Happy New Year to the Trading Places Village!
To start off 2019 with my first post of the year, I thought I would introduce you all to my neighborhood (that is, when I’m not off vagabonding somewhere else in the world!). My hometown is Austin, Texas — and I live in the weird, quirky, artistic neighborhood of East Austin, just east of downtown.
I love my neighborhood, which has really changed and grown a lot in the last 5 years. Sometimes Austin experiences too much and too rapid growth, and it’s hard to keep up with it all. It’s also sad sometimes seeing the old places close or get forced out. But despite all the changes, there are many places — both long-time, established traditions and exciting new things that have come in — that I love in my neighborhood.
Here, then, I share my “Top 3” picks across various categories of places to eat, drink and be merry in East Austin:
TOP 3 TACOS:
Tamale House East, 1707 E. 6th
One of my all-time faves. I lived down the street from the original location further north; once I moved to the east side, they opened this east side location too, right down the street! Coincidence? I think not! Owned and run by the Valera family since 1958, they make mouth-watering tamales along with a great selection of breakfast and all-day tacos, mole, enchiladas plates and more. A fantastic, fun atmosphere with cool décor inside, and a chill little garden patio as well. They have live salsa from The Brew every weekend and lots of other events, including music and Frida Fridays. Check it out, you can’t go wrong! Full bar, open breakfast through dinner.
Joe’s Bakery, 2305 E. 7th
Great family-owned place that’s been there since 1962. INCREDIBLE tortillas and migas, cool old-school atmosphere, and a great front counter Mexican bakery selection. Their migas are the best in town, according to me and my friends Mando Rayo and Jarod Reese who wrote the book on Tacos of Texas (literally!) Only open for breakfast and lunch.
Taco Flats, 2500 E. 6th
This vintage Airstream food truck is right across the street from my condo complex. It’s behind La Holly bar (owned by the same folks), which makes for a fun place to combine for drinks with your tacos. They have a pretty interesting menu of unusual and gourmet tacos. Great outdoor space as well.
TOP 3 BREAKFAST SPOTS:
Counter Café, 1914 E. 6th
This place is honestly the BOMB for breakfast. Personally I love their benedicts, but the Steak & Eggs and Quail & Eggs get pretty high reviews from customers. Their biscuits are also pretty damn good and very authentic Southern. You can’t go too wrong with lunch here either. Only open for breakfast and lunch (their burgers are great, and could crossover into that category below).
Launderette, 2115 Holly St.
While Launderette doesn’t serve breakfast every day — only weekend brunch — that brunch definitely rates as one of my top picks anywhere in Austin. If I didn’t have Launderette in this section, I would definitely put it in the “upscale restaurant” section below, so consider this a dual entry. Comfort food in a cool setting, to-die-for cocktails, and a pretty good happy hour. Don’t miss it when in Austin.
Juan in a Million, 2300 E. Cesar Chavez
Another long-time, family-owned East side fave. The patriarch of the family, Juan himself, is usually there shaking customers’ hands and asking how things are. This is super hole-in-the-wall, but don’t let that put you off. There are usually lines to get in for weekend breakfast (they also serve lunch every day). Huge plates; in fact, they are well known and were featured on the Travel Channel for their “Don Juan” — if you can eat the whole thing, your picture goes up on the wall. I have a few friends whose mugs grace those walls.
TOP 3 BURGERS:
Hi-Hat Public House, 2121 E. 6th
This is one of my favorite casual, comfortable neighborhood spots. They always remember me there, and have a definite cast of regulars. It’s also one of the best burgers on the east side, and on Thursdays you can get a burger and a pint for $14. If you don’t come for the burger, you can check out Taco Tuesday (two tacos and a pint for $12), Wine Wednesday (half-price bottles), or their weekend brunch with live jazz. They also have live music many other nights of the week.
Justine’s Brasserie, 4710 E. 5th
This is one of my favorite places on the East Side, for way more than the burger. It would definitely go on my list for top upscale restaurants if it didn’t always get raves enough about its Royale with Cheese (named from Pulp Fiction) to make this category. Besides that fine burger, they have the most amazing French Country Bistro comfort food, a beautiful outdoor patio and lawn, and a full roster of parties and other events. They always throw the most happening soirees during any big Austin festival like SXSW.
Arlo’s, 1700 E. 6th
This food truck is where you want to go if you’re vegetarian/vegan and craving a totally satisfying, juicy, cheesy, drip down your chin burger. And non-vegetarians will love it just as much, I promise! Their Bac’N Cheez Burger is tha bomb; I don’t know how they do it, but it hits the exact right spot for any burger, vegan or not! Trust me on this. A side of sweet potato fries makes it perfection. The truck is parked at The Grackle bar, which is a mighty fine place to grab a drink and hang.
TOP 3 BARBECUE JOINTS:
Franklin, 900 E 11th
This is possibly the most famous name in Texas barbecue, visited by many a Travel Channel and Food Network show and written up in the New York Times. Aaron Franklin, truly is a master, and even has his own TV show. Jimmy Kimmel, Anthony Bourdain and President Obama have eaten here. This place is as old-school as it gets; hasn’t changed much in a decade. It really does live up to the hype, and the line can be hours long. It opens at 11 am every day (though people queue up long before that), and stays open til they sell out.
La Barbecue, 2027 E. Cesar Chavez
Located inside the Quickie Pickie (a great small market to shop as well), this gets my vote for fave Austin BBQ. It’s owned by spouses LeAnn Mueller (of the famed Mueller BBQ family) and Alison Clem, and there’s usually a line out the door here as well. Personally I love their pulled pork, and they also do these amazing sandwiches with their homemade jalapeno sausage topped with barbecue. You might go into a food coma afterward.
Kerlin BBQ, 1700 E. Cesar Chavez
This food truck gets consistently good reviews for its barbecue and sides (which are way above the ordinary), even though it’s relatively new. Their sampler platter is a favorite, and they also sell kolaches which are fantastic. It shares space with Vera Cruz tacos, which is a phenomenal place as well.
TOP 3 ASIAN FOOD SPOTS:
Dee Dee, 2500 E. 6th
I can’t tell you how excited I was when this WONDERFUL Northern Thai Street Food truck moved from Cesar Chavez (already close) to right across the street from my complex! This is not only the best Thai food on the east side, it’s also hands-down one of the top 2 or 3 Thai food spots in all of Austin (If you want to know my other go-to restaurants, check out Sway and Titaya’s). This food truck is run by husband and wife team Justin & Lakana (she is from Northern Thailand). The name Dee Dee means “good good” in Thai — and yes, it is that good that you have to say so twice. Seriously, if you like Thai food, stop in here. They only have a few things on the menu, but wow, do they do those 3 things spot on. Their food can be pretty spicy (it’s authentic, after all!) so don’t be afraid to ask them to dial it down a notch or two if you want.
Ramen Tatsu-ya, 1600 E. 6th
Since the first of these restaurants opened in North Austin, it was immensely popular, always with looooong lines out the door and waits of up to an hour or two. So you can imagine how freaking excited East Austin was when we found out that it was coming into the defunct Qui restaurant space, left from disgraced celebrity Top Chef Paul Qui. It just opened in summer 2018, and if you like ramen, DO NOT MISS IT! They have a pretty fun story, too — the owners and co-chefs, Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto, were hip-hop DJs when they met. Their mission is to bring Japanese soul food to Austin.
Kemuri Tatsu-ya, 2713 E. 2nd
Along with Thai food, ramen is by far my favorite Asian food. Fortunately, there are two of the best ramen spots in town within walking distance of my loft (see above). Kemuri is really fun and unique — it serves a kinda crazy combination of Texas and Japanese food, like brisket ramen. They also have things like authentic Karaage chicken, and a great menu of Chinmi “exotic and rareties” that is rated for its weird factor by rating each one from Not Funky (Kenny G) to You Nasty (James Brown). The décor is also a fantastically oddball mix of old Japanese signs and other relics with Texas kitsch (it used to be a barbecue place, and lots of those items remain). Great back garden/patio that usually projects films on a wall. Just a weird, fun place with really incredible food and cocktails.
TOP 3 UPSCALE RESTAURANTS:
Juniper, 2400 E. Cesar Chavez
This has been open a couple of years now, in a newly restored mixed-use center that’s home to Blue Owl Brewing, SpraTX graffiti/art shop, and a host of art and design studios. It’s refined Italian, with a seasonal menu that varies according to the ingredients available from the local farms and purveyors that they source from. Worth a little splurge (higher priced, but not crazy expensive).
Monger’s, 2401 E. Cesar Chavez
This is one of my go-to places for either a nice dinner or when I’m craving seafood. One partner runs the kitchen while the other runs the small seafood market where you can buy amazingly fresh fish, shrimp and other items to cook, straight from the Gulf Coast. They have a fantastic raw bar, and lots of great shareable plates. If you love seafood, I highly recommend this place.
Suerte, 1800 E 6th
Opened in 2018, this is a fancy Mexican restaurant that deserves recognition. The ambience and service are great in my experience, and the food is above average in a city chock-full of Tex-Mex food. It’s a great place to stop for Lucky Hour (as they call their happy hour) from 5-6 every day.
TOP 3 CRAFT BREWPUBS:
Hops & Grain, 507 Calles
This was the first micro-brewery in East Austin, and it’s my favorite. Not only do they have great beers, a good inside area and outside patio, and food truck; they are also very community oriented, with lots of events from trivia nights and live music to beer and yoga days. Dog friendly, tours and tastings, and all around great people! Tours of the brewery are given on Friday at 5pm and Saturday at 2pm and 4pm. Tours are FREE, & last about 45 minutes.
Lazarus Brewing, 1902 E. 6th
This is one of the newest brewery additions to the thriving East Austin craft beer scene, and extremely popular. It’s housed in a beautiful building, with a super cozy atmosphere and very dog-friendly. They serve not only their beers but also housemade root beer and kombucha, and they serve tacos if you’re hungry.
Blue Owl Brewing, 2400 E. Cesar Chavez
This brewery stands out because they do sour mash brewing. I haven’t quite acquired the taste for that, so honestly I don’t frequent this place. But when I feel like something different, it’s great, and it is a pretty wonderful little spot.
Honorable Mention: Zilker Brewing, 1701 E. 6th
TOP 3 WATERING HOLES:
La Holly, 2500 E. 6th
This spot has a groovy neighborhood vibe, and the owner Simon Madera is a super friendly guy who’s often behind the bar. They specialize in spirits from Mexico: tequila, mezcal and the harder-to-find sotol, raicilla and bacanora popular south of the border. Nice beer garden patio out back, with the Taco Flats food truck.
Whisler’s, 1816 E. 6th
This has hands-down been my very favorite cocktail bar spot in East Austin since the day it opened. And yes, I was there the day it opened (in fact, actually before hand, for their soft pre-opening). The hand-crafted cocktails, and the bar/service staff, are all way above par. But the building and setting itself is also way cool, built completely with all kinds of salvaged and reused materials. It’s pretty fun to just wander around and check it all out. Upstairs you’ll find Mezcalería Tobalá, a mezcal bar which is really serious about the spirit! The very excellent Thai Kun food truck is also parked here (Whisler’s doesn’t serve food).
Kitty Cohen’s, 2211 Webberville Rd.
I like this place so much I had my birthday party there. It’s a really fun 1960s Palm Springs, Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra kind of vibe. Its big draw is the great yard/patio, with a shallow pool that guests can sit along and dip their feet into — refreshing! Be sure to check out the bathrooms, even if you don’t have to go.
TOP 3 LIVE MUSIC/DANCE SPOTS:
White Horse, 500 Comal St.
This is absolutely a must-go spot, not just on the East Side but for anyone visiting Austin. It’s a true Texas honkytonk — but total Austin style. Don’t think twangy country-western music; the nightly live music here is all about swing, rockabilly and blues. It’s a super hip yet casual place, with good strong drinks that are cheap by Austin standards. There are always a lot of great dancers, and they do lesson nights as well. A guaranteed fun night out!
Ah Sing Den, 1100 E. 6th
I’ve loved this place since it was East Side Showroom, which was started by a mother and daughter team. After years of that super cool steampunk saloon, the team decided to give the place a new look, vibe and name. Ah Sing Den is named after the Victorian London opium den that was frequented by the likes of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s super swank, the décor is to die for, and they make some of the best cocktails in town. A full menu of Asian-inspired dishes won’t leave you hungry, and the calendar of live music and other events will entertain.
Esquina Tango, 209 Pedernales St.
This is a lively tango and salsa place, owned by an Argentine husband and wife team. They offer a host of dance and Spanish language classes, with live music, dance parties and festivals almost every weekend. Check out their calendar before heading over to see what’s on.
TOP 3 VEGAN EATERIES:
Counter Culture, 2337 E. Cesar Chavez
Super innovative vegan fare, this place is the go-to fave not just in East Austin, but the city as a whole, for many veg-heads. It’s housed in a hard-to-miss bright blue building, and also serves beer and wine. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’ve seen local celebs here (Giancarlo Esposito and Matthew McConaughey), as well as kooky pets on the animal friendly patio, including a parrot perched on a customer’s shoulder and an iguana on a leash.
The Vegan Nom, 2324 E. Cesar Chavez
The home of the “Rock’n vegan tacos,” if you are veg and craving a taco, hit this food truck up. Right across the street from Counter Culture, at the super-cool Soma Vida complex (you might want to stop in there for yoga or a massage, or daily co-working passes if you need that).
Mr. Natural, 1901 E. Cesar Chavez
This place has been around forever; it is THE long-time, go-to, natural and vegan food place in Austin, with several locations including east. They’ve been around since 1988. They offer a “choose your own” deli area (focus on healthy Tex-Mex, but not limited to that), bakery, and market. They also have a lot of community events such as yoga and meditation, On the first Sunday of every month they feature an All Vegan Brunch Buffet.