Many people come to Austin to partake in the food scene. A big part of what draws outsiders in and keeps them coming back for more is the influence of Mexican food, or more aptly stated, Tex Mex. Austin food has gained fame thanks to the likes of Torchy’s, Chuy’s and Trudy’s. Breakfast tacos seem to grow on trees.
But as we indulge in mountains of chips, queso and cheese-smothered enchiladas with frozen margaritas to wash it all down, we tend to forget about the real Mexican food that inspired Tex Mex to begin with.
So what makes authentic Mexican food authentic? Mexico is a large and gastronomically diverse country with flavors and modes of preparation varying greatly from the mountains of Monterrey to the Southern tip of Chiapas, so it can be difficult to pinpoint one or two ingredients that make up the real thing.
Nonetheless, the difference can be determined by the tastes that result from the combination of ingredients and mode of preparation. Mexican food employs a variety of chilies, and not all of them are spicy. Chili guajillo and chili pasilla are a good start to an authentic dish, and tortillas must always be made fresh. Most importantly, NOTHING is smothered with orange cheese. In fact, you will find very few things smothered in cheese in Mexico. Many dishes are topped with a light sprinkling of queso fresco or queso cotija.
For all former Mexican residents, like me, who want to savor a taste of your former home, this list is for you.
#1 Taquería Taco More
Although the name doesn’t exactly sound authentic, Taco More off of Rundberg in North Austin has some tasty and authentic Mexican soups and broths. Here you’ll find:
- Consommé de cabrito (also known as birria) which is a delicious spicy soup with goat meat
- A great pozole rojo made with carnitas, hominy and red chilies
- And menudo
You can also try some fairly good tacos de lengua here (beef tongue) if you’re feeling adventurous. Nothing cures a hangover quite like a good bowl of menudo, pozole or birria. Give this place a shot next time you need to recover the day after one too many.
9414 Parkfield Dr in Parkfield Plaza – Website
#2 Fonda San Miguel
When you find dishes like mixiote (meat, usually lamb or sheep, rubbed with chili pasilla and chili guajillo and several other spices, then steamed in a maguey leaf), cochinita pibil (pork slow cooked in achiote paste and sour orange juice) and quesadillas with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on corn) on the menu, you know you’ve found an authentic Mexican joint.
Fonda San Miguel has been an Austin favorite for around 40 years. Not only is the food authentic, but the ambiance as well. The restaurant is a large Mexican-style house with a courtyard in the middle. There is also a long bar and equipales (comfy leather seats with a wooden base) where you can sip a good tequila. When you walk inside, you’ll feel as if you’ve suddenly been teleported to interior Mexico. They also get extra points for making blue corn tortillas totally from scratch – they grind their own corn.
2330 W North Loop Blvd – Website
#3 El Naranjo
El Naranjo on Rainey Street serves a delicious Mexican brunch with a menu that includes chilaquiles in the usual styles you’ll find in Mexico: with green sauce or red sauce (in this case a guajillo salsa) and the option to top it with a fried egg or chicken.
You’ll also find enfrijoladas (enchiladas with a black bean sauce) and tacos dorados. Warning: if you’re not used to a heavy breakfast, Mexican breakfasts can be a bit overwhelming. Go for brunch later in the day if your stomach can’t handle heavy food early in the morning.
For dinner, you can find two different types of mole oaxaqueño which are different from the usual mole poblano that is more commonly found in the U.S. Cochinita pibil and traditional chiles rellenos are also on the dinner menu.
It’s obvious the chefs at El Narjanjo, Iliana and Ernesto, really know their ingredients. They are a couple from Mexico City who lived in Oaxaca for 16 years and opened a restaurant there, also El Narajo. After moving to the U.S. in 2006, Iliana taught at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio before opening El Naranjo.
85 Rainey St – Website
#4 El Mesón
El Mesón on South Lamar is probably my favorite Mexican restaurant in Austin. It’s the only one that has the right mingling of flavors that really bring me back to Guadalajara.
Their Ceviche Acapulqueño is made exactly like a coctel de camarón in Mexico (but with fish). It is served cold in a tomato-based sauce, mixed with tomatoes, avocado and onions. Their tacos al pastor and beef flautas are also very reminiscent of Guadalajara. Tacos al pastor are cooked on a spit in Mexico and the meat is thinly sliced and placed on a fresh corn tortilla with pineapple and cilantro, served with a delicious fresh salsa. When you’ve had tacos al pastor this way, there’s just no other viable option.
Huitlacoche is also available at El Mesón when it’s in season. Another advantage to this place is that it’s more affordable than Fonda San Miguel or El Naranjo.
2038 S Lamar Blvd – Website
#5 Tortillería Krystal
Tortillería Krystal, located up north on East Howard Lane, has the most authentic corn tortillas in Austin and some of the best, in my opinion. As a vehicle for eating just about any Mexican meal, tortillas can make or break your dish. Next time you’re preparing Mexican food at home, get your tortillas from Tortillería Krystal. They also serve food, but the tortillas are the highlight here.
Just like in Mexico, you’ll go to the counter and ask for your kilo (in this case two pounds) of fresh white corn tortillas. They will give them to you warm and wrapped in paper. Made from white corn, they warm up great on the comal or in a hot pan.
Tip: when you buy fresh tortillas, you must separate them all when you get home and restack them. This prevents them from sticking together. Then rewrap them and store them in a plastic bag. You will have to put them in the refrigerator (most of us can’t eat a pound or two of tortillas in a couple of days), but they will still be good when properly reheated.
1033 E Howard Ln
So next time you’re ogling a gigantic platter of Tex Mex enchiladas (everything’s bigger in Texas indisputably applies to Tex Mex), remember the origin of the dish and branch out to try the real thing.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Have you lived or traveled extensively in Mexico? What are some of your favorite Mexican restaurants in Austin?
From the mountains of Jalisco to the snowdrifts of Milwaukee, Natalie Novosad is once again an Austinite and loving how the view changes with new eyes. She’s first and foremost a writer, then a translator and lastly a chef by domestic standards. What makes her happy? Variety, debate, discovery, yoga, spices, travel, music, and sharing life with her Tapatío husband and their beagle-child.