Concentrated in east Austin, soul food has quite a mouthwatering presence here. The spots on these lists serve dishes so good, we don't mind clogging our arteries for them.
On an I-35 S sojourn to San Antonio, Gill's makes for a tasty fried chicken pitstop. Skip the chicken chains altogether, and bite into the juicy, satisfying (and incredibly cheap) breasts at this no-frills San Marcos hole-in-the-wall.
Just as much a passionate live music venue as it is restaurant, The (Historic!) Victory Grill has been around since the 40s, making it Austin's oldest blues club -- and once upon a time, hosted B.B. King for a show when Austin was still legally segregated. Several musicians still book Victory Grill for their album openings, so go to the show early, and order a bowl of thick gumbo soup for dinner.
Threadgill's is one of those Austin places that's been around so long that it bears repeating praise for the things it does right: Armadillo World Headquarters-crowd music, and, chicken. Chicken any way you want it: King Ranch, stuffed and blackened, chicken in liver format, and chicken breasts -- sometimes fried -- spilling out of enormous sandwiches that are all too easy to gorge on.
Chef Hoover, the towering presence behind Hoover's Cooking, may just be one of my favorite stories: A graduate of the big-as-your-plate chicken fried steak school, he branched off recently into a garden-based food trailer called "Soular Food" that sits just blocks away from his original east side eatery. There you can find light beet and greens-laden wraps and salads, but at Hoover's, you'll find all of your soul favorites: shrimp n' grits, catfish po'boys, black eyed peas. In other words: ideal hangover medicine.
More on the Louisiana end of the soul food spectrum, this Oak Hill joint does cajun right: Order a heaping helping of atchafalaya catfish, or spicy, warm-you-up-inside jambalaya with chicken and andoullie sausage.
A ramshackle BBQ joint that made a cameo on "Friday Night Lights," Ray's obviously knows meat, but I'm adding it to the soul food list for it's "Soul Food Thursdays" weekly special, offering oxtails, breaded pork chops, fried chicken legs, and other delicacies for the Southern carnivores among us.
The name says "sandwich," but this stone's-throw-from-12th-and-Chicon soul food spot dishes up much more than sandwiches from its cafeteria style platters. Menu options rotate daily, but fried chicken, turnip greens, sweet cornbread muffins, and mac n' cheese turn up often -- as do the contented sighs of patrons eating them. If you can possibly save room for dessert, definitely do so for the soft, silky sweet potato pie.
In addition to the rich, mouth-coating etoufee, shrimp po boys, and gumbo (Fridays are "All You Can Eat Gumbo" days), one of the biggest reasons to visit Lola's is Lola herself, a sweet Louisiana lady who started her restaurant with $500. A tiny space with communal seating, this is truly a kitschy, colorful institution whose Cajun food and generous owner (Lola feeds the homeless each Sunday in the cafe's backyard, free of charge) create instant fans.
The batter. The BATTER, people! That "secret buttermilk blend" that Lucy's holds so dear wraps itself around chicken gizzards, chicken livers, and other organy chicken parts you may think twice about, and transforms them into crunchy, addictive, fried goodness. You may want to make a special trip just to sample all their wood fired oysters too, which, OK, aren't "soul food" proper, but damn if they aren't tasty. My favorite is the aggressively fattening Diablo, seasoned with habanero-infused butter, parmesan cheese, and bacon, then spiked with jalapeno.
You've probably driven by Southern Hospitality several times before: It's on the I-35 feeder road next to the No Man's Land that is Highland Mall. But make it a point to stop by Southern Hospitality, where you'll find a humble, buffet-style cafeteria carved out of an old office space, with peppery mac n' cheese, crunchy, salty fried catfish, and onion-filled meatloaf. The service here is incredibly sweet, and if you like Southern Hospitality enough (not just Facebook like them, but emotionally like them), there's good news for you: They cater, too.
Down-home Southern soul food -- fried okra, smothered catfish, and those suddenly trendy chicken n' waffles -- served with an occasional side of live music (usually neo-soul).