Where to eat in June: Mex-Tex-Mex and a little Italian, too
This June sizzles with a decidedly Mexican-inspired list of dining locales to visit, but there’s also a hint of fresh Italian cuisine to round out the pack.
Fonda San Miguel
Oldie But a Goodie
With almost 40 years under its belt as Austin’s definitive interior Mexican restaurant, Fonda is one of the few restaurants that has maintained a standard of consistency in excellent food and service in a beautiful atmosphere. But it’s certainly no revalation to Austin. Nabbing a table at the bar or dining room in this spot even on a regular Tuesday night is no easy task.
This place is always busy and the warm, vivacious vibe is immensely contagious. Perhaps its the tart and tangy house-made margaritas that perpetually flow from the bar, or the vibrant, quirky artwork that inspires high spirits, but if there’s some other secret to the ceaseless energy emanating from this micro-Mexican village, owners Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ravago aren’t sharing.
This place is always busy and the warm, vivacious vibe is immensely contagious — perhaps its the tart and tangy house-made margaritas that perpetually flow from the bar, or the vibrant, quirky artwork that inspires high spirits.
Here the antojitos shine with everything from bold and flavorful tacos al pastor and grilled lamb chops to refreshing lobster and mango ceviche or spicy queso asado with house-made chorizo. Though I usually try to change things up for dinner, I inevitably crater to my undying love of mole with an order of pork enchiladas de mole poblano. This classic dark and stormy sauce can appear in many different regional forms throughout Mexico. But this particular version warms the soul with rich chile flavor and hints of cocoa and spice.
A close second is the carne asada a la tampiquena, a simple, yet tender and well seasoned strip of grilled beef served with fresh guacamole and a small cheese enchilada drizzled with a bit of that special mole.
Sure, Fonda San Miguel may not land on the radar for those always looking for what’s new and hip, but you really can’t call yourself an Austinite if you haven’t experienced Fonda.
New & Noteworthy
Make no mistake, the facade of the historic walls to Jaime’s Spanish Village are still holding strong, but everything longtime Austinites may remember about this former sub-par Tex-Mex joint on the Rock-n-Roll side of town are long gone — and that’s a good thing. Especially with the revitalized Cantina-style lines designed by celebrated Austin architect Michael Hsu at the newly opened Pelons, a Tex-Mex restaurant brought to us by the owners of the Parish and Bikinis.
The interior is sleek with bright splashes of color and windows lined with veladoras misticas (Mexican candles) overlooking Stubb’s (speaking of Stubb’s, this is the perfect place for a pre-concert cocktails and dining before heading over to the heralded music venue).
The margaritas are great as are the other boozy-yet-refreshing cocktails on the list; the Texas sipper is an ideal summer refreshment with Tito’s vodka, St. Germain liqueur and grapefruit juice.
The four-taco appetizer is a great sampling of what the menu has to offer, but if I had to narrow down just one taco to taste, it would be the pork carnitas with green chiles and avocado cream sauce.
And the food? Well, it’s Tex-Mex, so get ready for your customary list of cheesy enchiladas, fajitas and nachos. The queso compeusto is everything you’d want from a big skillet of melted cheese with dollops of fresh pico de gallo, guacamole and spicy taco beef. Shrimp and lobster enchiladas weren’t my favorite, but tender beef fajitas were spot on with flavor and not too greasy.
The four-taco appetizer is a great sampling of what the menu has to offer, but if I had to narrow down just one taco to taste, it would be the pork carnitas with green chiles and avocado cream sauce. (And I’ll soon be back to try the carnitas in enchilada form with poblano cream sauce.)
In my book, the simple tell on whether or not a Tex-Mex restaurant has what it takes is in the salsa and the cheese enchiladas. If you can’t deliver on that, then you might as well shut your doors. In the case of Pelons, the duet of smoky red salsa and creamy avocado salsa alongside a warm basket of salty tortilla chips hit a home run. As did the cheese enchilada with melting cheddar oozing from a fresh corn tortilla a dark and rich smoked red sauce puddling down the sides.
New Menu Items
This is one taco chain that can’t be stopped. Each of the eight locations in Austin receive a steady flow of taco-crazed diners day and night. And with a handful of locations already open in Houston and Dallas — not to mention about 20 more on deck to open in the next year — this former taco stand with a flaming name is decidedly on fire.
Fans are always curious to see what the devilish taco minds in the kitchen will cook up for each new Taco of the month — for June it’s the Asian inspired Tuk-Tuk with grilled Thai beef fajitas, cabbage slaw, pickled carrots and cucumber, Sriracha and avocado — but perhaps most welcome to the Torchy’s menu are a few previous specials that have landed a permanent spot on the black board, with a few tasty new sides to boot. (Refried black beans are now on the menu, as well as a roasted sweet corn dusted with ancho chile and cotija cheese and served off-the-cob.)
Refried black beans are now on the menu, as well as a roasted sweet corn dusted with ancho chile and cotija cheese and served off-the-cob.
Breakfast buffs will love the smoky Wrangler taco with egg and potato, as well as a handsome helping of smoked brisket and monterrey jack cheese on flour tortilla. The Independent is vegetarian-friendly, but hardly bashful slices of hand-battered fried portobello mushrooms, refried black beans, roasted corn, pickled carrots and queso fresco — it’s best on a flour tortilla.
And now health nuts can claim their getting a good dose of omega threes with the Mr. Orange taco, brimming with salmon, spicy avocado salsa and some corn and black bean relish as well. (Of course, the salmon is blackened and fried, but when you’re dining out for tacos, you’ve kind of already made a compromise on healthy choices.)
Politics aside, the beef barbacoa Democrat taco has always had a strong lead in my taco ratings, but with looks like it’s lead may be slipping with a few of these new selections to choose from.
New & Noteworthy
Located along Loop 360 off of Westlake Drive, Trento fills a much needed void along what has long been a rather restaurant-barren pocket of town. A neighborhood restaurant at heart, this authentically Italian establishment is free from performing under the constraints of overhyped downtown restaurants, yet sophisticated and inviting for families looking for a soulful evening meal, business colleagues out for a mid-day lunch, or couples looking for a relaxing night out.
Formerly a Chili’s and later a Gumbo’s, Trento intends to succeed at what others have not by offering a decidedly chef-driven menu of northern-Italian dishes — after all, the restaurant’s namesake is a region of Northern Italy. The food is both elegant and rustic with a wide range of ingredients and techniques.
Chocolate lovers will swoon over the chocolate-hazelnut pate, while those who have a soft spot for fried dough will find sheer joy in the warm pumpkin zeppole served with salted caramel ice cream.
If you’re around for dinner or lunch, ask for Joe. The New York native not only brings a charmingly thick Brooklyn-Bronx accent to the table, but also an extensive knowledge of food and understanding of just what chefs Alex Kahn and Andreas Exarhos are trying to do with this menu, which is to give Austin a taste of true, flavorful Italian food without all the heavy Americanized sauces and cheese to mask the fresh flavors.
Start with the steamed mussels in a white wine broth accented with a pleasing addition of fresh mint or house-made burrata cheese served with pickled ramps and an assortment of charcuterie. Caprese may not hail from Northern Italy, but as we move into the summer tomato season, the fresh buffalo mozzarella, leaves of basil and ripe tomatoes make for the perfect summer salad. Other favorites include meatballs swimming in a decadent basil-herb cream sauce; rich and silky linguine with pecorino, white wine and clams; and grilled swordfish brought to life on a tasty bed of roasted fennel, spinach and tomatoes.
While it’s certainly easy to overindulge in the savory part of the menu, be sure to save room for dessert. Chocolate lovers will swoon over the chocolate-hazelnut pate, while those who have a soft spot for fried dough will find sheer joy in the warm pumpkin zeppole (doughnuts) served with salted caramel ice cream.