Last week I spent two and a half days in Austin, Texas. Maybe you’ve heard of it: it’s a cool town. I’d been to Austin before, but I’d never really been to Austin, because the other visits came during South by Southwest, the massive arts and entertainment festival that takes over the whole city for 10 days or so every March. (It’s happening right now.) When you go to Austin for SXSW, so much of what you experience, from the concerts that happen everywhere at all times of day, to the free food and drinks you’ll find at different party tents and corporate “activations,” is temporary and not indicative of what the city is actually like. You will have no idea how people actually live in Austin if you only go during SXSW. So earlier this month I headed down there for the first time in a decade to see what Austin is actually like, and get a feel for how the people who live there eat and drink when their city hasn’t been taken over by every entertainment industry at the same time. Here’s what I found during my two days in the heart of Texas—starting with what might be my favorite new bar in the entire world.
1300 S. Lamar Blvd.
Austin, Texas 78704
Tatsu Aikawa, the celebrated chef behind Austin’s Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, and more, has teamed up with former Three Dots and a Dash assistant beverage manager Cory Starr to open one of the finest tiki bars I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. Tiki Tatsu-Ya isn’t just a fantastic bar and restaurant; it’s an immersive experience you’d expect to find at a theme park. (In an interview with Eater shortly before its Oct. 2021 opening, Aikawa compared Tiki Tatsu-Ya to Disneyland.) The sound of tropical birds and waves fill the two-story bar, and when combined with elaborate rockwork, oceanic decorations, and the Hawaiian, Polynesian, and surf music on the soundtrack, it all transports the guest from the Austin heat to a relaxing island getaway. And it does that all while remaining respectful of the traditional cultures that tiki too often appropriates, forgoing the use of idols and Polynesian mythology in its decor and relying more on pop culture references, as Nadia Chaudhury points out in her Eater piece.
During our two hours at Tiki Tatsu-Ya we fell in love with its classic cocktails and inspired takes on traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian food. Expect to order a variety of small plates to share, unless you dive right into the ample pu pu platter. The crab lagoon pairs crispy wonton chips with a blue crab cheese dip and a sweet and spicy pineapple chili jam, and the taro tots fry the tropical root with seaweed and spices to create a unique mix of Asian staples and American fast food. Our favorite was the spam on a half shell, where small cubes of homemade spam are cooked with diced mango, furikake, and shio koji and served in a scooped out shell of a mango. It’s rich and sweet with a satisfying crunch, and we ordered two of them. We washed it all down with classic Painkillers and Mai Tais, the pineapple-rich Jungle Crane, and a Forbidden Grog, a twist on the classic Navy Grog from tiki trailblazers Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber’s. The food is excellent and unexpected, the drinks are exactly what you’d hope for from a tiki bar, and the atmosphere is unparalleled; the decor and design even outdo Disney’s own tiki bar, Trader Sam’s, complete with more dramatic and exciting environmental reactions when certain drinks are ordered. I’ve made a habit of searching out local tiki bars whenever I’m in a new town over the last decade, and in that time Tiki Tatsu-Ya is the best one I’ve encountered. Make sure you get a reservation, which can be a little hard unless you keep track on Resy; there is walk-up space at the bar if you can’t get a reservation, but there’s no guarantee you’ll make it inside.
2207 Justin Ln.
Austin, Texas 78757
Lala’s is the best Christmas-themed bar in Austin. It’s the only Christmas-themed bar in Austin, as far as I know—and the only Christmas-themed bar I’ve seen anywhere outside of the Christmas season. An institution in the Crestview and North Burnet neighborhood since 1972, Lala’s is a warm, welcoming dive with great drinks, a jukebox full of classic country and early rock ‘n’ roll, and the nostalgic glow of a childhood Christmas morning. (It’d feel exactly like an early ‘80s Christmas at my grandparents’ North Carolina homes if they pumped in the smell of cigarette and cigar smoke.) The night I was there the jukebox was turned off and a playlist of ‘00s indie rock and MP3 blog hits was playing, but that didn’t even ding Lala’s overwhelming charm. The power of Lala’s isn’t just that the drinks are cheap and everybody’s laidback, but that it wraps two distinct types of old-school charm into a single strand, combining an authentic old-fashioned neighborhood bar (the kind that have rapidly vanished in even our biggest and oldest cities over the last few decades) with the chintzy magic of a ‘70s/’80s Christmas morning. Lala’s has the atmosphere of a themed bar without the calculated artificiality of a theme park bar, and I’d probably be drinking there right now if I hadn’t had to come home. Note that it doesn’t serve food, although you can grab a slice of pizza from the place next door, if it’s open.
1104 W. 34th St. D
Austin, Texas 78705
Our first day in Texas we grabbed lunch at this unassuming deli, which was opened by two northeast transplants who first sold their pastrami and corned beef sandwiches out of a food truck. Sure, you might not think of a Reuben as being the first thing you need to eat when you get to Austin, but again, I wanted to see Austin the way locals do. Also the buzz on Otherside is substantial, and it’s hard to find a good Reuben where we live in Atlanta, so the choice seemed obvious. I am not a big pastrami guy myself (I got an Italian sub, and hey, it was really good!), but my wife fell in love with their Reuben. I’m pretty sure she’d leave me for it if she could. The best thing about Otherside is the sandwiches, but its lowkey, friendly vibe is just as great. You can tell this is a joint that both loves and is loved by its neighborhood, as proved by the constant stream of pickup orders.
2002 Manor Rd.
Austin, Texas 78722
Hoover Alexander serves Southern food, Texas style. Expect BBQ and Tex-Mex staples alongside fried chicken, catfish, and pork chops, with a long list of classic Southern sides like fried okra, mustard greens, and black-eyed peas. It’s the South’s form of comfort food, and Alexander’s restaurant does it very well. The highlight of my meal was Hoover’s Hot Sausage, which wasn’t too hot but was definitely spicy, and which can be ordered as an appetizer with cheese and crackers, a meal with sides, or a la carte. You’ll find a surprising variety of dishes at Hoover’s, so whether you’re in the mood for BBQ, ham, something fried, a burger, or a salad, Hoover’s should have an order you’d be into. No matter what you get, make sure you finish it up with a slice of pie; we tried the pecan and the buttermilk, and both were delicious.
1224 S. Congress Ave.
Austin, Texas 78704
The diner at the Austin Motel on South Congress really made us realize how deep the Tex-Mex tradition runs in this state. Call us naive, but again, the only time I’ve ever been to Texas was for SXSW, where you eat your food from whatever tech company or TV show will give it to you for free. We were expecting a fairly traditional greasy spoon, a place where breakfast meant eggs, bacon and pancakes. And sure, you can find all of that here, but ordering up some pancakes seems a little boring and safe when you see what else Joann’s has to offer. I got a plate of biscuits with chorizo gravy, along with an order of chicken tinga tacos, and it made me forget pancakes ever existed. The biscuits and chorizo gravy was exactly what I was hoping to find in Austin—a familiar Southern favorite with a Texas twist. The spiciness of the chorizo was relatively understated, but still added an unfamiliar and striking zing to one of my standard breakfast orders. And although the tacos weren’t especially memorable—somehow the later and drunker you are, the more memorable a taco becomes, and I was sober as a judge at 11:30 a.m. on a Monday—they offered a tangy, spicy contrast to the biscuits and gravy. If you want to get a feel for what the Waffle House might have been if it came from Texas instead of Georgia—but, y’know, with higher quality ingredients and craftsmanship—check out Joann’s Fine Foods.
2808 Guadalupe St.
Austin, Texas 78705
Look, I like history. Old stuff is cool. (Except for all the bad old stuff. You know the stuff I’m talking about.) So when I hear that a place has been serving burgers in Austin for almost a century—since 1926—you know I’m going to try that out, even before I see that it has the amazing name of Dirty Martin’s (or Martin’s Kum-Bak Hamburgers—they seem pretty laid back about the name here). Honestly, we weren’t even trying to find this place; we were walking to the Black’s Barbecue on Guadalupe when we passed this junky little dive hyping its near-century of burger-slinging. I wouldn’t recommend this place to everybody, but if I was a student at UT I’d probably eat here three or four times a week. There’s nothing fancy about these burgers, which is the way it should be; I ordered the O.T. Special, which is a single patty with bacon, cheese, mayo, lettuce, and tomato, and it had that fresh-off-the-grill, almost kind of crumbly quality you get from a Steak ‘n’ Shake burger. It’s not a fat, juicy, chewy patty, but lean and a little charred on the outside, which is just the way I like it. We ordered sides of the tots and the onion rings, and they were both disappointing; the tots tasted great, but there were only nine of them in the basket, while the onion rings seemed to be unsalted. It’s the only time my salt-related onion ring complaints have ever been about not having enough salt, I tell you what. Don’t expect some transcendent meal, but if you like to check out local institutions, you won’t find many places in Austin more storied than this century-old burger shack.
2538 Guadalupe St.
Austin, Texas 78705
Fancy cocktails and stylish bars can be awesome. I’m right at home drinking some classy bourbon or vodka concoction in a rooftop bar in a ritzy hotel or while waiting for a table at a Michelin star restaurant. When it’s up to me, though, I’ll almost always just hit the nearest, oldest, or most storied dive bar in town. That’s where I’m most comfortable—anywhere the beers and well drinks are cheap, and where six bucks will get you a shot of whiskey and a tallboy of High Life or PBR. That’s what you’ll find at Hole in the Wall, a bar and music venue that’s approaching its 50th anniversary. My first hotel in Austin was right next door to Hole in the Wall, which meant I obviously spent a good amount of time there. It was exactly what I needed: cheap, stiff drinks; on-the-spot bartenders; some nice strangers to talk to; and a couple of musicians moonlighting from their punk bands to play classic country songs on guitar and upright bass. The Hole in the Wall is the kind of warm, comfortable bar I have a hard time walking out of until it closes, and if I lived nearby I’m sure I’d be a regular. If you want to experience a classic Austin bar while you’re in town, you can’t do much better than here.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.