Where to eat in Austin right now: A nod to fast-casual restaurants
Each month we bring you a short list of Austin restaurants worth checking out either because they’re new, have a new chef or menu, or simply because they’re a longstanding restaurant worth keeping on the radar. But this month we’re giving a nod to a few non-local joints. Or at least, the kind of places we likely all visit on a regular basis, but don’t buzz about among our friends or social media.
I’ll admit to having a soft spot for the sustainably-minded Chipotle and the Texas classic Whataburger, but we're looking at a few non-local spots that manage to offer something better than average for a fast-casual concept. (In fairness to a few of our favorite Austin-based restaurants with multiple locations across the city, these picks fall in the category of having multiple locations across the state, if not other parts of the country and serve many of Austin’s outlying suburban communities.)
Noodles & Company
In homage to the beloved noodle, this nationwide chain tends to nestle itself into mid-sized university towns. That's pretty clever considering there aren’t many college students who would turn down a bowl of noodles for a good price. (Especially when looking for something more inspiring than a square package of ramen from the grocery store.)
With an average price of $7 a dish, Noodles & Co also appeals to suburban families looking for a quick lunch or last-minute dinner. It offers a range of American-, Asian- and Italian-inspired dishes including Japanese Pan Noodles in a savory teriyaki sauce; spicy Indonesian peanut sauté with broccoli, carrots, cabbage and lime; rich and creamy Wisconsin mac-n-cheese; and garden pesto sauté — a spring special including fresh asparagus, red peppers, mushrooms, pecans, spinach and feta tossed with gluten-free fusilli noodles. With a total of six locations in Texas, the Denver-based chain welcomes its fifth location to Austin this week on Brodie Lane in Sunset Valley.
Mediterranean-inspired Zoë’s Kitchen offers a fresh and healthy approach to fast-casual dining that leaves the stereotypical gyro and dolma menu item by the wayside, instead offering a flavorful selection of grilled-to-order kabobs, sandwiches and pitas along with sizable salads and sides brimming with fresh fruits and veggies. The straight-forward Greek salad hits all the flavor profiles you’d expect with tomato, cucumber, kalamata olives and feta cheese, but beyond that, you can get more substantial plates such as grilled chicken kabobs complete with grilled peppers and onions, rice pilaf and a side Greek salad.
The protein power plate of grilled chicken with sweet caramelized onions and vegetables makes the grade for the health-conscious, while a classic pimiento cheese — included from the restaurant’s Southern origin in Alabama — is a delicious indulgence. Gluten-free and healthy kid menu items are also a plus.
Technically Torchy’s did start in Austin, as a small food trailer at Bouldin and South First Street no less. But the bold flavors from the ever-evolving list of tacos from Torchy’s will have transitioned this former food truck into a total of 20 brick-and-mortar locations across the state by the end of the year. Not too shabby for a place that seeks to celebrate the humble taco.
Torchy’s fans tend to have their own personal favorites — I prefer the Mr. Orange blackened salmon taco and The Democrat with beef barbacoa, avocado and queso fresco — but it’s anyone’s guess as to what the taco of the month will be. This month it’s The Kingpin, which is pork carnitas simmered with green chilies, served with black beans, fried plantains, sour cream, cotija cheese, pickled onions and cilantro. (Best served with Torchy’s special avocado sauce on a flour tortilla.)
As if Austin needed another burger joint in town — we’ve certainly done well with the likes of Hopdoddy, P. Terry’s and Mighty Fine. But with a new location in South Park Meadows, and another three expected in town by end of year, this Denver-based burger chain is worth a look. If not for the key technique of smashing Angus beef patties onto a 400 degree flat top grill, then for the uniquely regional additions to the menu in an attempt to attract a Texas audience.
The Austin menu includes the regional “Texas burger,” with mustard, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles on an egg bun and the spicy “Baja burger,” with pepper jack cheese, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, spicy chipotle mayo and fresh jalapeños on a spicy chipotle bun. You’ll find classic French fries as well as fried pickles and crisp sweet potato fries, but the perky fried jalapeño chips make a nice addition for those who like a little extra kick. You’ll also find a regional nod to Texas beer with Shiner Bock and Real Ale selections, but a rich chocolate Haagen-Dazs shake isn’t a bad burger pairing either.