What with its neon lights, eardrum-bursting Hotrod Rallies and never-ending food trailers, South Congress is an easy place to have a nervous breakdown. But there's soulful, real cooking to be found on SoCo, from James Beard Award winners to burger drive-ins -- experiencing them just requires a strategy. So that you won't still be reading this tomorrow, this is just a partial list.
Before every other word out of your mouth was "local," Vespaio was doing the grow-its-own-vegetables thing, and way before local cuisine had caught up to South Congress, no less. Austin may be weird, but this is Italian food that proudly resists change: You'll find all the classics here, like Lasagna Bolognese and Pizza Margherita, but they're not just any ol' Italian standby -- they are Platonic ideals of the form.
The eponymous Fran used to be married to Dan, and when they split in the '70s, they divvied up their hamburger stands accordingly (hence, the four Dan's in town). So, who flips the better burger? Here is what we know: Fran's serves a proto-Sonic classic hamburger, with a pleasing mess of crunchy vegetable toppings (no sad, wilted lettuce here). But the real gem is the Hickory Cheeseburger, served on Jalapeno Sourdough: Smoky, hot, and decadent.
Carrot. Cake. French. Toast. Perhaps I'm being hyperbolic, but I think this is among the most decadent turns I've seen among French Toast flavor varieties, and is certainly denser and more cake-like than traditional concoctions. It's also served with a cream cheese/maple dipping "sauce" (i.e. frosting, but more viscous). Wait, are you still reading this review? Please stop, and drive immediately to South Congress Cafe to order some.
Austin's beloved New York style-pizza joint, reining proudly from its small stands on SoCo. Their chewy crust is topped with some of the most insane ingredients, like eggplant, chopped clams, and possibly narcotics. Walk right up to the window and order a big ol' slice from their daily selection.
With the windy staircase (to nowhere?) at the front door, the cozy little booths, and the charming textured ceiling tiles, walking into this SoCo eatery feels like you're momentarily ducking into Florence. There's also a gorgeous courtyard out back, and the food is straightforward Italian: Good for dates who like to play it safe culinary-wise.
A modish throwback with locavore sensibilities, Snack Bar is basically Central Texas tapas. There's crispy pork belly here (satisfying this city's enduring devotion to bacon), alongside more hippie fare like avocado quinoa, served with a skewer of sweet, perfectly cooked shrimp -- admittedly one of my favorite items on the menu, particularly after too many pork belly visits.
The wildly successful food trailer experiment of "hill country cuisine" chef Jeff Blank, The Mighty Cone is everything a food trailer should be: Hand-held food, simple menu, and one dazzling novelty -- a "hot n' crunchy" breading made from corn flakes and red chiles, encasing chicken, shrimp, and/or avocado pieces tucked in a warm tortilla. Blank brought the cone to ACL festival in 2002, and officially inaugurated it as a food trailer in 2009, to the collective ecstasy of Austin foodies.
Commanding lines down the block at both locations, Hopdoddy took Austin's burger community by storm a few years ago, with a fierce commitment to local, natural ingredients, like baked-from-scratch buns and hormone/antibiotic-free beef. Burgers here get incredibly creative, and while the Ahi Tuna Burger (with teriyaki sauce, honey wasabi, and nori chips) draws legions of fans, go for The Goodnight, a beefy classic with a Texas twist: Angus beef, Tillamook cheddar, hickory BBQ sauce, caramelized onions, jalapenos, and a drizzle of Hopdoddy's housemade "sassy sauce."
A perfect place to end your diet, Fry Baby is just what it sounds like: Fried everything, from pickles (salty and tart), sweet potatoes (like sweeter french fries), to mac n' cheese (illegal in some states).
New Indian is kind of like the Louvre of local Indian restaurants: It's impossible to take it all in, so just pick one section to focus on. There's vegetarian! Seafood! Gluten-free! The Appetizer Sampler is a good place to start, uniting North and South India on one plate: The accompanying samosas, roasted mussels, and tikka masala are all especially tasty.
Just say "oui" to this irresistible crepe trailer: You'll find sophisticated menu options like Caramelized Pear, happily jammed up against no-holds-barred feats of sugar. The Marshmallows and Ice Cream Crepe rests in a shameless lake of chocolate, and while I haven't gotten up the guts to try it yet, one menu item titled "OREOS!" probably tells you all you need to know about its composition.
It sounds like a novelty shop for feminine pleasures, but Ms. P's Electric Cock peddles something even more naughty: 12-spice fried chicken. Made from local, free range chicken oblivious to their ultimate fate in boiling peanut oil, each piece is juicy, tender -- and for some, a possible turn-on.