I am about halfway through a four-month stay in Austin, back in New York for a ten-day break. Excellent cheap eats town in general, I think. With the perspective of temporary distance, some observations, by category (locations may be approximate). Most are based on only one visit, and many were by myself (family's staying at home, alas), so take with those qualifications.
So much of Austin cheap food has the Tex-Mex flavor, which isn't a bad thing, because they tend to do it well. The tortillas, rice, and beans all seem lighter than the with the Tex-Mex you get up North; and the stuff can sometimes be revelatory. Only complaint would be that it gets a little monotonous. I am not eating any tortillas doing my Upper West Side sojourn, and I doubt I will touch them for months after my return in May.
Magnolia Café (W. 6th): Cozy and good, mediocre contemporary art high on the walls, a ramshackle sort of diner. I've had BBQ chicken enchiladas, and the vegetarian Magnolia enchilada, both good. Excellent buttermilk pie. Pleasant, relaxed service.
El Azteca: Closer to real Mexican, in the East 7th Street corridor. First time I've ever had barbacoa, an exceptionally tasty (pure meat flavor) though unattractive combination of minced cheeks and tongue. Never heard of this in New York.
Mexicana Bakery (South 1st): This place is a must. Big bakery with an open kitchen, huge range of baked goods, most of which look pretty bad. But: the tacos here were great (I had barbacoa, pork skin, and bean and cheese). Also, some long, sugar-dipped donut type pastry was pretty good. This place was something of a scene at Sunday lunchtime, with the big families in their church clothes, the soccer game on the big screen.
Taqueria Arandas No. 5 (South 1st): Further down from Mexicana bakery, also great. I had an early lunch there another Sunday, before it filled up. Excellent barbacoa and egg-potato tacos, along with a fine bowl of menudo (tripe) soup with hominy. Six bucks (you can eat unbelievably cheap here - three breakfast tacos for $1.80). I noticed a Arandas No. 3 on 7th St. on the way to the airport, which looked more like a shack.
Mi Madre (Manor Road - pronounced Manner - one of many screwy pronunciations here): In the cozy, family run category. Voted best breakfast taco in the Chronicle. I had a good meat chile relleno for lunch there one day. Not open for dinner.
Trudi's (30th off of Guadalupe): very popular lunch spot. First time I tried migas, which were (I think) Velveeta drenched, but appealing nonetheless.
Mother's Café (Duval and 40th): One place I didn't expect to be enchilada-oriented, but it too is basically Tex-Mex. Not good (an opinion later confirmed by colleagues). Slow service, cold food, which wouldn't have been very good if hot. Nice harp-player in the garden, though.
Maudie's (Lake Austin & Exposition): This place seems to serve the kind of Tex-Mex one gets back home - nothing special - but judging by the line at 6:30 or so, the locals seem to like it.
El Arroyo (W. 5th St): good BBQ chicken tacos, slightly student-funky indoor-outdoor atmosphere.
Guerro's (S. Congress): Okay breakfast tacos one morning. Big place, sort of a bar feeling, even in the morning. Pretty gringo. Much better, more authentic offerings on South 1st.
Freebird (in the Hancock shopping mall): A colleague recommended this place, otherwise I wouldn't have thought of going. A sort of mod name-your-ingredients burrito bar. Problem: cold fixins unappealing next to warm meat (see also Huts Hamburgers below).
Tamale House, 29th & Guadalupe: greasy, undistinguished taco and tamale, but cheap.
on the way to San Antonio: In the parking lot of Fuschak's Barbeque, of the highway in San Marcos (see below) stands a trailer that serves gorditas before the noon hour, under the name of Janie's. I'd never had a gordita before, but the potato one I had here was terrific.
What can you say - it has to be the best, and is certainly something you can't get in New York. In order of preference:
Cooper's (Llano): Great ribs, and I tried the goat here. Most authentic, least prettied-up feel of those that I've sampled (maybe because a comfortable distance from Austin) - big pits running outside, where you get your meat, put straight on a plastic cafeteria tray (I mean straight on it - no paper or plate or anything). Take it inside for weighing and paying, at which point you are given some butcher paper. Big loaves of Mrs. Baird's bread on the long family-style tables, free pinto beans. Really terrific meat, though I'm not sure I would take the goat in place of some of the other offerings (thick pork chops and sirloin) next time around - and I hope there will be a next time.
Luling Central Market (from a previous trip three years ago): I happened upon this place before I became a serious chowhound and it was a great food moment for me. I hope it's unchanged.
Louis Mueller's (Taylor): Excellent, juicy brisket and a buttery sausage. Good side of beans. Half-hour wait on Saturday at about 12:15, but worth it.
Sam's: On the East (African-American) side of town, basically in a big old shack. Really good, perhaps slightly greasy. Tried mutton (ribs) here for the first time; interesting, though I can see why it isn't a staple in the American diet - very gamey tasting.
Kreuz Market: The building is new and barn-like, which can't help but affect the taste a little. I thought the brisket here was good but a dry.
Ruby's BBQ (29th & Guadalupe): good in-town barbeque. Anybody know if they smoke it on premises? Citified in a good kind of way, with more sophisticated sides and NY Times for reading. I've had the Elgin sausage and a brisket sandwich, both excellent.
County Line: Good, but not serious, barbeque. Really a place for the kids (which most BBQ places really aren't). Undistinguished brisket. One thing, though, that I'd never had before, and which I certainly gnawed at: beef ribs. Yes, they do make you feel like Fred Flintstone.
Fuschaks: Just off I-35 in San Marcos. Austin Chronicle likes it, but I can't see why.
Other (in no particular order)
Hoover's (Manor Rd): My only chicken-fried steak on this trip. Well-fried, but what's that cut they make it with? Gloopy gravy on top. Perhaps an invention we could have done without. (On a previous trip I had what I remember was a better version at the Threadgill's south of the river).
Central Market: Overrated for shopping, overrated for eating. Though the patio's a nice place to have a sandwich lunch, the dinners have been pretty bad. An oversalted beef stew one night; a totally undistinguished "wood oven" pizza another (frozen dough?).
G&M Steakhouse (across from Whole Foods on Lamar): A little counter, open only for breakfast and lunch. I had some perfectly ok but expensive (in Austin terms - more than four bucks) fried eggs. The only reason to go here is if you want a T-bone before work, which I saw a couple of guys do.
Cippoline (West Lynn): Decent Italian prepared food eatery in Clarksville (better pizza, certainly, than CM). Next to my favorite place to food shop - the Fresh Plus, which is New York in scale (small, that is).
Hut's Hamburgers: Great atmosphere, but, let's face it, a lousy hamburger, even with the Wednesday 2-for-1 special. I had one with avocado and other very cold toppings.
Dirty Martin's (Guadalupe just north of campus): The original greasy spoon. After a barbeque outing to the sticks one Saturday, had a hankering for a milk shake on the way back home - got a large black-and-white here (though they didn't know the label), and it was great.
Hyde Park Bar & Grill (Duval): Great batter dipped, peppery fries, for which it is justifiably known; but the hamburger and grilled tuna sandwiches (especially the latter) I've had with them have been nothing special.
Trattoria Asti (Duval, across from Hype Park B&G and Mother's): New sleek Italian. I've had good spaghetti bolognese and a grilled chicken salad here on lunch dates.
Thai Kitchen (Guadalupe and 30th, or so): Good Thai, a cuisine that I've never really run into much in NY, so I don't feel like I have to make the big city comparison (as for instance one expedition with a colleague to an Indian place, name forgotten, that I thought was laughably bad).
In San Antonio
Liberty Bar: I've eaten here twice. The atmosphere's great - a sloping floored old house, attractively decorated, fresh baked bread aroma wafting through the rooms. But the food's spotty. One lunch was a disaster - the person I was eating with had steak tartare that obviously had been hanging out in the refrigerator for a long while; I had a grilled cheese in which the cheese hadn't melted.
Josephine St. Cafe: Across from Liberty Bar, and for my money the better choice. Just meat on the menu, pretty much. I had a small rib eye steak for lunch, a thin cut, perhaps a half-inch or so, for $7.50. Perfectly cooked medium rare, though we're not talking prime.
La Calesa: Texas Monthly says it's the best authentic Mexican; I thought it was just depressing. I had the marinated pork dish, which was unexceptional. Funereal atmosphere; almost no other customers.
Olmos Pharmacy: In a circa-1930s glamour neighborhood, a drugstore counter. Like everything, Tex-Mex shows up even at the fountain. We had chilaquiles (sp?), tacos with egg and potatoes, fried with taco chips also on the inside. A good milkshake, though with this odd twist: a little mound of Redi-whip at the *bottom* of the glass. My daughter liked it.
One reason I do the posting now is to provoke other suggestions. I'm particularly interested in hearing about Mexican joints in the East 7th and South 1st neighborhoods. Anybody been to the Tex-Mex barbeque place at South 1st and E. Oltdorf? Thanks in advance.