With several new restaurants opening every month, there's no shortage of great places to eat in Austin. But because most of these new places typically charge $20 to $30 per entrée, it can be hard on both your stomach and your wallet to keep up. Don't feel too bad for us Austinites, though—there are plenty of budget-friendly options out there if you know where to look. We've rounded up ten wallet-friendly dishes that are guaranteed to keep you fueled through the panels, parties, shows, and other South by Southwest events starting this week.
Three Little Pigs
Food trucks are the obvious solution for serious eaters on a budget. But if you're not careful, you can sometimes pay the same (or more) for mediocre food, without getting any of the restaurant extras like air conditioning, comfortable seating, and table service. Three Little Pigs epitomizes the food truck dream of restaurant-quality fare for a fraction of the price.
You'll always find chef/owner Raymond Tatum manning the kitchen. All three items on the regular menu cost only $7.00, and the Cracklin' Meatloaf is a consistent favorite. The edges of the thick slice are crispy, and the smooth ground beef is dotted with pieces of carrot and celery, topped with a rich brown gravy. Every component of the dish, from the zesty collard greens with bacon to the bed of cheesy grits on which it's served, is perfectly seasoned. Since it also happens to be on the property of East End Wines, you can even buy a bottle to drink with your meal.
The homemade linguine takes center stage at this food truck, parked next to The Vortex theater. It's a revival of the original (now closed) Patrizi's Italian restaurant in Beaumont, Texas. Chef/owner Nic Patrizi is currently using his family's old recipes at this distinctly Austin interpretation. The Cacio e Pepe ($10.00) highlights the silky richness of the pasta with olive oil, piles of coarsely ground black, and liberal shavings of Grana Padano cheese.
This old-school bowling alley is an Austin institution, and the décor of its Tex-Mex café will transport you back to the 1960s, replete with vinyl booths and kitschy knick-knacks like sombreros, cowboy hats, and deer horns hanging on the wall. Although they serve the requisite jalapeño cheeseburger with fries, Dart Bowl is best known for their Enchiladas ($5.95). One skillet cradles three enchiladas filled with onions and cheese, smothered in chili and more cheese. You can make it a full dinner with rice and beans for ($7.25) or top it with fried eggs for $1 more. Don't forget to order a margarita or Lone Star beer at the bar.
Fresa's Chicken al Carbon
There are several charcoal chicken joints in Austin—drive-thru restaurants selling smoky whole chickens cooked over mesquite. As the only spot in town using local and pasture-raised birds, Fresa's Chicken al Carbon gets some criticism for their high prices. But the other charcoal chicken joints don't sell the Jerez Salad ($8.00), which is one of the most satisfying and healthy, not to mention quickest, lunches in town. The tangy sherry-based dressing coats creamy chickpeas, tempering the saltiness of queso fresco and the bite of red onions. But it's the large chunks of pulled achiote chicken, piled on the salad, that complete it. Best of all, you can order it without even getting out of your car.
Joe's Bakery has been on the Eastside since before the neighborhood was cool. Their freshly made flour tortillas served in a basket, huge platters of egg dishes loaded with rich refried beans, and bottomless cups of coffee make it the ultimate Tex-Mex breakfast stop after a late night out. The Migas Plate ($6.49) heaped with fluffy scrambled eggs, corn chips, and cheese (adding onions, tomatoes, and jalapeños is $0.30 more) is an obvious go-to dish, but the chorizo and eggs are also a great choice if you're craving something a little greasier.
Roll On Sushi Diner
The Beefy Texas Roll ($6.95) at Roll On Sushi Diner isn't Asian food in the strictest sense, of course. But filled with tender smoked brisket and avocado, doused in BBQ mayo (like a smokey remoulade sauce) and fried shallots, it's a uniquely delicious dish that somehow works. Actually, the restaurant makes several other equally creative Austin-inspired rolls, and it's a nice reminder that sushi doesn't have to be serious all the time.
Duy Vietnamese and Chinese Restaurant
The Chinese takeout options at Duy Vietnamese and Chinese Restaurant like General Tso's chicken seem like a guise to attract hesitant diners. This Vietnamese-owned restaurant makes several soups that are unavailable elsewhere in town like the Bánh Mì Bò Kho, or Vietnamese beef stew, ($7.50). The orange-tinged beef broth, enriched with fish sauce, is packed with diced green onions, large pieces of soft cooked carrot, and fatty chunks of beef and tendon. Of course it's served with a side of herbs, lime, and a generous hunk of French baguette for dipping.
The rich Tonkotsu Original ($8.75) at Ramen Tatsu-Ya is heavier than it looks, but you'll have plenty of time to work up an appetite while waiting in line. Yes, even after more than a year, there's still a long wait to try this broth, made with pork bones that are slow-cooked for 60 hours. Although the milky marrow broth is truly extraordinary, the garnishes—like a marinated soft-boiled egg and tender slices of crisp pork belly—almost succeed in overshadowing it.
In the North Loop neighborhood, drink.well focuses on craft cocktails, but there's also a nice menu to complement the drinks. And these aren't just paltry olives or nuts. The Acorn Squash Risotto ($8.00) is served in a shallow bowl filled to the brim with plump grains of rice suspended in a rich creaminess and dotted with bite-sized pieces of blue cheese and tender cubes of a squash. Crunchy pumpkin seeds finish the dish. The risotto is excellent on it's own, but you can order it topped with perfectly seasoned grilled chicken breast for $3 more.
A newly opened space on East 7th Street, The Hightower is also doing the cocktails and bar food thing. For $10, the Fried Boudin is enough for a full meal. Shredded pork shoulder and pork liver are combined with rice are well-balanced so that strong iron flavor doesn't overpower the boudin. The sausage is then rolled in saltine cracker crumbs and fried until nicely browned and crisp. The boudin balls arrive cradled in a buttery carrot puree and sweet-tart apple mostarda with a scattering of surprisingly refreshing purple hull peas and roasted carrots.
About the author: Meredith Bethune is a writer who of course likes feeling hip and cool at the latest trendy restaurant, but she feels most comfortable tracking down the best tacos, pizza, and barbecue. Follow her on Twitter (@MeredithBethune).