It’s a phrase seldom seen these days — except maybe on a tie-dyed T-shirt hanging in the window of a tourist trap shop. Austin has been struggling to keep it weird for a while.
That's especially true in the restaurant scene, where personal, locally owned projects are increasingly giving way corporate-owned franchises more concerned with keeping on brand than delivering a unique experience. Eating in these window-lined dining rooms, dotted with brightly colored “industrial vintage” chairs and oversized drum shades, you know you are in a city. The trouble is, there’s nothing to give a sense of exactly which one.
But what makes a restaurant truly great transcends environment, and sometimes even the food that is being served. A great restaurant also needs a sense of place. The three wholly unique restaurants below may never win a James Beard Award, and nothing about them pushes the culinary needle forward. But at each one these places, diners just might find what's been lost in all that Austin gloss.
Casa de Luz
If food is the new religion, then this South Austin oasis is the new church. Ask a longtime regular what they like about the place, and they are likely to get a little misty-eyed, saying only, “Casa de Luz changed my life.”
Yes, this rapturous rhetoric may give some pause, especially if they have been binge-watching Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, but the faithful keep most of their proselytizing restrained to talking about the power of eating well. For Casa, that means an organic, plant-based diet shunning gluten and processed oils.
What it doesn’t mean is the brown gruel that passed as health food when the natural food movement just began. Instead, the buffet-style menus are awash with colors. Green is in the mixed salad tossed with a nutty dressing, orange in the carrots peeking out of vegan sushi with ume plum paste, and deep red from the pickled radishes and beets.
Unlike some vegan joints, the team behind the simple meals at Casa isn't interested in imitating meat. The word “organic” here doesn’t just apply to farming practices but to a cooking style that celebrates the integrity of its vegetables. It’s just as suitable for the entire operation — the lush papyrus and palms thriving on the patio despite encroaching development and the informal community that has taken root here.
With a name that conjures a National Lampoon movie and a sign that can barely be seen from the road, this strip mall gem throws out all the rules of what an Austin restaurant is supposed to be. Part karaoke bar, part lounge, this spot would rule even if it served Totino’s Party Pizzas.
Blessedly, it subs another stoner’s delight for those odd cubes of pepperoni. College Roadhouse's Korean fried chicken is arguably the best in town, fried twice for a more crackly crust and infinitely better than that more famous KFC. Get it as the combo with a pitcher of beer.
Dive deeper to find tender bulgogi, a “military” hot pot with tofu joining almost every conceivable form of meat, and a delicate pancake spiked with kimchi. This is food made for drinking, paired with one of the many flavors of soju — a Korean rice liquor — or a bottle of Kirin. (If you are looking for subtlety, treat yourself to a shaved radish.)
A fair warning — fine dining this ain’t. Some of the furniture seems better suited for a telemarketing firm than a restaurant, roadhouse or not, and the service just stops short of being chaotic. But that doesn’t matter to the happy customers bopping along to K-pop — and it shouldn’t matter.
Locals have no doubt already heard about the cheese enchiladas, gooey monuments of tortilla and ground beef that inspire the sort of evangelical devotion usually reserved for, well, Casa de Luz. They should certainly be ordered, preferably accented with the bright whack of pickled jalapeños, but they are just one part of Dart Bowl’s perfect game.
Whether it's a chopped steak swaddled in cheese or a bacon cheeseburger slathered in hickory barbecue sauce, Dart Bowl’s food gives a much-needed break from the ingredient checking that seems to define so much of contemporary dining. (Comically, its Waste Watcher dish involves a hamburger patty.)
The interior remains as unchanged as the comfort food menu. Last we checked, a long snakeskin still loomed over the beer can museum above the bar. Even when a checkerboard floor replaced the familiar squiggly carpet and cushy new chairs were brought in to upgrade school cafeteria molded plastic, the servers still call call everyone “hon” just as they always have.
With our lives lived on screens, that sense of familiarity is a balm. And it's what unites these three very different restaurants. It says that even though you could be eating Buddha bowls under fiddle leaf ferns, the owners are glad you are here. And no market-tested restaurant can ever replicate that.