Where To Eat on the Cheap
Over the past year, Austin has been graced with a vast array of new dining options. Despite all the growth and change, there remains a constant need for well-executed yet affordable spots for evening dining.
While pricey newcomers abound, the six options here reflect the best of breed — spots that are careful in their preparation, cooking and service, but are approachable enough not to feel guilty about splurging on a Wednesday night dinner. From ramen to burgers, the list proves that you don't have to spend a fortune to eat elevated versions of the classics. Instead, you just need to know who cares enough to serve up top quality at crowd-friendly prices.
Noble Sandwich Company
While Noble Sandwich has made its reputation as an otherworldly lunch spot, owners John Bates and Brandon Martinez have recently started dinner service at both of their locations. The menu stays true to the Noble ethos: slow-cooked proteins are accented by a collection of house-made pickles, breads and condiments. Evening options include red chile braised oxtail grits with a fried egg, seared Creole catfish, smoked quail with Napa cabbage, and a red wine braised lamb. There's also a fun and unusual take on a burger: Noble's version uses a ground pork patty and tops it with provolone, bacon, romaine, tomato and red onion on a challah roll. A limited but curated selection of Texas beers is available, and wine service is coming later this month. While the atmosphere is pretty casual, the cooking at Noble is anything but.
Top pick: Red chile braised oxtail grits ($10.50)
It's tough to find a better example of old Austin's easygoing, unhurried atmosphere mixed with drinks and food catering to the new Austin scene than The Hightower. To begin, your table would do well to order any of the vegetable starters (we like the green beans with honey mustard, farro, pecans and mint, but the Brussels sprouts with peanut butter, golden raisins and lemon are also good fun). The atmosphere here is more bar than restaurant, and there are quite a few drink options. Among those we've sampled, the rotating selection of frozen caipirinhas are far better than they need to be, while other cocktails lean toward the sweet side but employ solid base liquors, many of which are local. Of the main courses, the most popular order — and deservedly so — is the short rib bowl. The short rib comes in a large vessel meant for mixing with an array of accompaniments including a soft-cooked egg and grits, fried onions and corn. This is a fun plate and half the challenge is getting several components on the fork at once. The rich dish is a great way to soak up a drink, and goes well with the good-natured character of the restaurant.
Top pick: Braised short rib with egg ($15.50)
A caveat here: Bufalina is small, and waits here can be lengthy. That said, if you time it correctly, this is one of the city's best dining experiences full-stop. A labor of love that took years to open, owner Steven Dilley's ode to Neapolitan pizza raised the bar for Austin. The concept isn't unlike that of a barbecue run — you're going for pizza, and almost everything else is superfluous. (If you'd like something besides pizza, there are a couple of salads, some olives, two desserts, and meat and cheese boards.) The pizza you pick invariably depends on your personal taste, but our love of olives and garlic usually leads us to the Pizza Napoletano. Another popular choice is the Fresca, which pairs a spicy prosciutto with arugula, Meyer lemon, olive oil and mozzarella to great effect. Dilley's attention to detail doesn't stop with the food, and he's created a wine list full of rare and esoteric treasures. From the reasonably priced Lioco Rosé of Carignan ($35 per bottle) to impeccable, food-friendly Domaine du Vissoux Beaujolais ($35 per bottle), the list has cult producers, reasonable prices — and is obviously tended to with great care.
Top pick: Pizza Napoletano ($14)
The Peached Tortilla
As a noted veteran of the Austin food truck explosion, Eric Silverstein's brick-and-mortar carried the weight of high expectations from the moment it was announced. Thankfully, the thoughtful skill in Silverstein's truck menu simply expands to a larger canvas here. The philosophy of "southern and Asian" is still there, but the ideas can stretch out further than tacos and burgers (though those are here, too). Our favorite dishes on a recent visit included the Thai Chop Chop Salad ($10), a dish that could easily serve as dinner should you not wish to share. There's a lot going in this dish including fried tofu, green apple, fried shallots, peanuts, fresno chiles, radishes and fish sauce caramel. It's an embarrassment of riches texturally, but Silverstein somehow balances the parade of diverse flavors into a cohesive whole. He works more magic with his Southern Fun, a chow fun noodle dish accented with smoky, moist brisket and kale. About two bites into the dish, our dining companion started discussing when to return to have it again, which gives you a reasonable idea of how good it was. Don't skip dessert: both the Asian Movie Night (popcorn ice cream, Asian caramel, rice puffs) and the Singapore Fling (coconut tapioca, palm sugar syrup, grilled Asian pear, lime) are well worth an order.
Top pick: Southern Fun ($13)
Salt & Time
Discerning local carnivores were thrilled to see Salt & Time's arrival in brick-and-mortar format. The business shows obvious care with its in-house salumi, sausages and smoked meats and the space has allowed them to do nightly specials like the $50 "Butcher's Cut" 12-ounce New York Strips ... but that's not why we're here. Chef Josh Jones also does meaty dishes for those on a moderate budget, and the shop is only too happy to make you a burger and pull you a pint on a weeknight. The "Butcher's Burger" was an immediate hit — clocking in at 8 ounces of house-ground beef, and served with homemade pickles, beef fat fries and a tomato jam. Lest that not be indulgent enough, add cheese, spreadable "N’Duja Tejano" salami, bacon or an egg. Should you prefer a non-burger option, there's also a cauliflower steak; a braised beef stroganoff; and a polenta with cracklings, kale and egg all priced at $18 or less. The bar here focuses on high-end beer, and recent tap selections run the gamut from Texas rarity Lone Pint to the beloved Live Oak.
Top pick: Butcher's Burger ($12 plus add-ons)
Ramen Tatsu-Ya — South Lamar
Many of us have waited in line a time or two for Ramen Tatsu-Ya. The unassuming ramen shop in North Austin went from local foodie favorite to nationally acclaimed destination spot not long after opening, which led to some difficulty securing a table. Thankfully, the resulting success has enabled the team to open a larger second location near the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. The warm and welcoming space has an open kitchen to observe the action, fantastic art painted on the walls, and great beers on draft from Live Oak and Hitachino Nest. The core menu remains the same: five main ramen options supplemented with toppings and a few small bites. Much of the non-ramen menu is good but unnecessary, so cut to the chase and focus on the main attraction. If your dining companion doesn't mind sharing, order a #2 (the Tonkotsu Sho-Yu) and #3 (the Mi-So-Hot) and share them. The two bowls are completely different in style — the Mi-So-Hot is a rich and heavy blend of ground pork, Napa cabbage, bean sprouts and egg, while the more mild-mannered Tonkotsu Sho-Yu is peppery and lighter in comparative texture.
Top pick:Tonkotsu Sho-Yu ($9.75)