If you have a penchant for stopping in to every parking lot taco stand or strip mall Asian food joint, you'll quickly realize one important fact: Most non-talked about restaurants aren't talked about for a good reason. But if you keep up the good fight, every once in a blue moon you'll hit that hidden gem that keeps you searching for more. To help in your quest, here are three Austin restaurants flying under the radar — for now.
La Fruta Feliz
The search for the perfect taqueria is a little like the search for El Dorado. Foodies scour the city, burning their mouths on salsa verde, eating in increasingly dingier settings from strip malls to parking lot trailers, until, one fateful day, the great, authentic taqueria serves them a perfectly slow-roasted cochinita pibil that changes their life forever.
Many such joints have held the title of best (alternatively "most authentic") taco spot in town. Taco More is currently people's favorite, but who is going to drive up to Rundberg on your lunch break (many of you, apparently)? El Taco Rico, out by the airport, shares the same fate.
But our favorite hidden gem taqueria isn't even a taco joint, or at least it wasn't originally. It started off as a fruit smoothie (licuado) and agua fresca counter (hence the name, La Fruta Feliz), and it goes without saying that you should never miss an opportunity to grab a freshly squeezed watermelon water when you have the chance. But don't get distracted.
Focus instead on the nice lady patting out your maize tortilla by hand and cooking it until the thickest parts start to char. These textured masterpieces have such a pure flavor that they could make even Michael Pollan urge you to eat more corn.
Sprinkle fresh onions and cilantro on top of the goat barbacoa (note: you must like the taste of goat to enjoy a goat taco) or the perfectly succulent al pastor (note: anyone with teeth will love this taco), and dig in to the best tacos you've had in Austin. The salsa verde will take you for a ride, but it's worth every spicy drop. At under $2 a taco, you're practically making money eating here.
While there's ample seating, let's be clear that this is no date spot (unless, that is, you're trying your best to pump up your foodie street cred on Eater Dating). But for tacos made with the highest level of skill and care in Austin, we'd travel a lot further than Airport Blvd.
Go for the corn tortillas (or the unbelievable gordita buns); go for the beef tongue, the carnitas and the al pastor; go for the mango smoothies and refreshing agua frescas — just go! We live in Austin, Texas. You owe it to yourself to eat unbelievable tacos.
Rio's Brazilian Cafe
It all started with the fantastic cheese breads (pão de queijo). These little jewels are the epitome of addictive, with their fluffy bread exteriors (be sure to take the basil flavored balls for yourself) giving way to a soft, subtle cheesy interior. Start with a bowl or two of these little treats (or take a frozen bag home to heat up as appetizers) before moving on to the yucca fries and wonderful malagueta sauce.
Sure, this meal isn't exactly healthy, but for a leisurely evening spent out on Rio's gravel patio (and yes, it will be leisurely, as the service is easily the slowest in town), it's hard to go wrong here.
Seafood dishes are often unspectacular, so we recommend heading right to the good stuff: the salgadinhos. These empanada-like pockets are pure bliss, matching the thick, salty fried dough on the outside with a host of goodies (sautéed spinach, handmade ricotta cheese and lemon zest) baked inside. The tastes vary from savory (hearts-of-palm, olives, garlic, onions and mushrooms) to tart (shrimp, garlic, green pepper), so partner up with your friends and try as many as your stomach can handle.
Main courses are well worth the wait in their own right, especially an unbelievable whole roasted acorn squash stuffed with shrimp and coconut milk that will have you jumping for joy in your oddly mismatched lawn chair.
Agua frescas are fantastic for summer evenings, but for the full experience you'll need to stop by Spec's to pick up a bottle of Cachaça, the slightly sweet rum-like national drink of Brazil. With no hard liquor license, Rio's will set you up for $2.50 a glass, and the party will continue all night long.
Rio's Brazilian Cafe; 408 N. Pleasant Valley Rd. 78702; 512-828-6617
Manna Korean Restaurant
Manna Korean Restaurant finally got its own door. Tucked into a Korean strip center on N. Lamar, the door to the outside world had, for quite sometime, been closed due to the presence of a “sneakthief.” The only entrance was through the adjoining Han Yan Market, your neighborhood home for pickled seaweed and octopus tentacles. But now, after a recent renovation, Manna sports its own door and even a menu that includes some English translations.
Don't worry if you've never eaten Korean food before (or real Korean food). The food here is fresh, pure, and not entirely unrecognizable, so don't feel bad if you end up simply picking a number on the menu at random (it's actually quite an effective strategy). You'll start with a complimentary lettuce salad in a fantastic, sweet wasabi vinegar dressing that pops in your mouth, its surprising flavor so strong and refreshing that you'll want to guard any remaining dressing in your bowl for pouring over rice.
Order a salmon sashimi platter for the table and you'll soon have a full Korean feast laid out before you. The fish itself is unmarinated and plain, but the strong spices and disparate flavors of the free accompaniments — bowls of kimchee, pickled veggies, bean sprouts and deliciously oil-drenched potatoes — complement the salmon perfectly.
Manna's barbecued meats are fine if not forgettable, but the stews and soups (and porridges!) that are at once both sweet, spicy and savory are the standouts on the menu. I'd suggest trying the dwanen-jang jji-gae (#36). Or, for a more familiar set of flavors, order the bi-bim-bap rice bowl (get the hot stone version, #5) with its mix of greens, carrots, bean sprouts, cooked mushrooms and beef over a bed of rice and an over easy egg on top.
This is real food, steeped in tradition and developed over centuries — you're going to like it. After your meal, head to the market next door for some sweet rice balls (gyung dan) or a fish shaped ice cream sandwich. With Korean food this good, you can't go wrong.
Manna Korean Restaurant (the sign just says Korean Restaurant); 6808 N. Lamar Blvd. 78752; 512-323-0635
If you have your own favorite unknown neighborhood joint, won't you be so kind as to help your fellow Austin foodies out with your recommendation in the comments?