The ultimate question to answer before diving into this post, is what exactly is “Tex-Mex”? You may know, but even if you don’t, you’ve more than likely consumed it unknowingly, as many of our Mexican favorites are actually westernized versions of traditional dishes. Tex-Mex, as a cuisine, originated when early Mexicans settled in Texas and began fusing Spanish flavor with American ingredients – think ground beef, American cheddar, and wheat flour (as opposed to traditional maize). Having to make do with products derived from the United States, these ‘Tejanos’ laid the foundation for what is now considered an entirely independent culinary genre.
The Very Best Tex-Mex in Austin
Tex-Mex encompasses much more than you’d expect, and staples like enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas line menus throughout the Lone Star State. Outlined in this list, are our favorite restaurants that we feel serve the best Tex-Mex in Austin, whether it be on a trendy porch downtown, or in a local dive on the East side. It’s time to give in to that guilty pleasure and go grab some nachos!
10. Habanero Cafe
Habanero Cafe is a casual, cash-only (there’s an ATM on-site) eatery with coastal vibes that dishes out some of the best Tex-Mex in Austin. This cafe has been owned and operated by the same family for over 20 years and specializes in queso-laden nacho plates and sizzling cast-iron skillets of beef fajita. Order the Barbacoa Gordita, which is essentially a Mexican ‘pita’, where barbacoa and cheese are stuffed into a thin masa (corn maize) pastry, similar to a gyro. The dish comes with refried beans, chunky guacamole, and lettuce, and is not for the faint of heart. The pastry = crisp, the barbacoa = rich, the sides = simple (as they should be). We love that Habanero Cafe delivers straightforward Tex-Mex and is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. The cafe is only open daily until 3 p.m. (except on Saturday when they stay open until 4 p.m.), so be sure to plan accordingly. Oh, and P.S. be sure to try a few of the delicious Mexican candies showcased by the register on your way out!
9. Gabriela’s Downtown
Gabriela’s Downtown is arguably the most photogenic restaurant on this list, complete with colorful Mexican table coverings, a gorgeous mural, and a ‘besos’ neon sign inside. The restaurant boasts picturesque views of the Austin skyline and a phenom happy hour (all items on the happy hour menu are only $5 from 2:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. every weekday)! Dine on either the small front porch or full back patio, and snap that top-down photo you’ve been itching for. We love how beautifully the Tacos Dorados are plated; three shredded chicken taquitos underneath a generous pile of bright purple cabbage, drizzled in Mexican crema and topped with queso fresco, slices of ripe avocado, and pico de gallo. The taquitos come with a side of guacamole and a small cup of borracho beans, simple enough to nosh on for lunch, or as a sharable plate for dinner. The chicken is tender, even when fried, and seasoned with seemingly only salt and pepper, letting the crema and crunch of cabbage shine through. Opt for the popular Choriqueso to start (baked jack cheese with chorizo and guacamole), and end the evening with Chocoflan, a twist on traditional Mexican flan that includes chocolate cake and caramel.
8. Cisco’s Restaurant
Austin’s beloved Cisco’s Restaurant has been a capital city legend since the 1950s when well-connected owner Rudy ‘Cisco’ Cisneros ran the joint, serving all who came through the door whether it be a former U.S. president or a curious tourist. The diner is reminiscent of the decade it was built in, with funky multi-color tile, bright red stools overlooking a busy open-air kitchen, and a vintage jukebox ready to play your favorite throwback in the corner. The building actually landed itself Historic Landmark status from the Austin Historic Landmark Commission recently in an effort to continue preserving its legacy for generations to come. There has been a recent menu refresh at Cisco’s, and though we’ve been fans of this place since day one, we do appreciate the effort to enhance their already solid offerings. A dish that needed no change, and our personal favorite (admittedly a guilty pleasure) is the Beef Fajita Nacho Plate, with melted American cheddar, sour cream, fresh guacamole, and salsa – ingredients with which you can’t go wrong. The diner also now stays open until 10 p.m., meaning nachos for dinner is ALWAYS an option.
7. El Borrego de Oro
As a small brick building on the Southernmost end of the infamous South Congress Ave, El Borrego de Oro may be the last place you’d expect to find some of the best Tex-Mex in Austin, but it happens to be a highly praised local favorite. The menu is extensive and everything on it is great, but their house specialty is what keeps regulars coming back: Braised Lamb ‘Birria’ Tacos (the restaurant’s name actually translates to ‘lamb of gold’ – that’s how good these are). Served deconstructed, the dish comes with tender, pulled lamb braised in a stew of tomatoes and onions aside fresh cilantro, pico de gallo, refried beans, and Mexican rice. The tacos are light but rich, with simple ingredients prepared exceptionally well. We recommend ordering flour tortillas as well to add delicious pillowy texture to the protein. Open daily from 7 a.m. – 10 p.m., El Borrego de Oro is one of our go-to cantinas for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and hits the spot every time.
6. El Alma
El Alma offers the perfect blend of interior Mexican and high-quality Tex-Mex, elevating tried-and-true classics with more inventive methods. The restaurant sits on a corner along Barton Springs Rd., and features a cozy interior and beautiful rooftop. If it’s not too hot, ask for a table on the deck and order an Auga Frescas and Queso Blanco e Rojo to start. This appetizer is one of our faves, as the queso is baked, calling for a cheesy, thick pull (you know the kind). If you’re in the mood for a lighter main to follow, we suggest the Barton Springs Chopped Salad (a lunchtime special) with spinach, avocado, pumpkin seeds, cherry tomatoes, carrots, olives, bacon, and queso fresco. Add grilled chicken for a bit of protein, and definitely go for the chipotle ranch here – it adds the perfect hint of heat. When dinner rolls around, don’t be shy. Dive straight into the Duck Enmoladas if you’re a fan of Mexican mole – ‘enmoladas’ are enchiladas baked in mole, rather than a chili-based sauce and we are here for it. An alternative is the Pollo a la Parilla, a popular plate with grilled chicken breast, crispy potatoes, caramelized onions, queso panela, and chipotle tomato salsa. Both entrees offer bold flavor profiles and a different take on the best Tex-Mex in Austin.
5. Matt’s El Rancho
Matt’s El Rancho is coined “the original Austin-style Tex-Mex” for a reason. The historic restaurant is notorious for its scratch kitchen and lively atmosphere, boasting 500+ seats, an expansive patio, and a beautiful outdoor fountain. Opened by husband and wife team Matt and Janie Martinez in 1952, this all-day restaurant has become one of the most popular spots to find some of the best Tex-Mex in Austin. We recommend snagging a seat on the back porch and settling in with an order of their smooooth queso to start (it’s rich, simple, and addicting). One of their most popular entrees, available for both lunch and dinner, is the Mahi-Mahi Fish Tacos. We prefer blackened, but the choice between grilled or fried fish is yours. We do, however, highly recommend choosing the non-GMO corn tortillas to envelope said fish, as they’re handmade daily and just plain delicious. When asked to select your sauce, don’t sleep on the cilantro vinaigrette. We know how appealing a chipotle ranch can sound, but MAN the vinaigrette is a standout. Another favorite is the jalapeño slaw, crisp and colorful, not too heavy on the mayonnaise, and not as spicy as it sounds. In the end, Matt’s El Rancho offers incredible food (especially the slaw and sauce), attentive service, and a great ambiance, securing it a place on our best Tex-Mex in Austin list.
4. Tamale House East
Tamale House East is a trendy, yet historic eatery serving some of the best Tex-Mex in Austin, and definitely our favorite tamales. Sit on their patio, shaded and with a lovely garden, and order the Traditional Pork Tamale, their most popular and our first choice. The pork is robust, the tamale is moist, and after your first bite, we fully expect your jaw to drop to the floor. While the tamales are phenomenal and what you’re here for, we also love their Cochinita Pibil Plate served with Yucatan-style pulled pork, black beans, pink pickled onions, jalapeños, Mexican rice, and guacamole. Tortillas are provided, so you can build your ideal tacos, and we suggest going all in, so every bite comes with full flavor.
3. Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop
Joe’s Bakery and Coffee Shop has been an Austin staple since the 1960s, though you’d never guess by its unsuspecting, hole-in-the-wall vibe. Blue, dimly-lit walls adorned with black and white photos of the Avila family, who opened the restaurant decades back, line a dining space with yellow booths and a center bar. Though the diner is far from chic, one bite will make you a fan for life. Only open until 2:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 3 p.m. on weekends, Joe’s offers rows and rows of pan dulce, pastries, concha (sweet Mexican bread), freshly brewed coffee, tacos, and traditional breakfast plates. Their most popular dish, the Migas Plate, is made up of eggs scrambled with tortilla chips and American cheddar, refried beans, and two tortillas. Essentially, it’s perfection. If you’re looking for lunch, we recommend the Chicken Quesadilla Plate – another popular menu item that seems simple but executes surprisingly well. The entree is served with Mexican rice, refried beans, pico de gallo, and a tart avocado mash that we kept requesting more of. The flour tortillas used for the quesadilla are thin but doughy, seemingly homemade, and absolutely mouth-watering paired with melted cheddar, crisp grilled chicken, and the complimentary tomatillo salsa. If you’re looking for some of the best Tex-Mex in Austin, look no further.
2. Polvo’s Mexican Restaurant
A longtime Austin landmark, Polvo’s is the place to find solid Tex-Mex, and quite a bit of it – seriously, the menu is extensive and the portions are LARGE. Each plate seems to be served with multiple small sides (e.g. diced jalapeños, sliced avocado, and chopped cilantro), allowing visitors the ability to customize their choice in a build-it-yourself kind of way. Our favorite meal of the day here is breakfast, where you can enjoy some of the very best breakfast tacos in town on either of their homemade flour or corn tortillas (the chorizo with eggs, potatoes, and cheese is our fav). One of our lunchtime favorites is their Tortilla Soup – a hearty bowl of light broth, with chicken, zucchini, yellow cabbage, and white potatoes. Full cloves of garlic float throughout the bowl, and thick strips of crispy corn tortilla top the dish for an added crunch. We also love the Carne Guisada Enchilada Plate, made with chopped pork engulfed in a brown gravy filling two corn tortillas with fresh cotija cheese sprinkled atop, and Mexican rice plus smoky refried beans on the side. Your meal will most definitely be messy, but it’s more than worth it for some of the very best Tex-Mex in Austin.
1. Eldorado Cafe
Unassuming. That’s one sure way to describe Eldorado Cafe, tucked within a small strip mall lining a busier bridge in North Austin (we’re talking near halfway to Round Rock). Don’t let the distance sway your decision to visit though, as Eldorado Cafe’s reputation for having THE best tex-mex in Austin far exceeds its unsuspecting exterior. Inside, the family-owned-and-operated cafe serves rich, colorful plates with airy chips and award-winning queso (smooth and light, but the kind you can’t seem to stop eating). One of their most popular dishes, Carnitas Cubanos, mirrors the eatery’s vibrancy, plated with pink pickled onions piled atop shredded purple cabbage, next to fresh guacamole, black beans, white rice, and unbelievably crispy carnitas. An immediate standout, the carnitas are seasoned subtly and lightly blackened, but in a way that resembles the appeal of burnt brisket ends – full of flavor and with the perfect crunch. The most family-friendly of our ten choices, Eldorado Cafe also offers a small menu for ‘Los Niños’ and features a small kids area equipped with toys and books. If you only have a few days in town, be sure Eldorado is at the top of your list when searching for the best Tex-Mex in Austin!