshine - Came here at 9:30am for their famous Sunday brunch and grabbed a seat at the bar. The restaurant seemed to fill up very quickly afterwards. Excellent, strong iced coffee with complimentary refills. Nice spread. Tried some cinnamon bun, fluffy biscuits, two kinds of fried chicken fingers, croissant sandwich, corned beef hash, deviled eggs, a spicy Texas sausage, migas, glazed ham, and more. Went back for cornflake fried chicken tenders, and this time did a DIY kind of chicken and waffles with waffles, butter, maple syrup. Seriously considered shoving some turkey basil pesto croissant sandwiches into my purse for later. It’s a good thing it’s only on Sundays or I’d be there every day of the week.
Bonneville - Had dinner at the bar with a friend after Parkside was closed unexpectedly. Seemed quiet and half empty, like most people don’t even know this restaurant is here unless you work for Spredfast (which I think half the people in the restaurant did). Mussels in a spicy coconut broth were excellent and enormous in size. Cod fritters were small but salty and hot, and hit the spot. Also enjoyed the coconut, lime, vanilla scallop crudo. Very fresh. The fig, onion, and bacon flatbread sounded great on paper, but there was way too much fig jam. I ended up scraping most of it off. Good cocktails as well here, and nice happy hour specials.
Parkside - Tried to come here for dinner one night but it was closed for a private event. They tried to redirect everybody to Backspace, but Backspace was packed already. Nothing on their Twitter or Facebook beforehand about the closure. Came back another night, grabbed a bar stool, and had dinner at the bar. Loved the Sage Blossom cocktail with tequila, lemon, pomegranate-sage shrub. Devoured some fresh oysters, bone marrow, and brussels sprouts with crispy chicken skin, chili, and mint. Great meal.
Swift’s Attic - Tried to go one day for lunch; closed for event, no sign, no warning outside. People kept wandering off the street and expecting to be served. Nothing on social media until dinner time or so. Went back for lunch on a different day and tried three smaller plates. Squid fries were OK - squid was very tender, but not enough contrast with the breading. It was also too many squid fries for one person. Liked the pop rock salt edamame tossed in chili pepper oil. Savory, and tasty; would be great drinking food for a small group. Puffy tacos were very small, two to an order, served open faced but delicious with tender pork. Overall not as impressive as the hype, I think.
Hightower - Also an unexpected oasis in the craziness of SXSW. Had a big group dinner here and they handled it very well. Tried most of the menu. In particular, they do well with vegetable dishes (much needed after a diet of tacos, BBQ, and queso). Loved the brussels sprouts with peanut butter and raisins, as well as the grilled cauliflower with curry and peanuts, and blistered green beans. Pimento cheese was such a big hit that we had to keep ordering more cheese and more bread for the table (it was really, really good). Same for the chicken liver pate with peanuts and grape, kind of an awesome PB&J thing going on with that dish. The airy & light gnocchi with housemate ricotta was the showstopper of the night, even better than I had anticipated after my friend hyped it up. Enjoyed the fried oysters as well as the fried chicken thighs, but was starting to hit the food wall. By the time the mani mani ceviche and pork belly adobo hit the table, I was stuffed, but both were good even though I only ate a little bit. And I needed room for their two awesome desserts. We tried both the s’more fried pie with charred marshmallow (so smoky) and the buttermilk pie with lemon curd (very well balanced), and were quite impressed. I thought I couldn’t eat any more but I really did have to finish that s’more fried pie. Honest!
Veracruz Tacos - Did their migas breakfast taco twice, and regular breakfast taco once. Really good, freshly made, generous amount of food. The two sauces (red, green) provided were excellent but definitely quite spicy. However, their SXSW menu was a limited selection of what they usually offer (and they opened at 11am at SouthBites). They priced a migas taco at $3.50 at the E 7th location but it was $5 at the Southbites location.
La Barbecue - Wonderful brisket, pork ribs, spicy jalapeno sausage. They were out of beef rib by the time I got up to the front. Got there at 11:30am on Friday, waited an hour to eat. Line seems to move slowly, but the live music helped. The other trailers had basically no wait whatsoever during this time.
Gordough’s - Good to see that this place is still around and has even expanded. We went to the original outdoor trailer location. Good to get away from the madness of downtown, to a place where you’d see teenagers, families, kids running around, etc. Relaxed and fun. And the key is to get the donut holes and share them (I find the entire full size ones to be too much food).
Peached Tortilla - Quick lunch of two banh mi sliders and sweet potato fries. Small menu of only tacos or sliders with your choice of protein, one kind of burger, and two kinds of fries, not much else. Much shorter line than Chilantro. Worth the wait, but I did notice a big markup in price (guessing from the Convention Center). Oh, well. It was very convenient, as they had their truck parked literally at the Convention Center.
Alta’s - I found this place to be an oasis of calm behind the Four Seasons, overlooking the lake. Great Iced Americanos. Taco Deli tacos for breakfast. I usually went for the Jess Special (migas plus avocado) or the Vaquero (egg, corn, poblano and red peppers, cheese). Local pastries. Nice patio.
Flattrack - I tried to go one morning, they were closed, likely due to some private event they were catering. Went back on another day, had a nice chat with the barista. Cool, tiny space, good cold brew.
Cenote - I only went once, to grab coffee after Flattrack was closed. Nice guys, cool space, lots of seating. I liked the homey vibe. Signage indicated were switching to some sort of “breakfast tacos and coffee only" service during SXSW Music (Weds-Sat).
Patika - Their downtown location was open on the weekend just for SXSW. It’s in the middle of a parking lot and the Samsung whatever giveaway truck thing was garnering more attention, but they made me a nice iced coffee.
Houndstooth - They had efficiently set up a stand outside their store as well as doing regular service inside. It didn’t seem that insane or crowded, but also their patio isn’t in a very sunny spot, so that may be why (in comparison to the long lines at Jo’s).
Jo’s - Their downtown location was always SWAMPED during SXSW with a line out the door. Especially in the afternoon. I did eventually stop in to grab an iced Americano after the bulk of the madness was over.