Austin’s uber-trendy SoCo is constantly evolving, which is why tourists and locals gravitate to this blossoming spot south of the river for a spell of noshing, shopping, people-watching, brainstorming and all the other captivatingly weird Austin things that people do. The vibe is smart, fresh, fun, laid-back, artsy and urban all rolled into one.
To help you navigate your way along this strip of South Congress Avenue — down the road from the Capitol and a block or two from one of Austin’s most coveted live music spots — we’ve put together a list of must-eat items from some of the area’s highly coveted (and popular) restaurants. We suggest you park, walk, and take it all in.
Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar
Absolutely must have: Oyster Shooter with Tito’s
If you can land a table on the see-and-be-seen patio under the enormous oak tree, consider yourself golden. Celebrate your good fortune with a cocktail (try the SoCo Fizz — Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka, agave, lime and sparkling water) and half a dozen oysters on the half shell (perhaps from Beach Island or Hama Hama) while you wait for your main course to arrive. We like the Pacific yellowfin tuna seared rare a la plancha and Perla’s bouillabaisse, which comes with an oak-grilled baguette and saffron rouille. For dessert, linger just long enough for a stem of cava.
Hopdoddy Burger Bar
Absolutely must have: El Diablo with a caramel and sea salt shake
The line to get a table at this all-natural burger joint often snakes around the corner, but we don’t mind. We use the time to talk to fellow Hopdoddy enthusiasts and gush about the fresh ingredients (hormone- and antibiotic-free Black Angus beef, home-baked buns). We either go for the Classic (just what you think it would be) or the Terlingua — Angus beef, chile con carne, corn Fritos, Tillamook cheddar and a sassy sauce. And we always wash it down with one of the hand-crafted brews (there are plenty of local varieties on tap).
Home Slice Pizza
Absolutely must have: Pepperoni and Mushroom
At this New York-style pizzeria in South Austin, you can play with your dough and eat it too. The outdoor space out back — pure Austin with lounge-like sitting areas and outdoor games — is a big draw for those who want to linger over a delicious white pie with spinach, a Margherita, or any of other tried-and-true classics. We like to build our own pizza and throw on fresh toppings such as ricotta cheese, roasted red peppers, and fried eggplant. (If you need a fix but can’t stay, call in your order next door at More Home Slice and take it to go.)
Güero’s Taco Bar
Absolutely must have: Tacos al Pastor with a cold Mexican cerveza
The menu at this Mexican hacienda-styled spot offers everything from fajitas to enchiladas (there is also an extensive gluten-free menu and a vegan menu), but we always get the tacos al pastor. We love the tiny, fresh corn tortillas stuffed with marinated pork, cilantro and pineapple. This South Congress mainstay is always packed, so we prefer to hang on the weekends at the outdoor music venue next door, the perfect spot to enjoy a show and a hand-shaken margarita with freshly squeezed lime juice.
Absolutely must have: Red Velvet
That shiny silver Airstream with the yummy-looking cupcake on top has quickly become an Austin fixture. And so have the delicious treats that come from within — our favorites are the Vanilla Dream, with its bright pink frosting and multicolored sprinkles, and the Red Velvet (oh how we love the cream cheese frosting). But wait, what about the John Lemon (lemon buttercream with lemon cake) or the 24 Carrot (cream cheese frosting with carrot cake)? Perhaps another visit is required.
South Congress Cafe
Absolutely must have: Smoked Short Rib Hash
The curvy ceiling adds an organic feel to the minimalist decor that dominates this popular brunch spot. The butternut squash bisque — butternut squash with grana padano and sage brown butter — is deliciously simple. We also crave the warm goat cheese salad with field greens, breaded goat cheese medallions, pine nuts and prosciutto dressed in a maple balsamic vinaigrette. When we have a sweet tooth, carrot cake French toast is the ticket. This popular cafe is also open for dinner.
Absolutely must have: Carpaccio
When Vespaio opened its doors in 1998 the scene was very different on South Congress. But the restaurant proved an instant success, and the crowds — along with new business ventures and restaurants — kept coming. The menu features everything from wood-fired pizzas (we like the Prosciutto, Fontina and Arugula, which comes topped with sunny side-up eggs and white truffle oil) to vitello saltimbocca (sautéed veal scaloppine layered with sage and prosciutto). For a more casual feel, head next door to sister restaurant Enoteca Vespaio, which boasts outdoor dining on its patio.