As a writer, publicist, social media strategist, restaurateur and photographer behind Faim Fatale, Deana Saukam wears many hats. Add avid traveler onto the list, and her self-proclaimed “boundless lust for life” seems uniquely fitting. While her travels have taken her from Southeast Asia to Sicily, with longer stints in both Paris and LA, she manages to always find her way back to Austin—to its laid-back, convivial atmosphere, endearing Southern charm and, of course, its food.
“Who doesn’t love delicious migas tacos and queso? [Or] smoky, peppery, melt-in-your-mouth BBQ? And of course margaritas!”
So with SXSW kicking off on March 8 in the Texas capital, we asked Saukam… what are the can’t-miss spots for the best tacos and BBQ? What should we know about the Austin restaurant scene outside of these tried-and-true Texan classics?
What started out as a mere passion project for chef Reyna Vazquez (she started out selling smoothies and juices out of a trailer after moving from Veracruz, Mexico) soon became a veritable Austin institution recognized by the Food Network as serving one of the five best tacos in America. Menus vary slightly by location, but you can assume there’ll be something for everyone from the selection of breakfast and traditional tacos, picadas, tostadas and plates—all of which are made with homemade, organic ingredients.
“The migas here are my fave,” Saukam tells us.
Best known for their fruit and veggie smoothies, cold-pressed juices, acai bowls, superfood lattes and immune-boosting shots, Juiceland is a breakfast haven with multiple outposts throughout Austin. And if you find yourself craving something heartier at breakfast or beyond, don’t miss their vegan, grab-and-go menu—think breakfast burritos, falafel wraps, walnut “chorizo” taco salads and hummus bowls.
This food trailer in the heart of Austin blends the best of Texas BBQ with Tex Mex—they’ve even been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives! Make it there before 11am, and you can taste Saukam’s favorite breakfast taco: The Real Deal Holyfield complete with fried egg, potatoes, refried beans, bacon and a choice of smoked brisket or pulled pork. Drizzle some tomato serrano salsa on top, and you’ve got yourself a breakfast for the books.
For a hearty plate of pad thai, stick-to-your-ribs beef noodle soup, or Panang curry, look no further than Sap’s Ver—which has locations in both Burnett and West Gate. And if you find yourself overwhelmed by the extensive menu, take Saukam’s advice and go with the Amazing Green Beans which, in addition to being an accurate representation of just how good they are, is also the name of the rice dish doctored up with fried green beans, your choice of protein and Sap’s special hot and spicy sauce. You can’t go wrong with the kao soi curry, either.
5. Tan My
Don’t be deterred by the fact that this Vietnamese noodle soup joint is a bit off the main roads—it’s worth the detour for a warming bowl of pho or noodles; Saukam’s favorite comes topped with BBQ pork, shrimp, fish cakes and squid.
Chef Ling, who grew up in Fuzhou City of the Fujian Province, helms the kitchen at Lin—the first Asian Bar Restaurant in Austin. The focus? Traditional Chinese homemade cuisine married with a dedication to “better and healthier ingredients.” Keep an eye out for the dim sum menu as well, which is offered in a limited capacity on the weekdays and more extensively for Sunday brunch.
Elevated American fare is what Bartlett’s does best—think spinach and artichoke dip, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken salads and crab cakes. But for Saukam, the French dip prime rib sandwich “dripping with au jus” is always the way to go.
Don’t miss out on the wine list here, either. For a second year in a row, Bartlett’s has been presented with Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence with a special commendation for the list being particularly budget-friendly.
Carpenter’s Hall is a neighborhood spot that just happens to be inside a hotel. The menu, which screams “deep Texas goodness,” is filled with hearty, tried-and-true dishes like roast beef and horseradish on sourdough, country ham with milk bread toast and hot pepper jelly, and Saukam’s personal favorite—a griddleburger with cheese and sweet onion (pro tip: pair it with a martini like Saukam does). Looking for something lighter? Try their chicory caesar or crunchy rice and cashew quinoa bowl.
9. La Barbecue
For succulent brisket, homemade spicy sausage, nachos, ribs and more—all created to celebrate the culinary tradition of James Beard-award-winning “OG barbecue great,” Bobby Mueller—don’t miss La Barbecue.
“Get everything and also get their new nachos which are essentially Doritos covered in queso, pulled pork, chopped brisket and pickled jalapeños,” Saukam tells us.
And as if you'll need another reason to love this Austin institution, it’s all female-owned—a rare sight in the otherwise male-dominated BBQ industry.
10. Better Half
This bar, which boasts an impressive roster of cocktails, wine, neat spirits and draft beer, also happens to serve coffee and a full menu of breakfast-through-dinner food. In other words, it does it all.
11. Nickel City
Nickel City, which is just a few blocks east of the interstate, is one of Saukam’s favorites. And yes, the tater tots covered in queso from Delray Café, the self-proclaimed “kings of late night” may very well have something to do with that.
12. Domo Alley-Gato
Part-patio bar, part-food truck, Domo Alley-Gato is Saukam’s spot for the perfect snack after day drinking or before a night out. Her go-to? The Katsu Curry with Gyukotsu beef stock, pork cutlet, shredded cabbage and Japanese Worcestershire sauce.
Mezcal and homemade masa reign supreme at East Austin’s Mexican-inspired Suerte. Come for “Lucky Hour” every night from 5-6pm for $5 “Snackcidents,” but stay for the heartier specialties—from goat barbacoa with bacon bean puree and mint sorrel yogurt to carne asada with oak-grilled wagyu, heirloom black beans and radish salsa.
14. L’Oca D’Oro
There’s pasta, and then there’s L’Oca D’Oro’s pasta homemade from local, heirloom, freshly milled grains. Whether you treat yourself to their 5-course pasta tasting menu or opt for the prix fixe “Dinner Series” menu celebrating different regional Italian flavors, you can’t go wrong.
Take note, wine-os: Bufalina has, in Saukam’s opinion, one of the best wine lists in the city—with a pretty stellar Neapolitan pizza to boot. For something a tad less traditional, try their harissa pizza with broccoli, cauliflower, salsa verde, pickled onion and peanuts.
Musashino is Saukam's "no-fuss, solid, go-to sushi spot in Austin" with everything you could imagine—from ramen to tempura rice bowls, sushi to curries, and then some.
17. China Family
This small, counter-order spot dishes out BIG Szechuan flavors—the likes of which include Chongqing spicy chicken, chili oil fish and more. Portions are generous, spice levels are high and the scallion pancakes? As close to perfection as you can get.
Vespaio, which translates to “wasps’ nest” in Italian, is always buzzing with hoards of locals. Driven by handmade and locally-sourced ingredients, chefs do all of the butchering in-house and make stocks, charcuterie, fresh pasta, breads, desserts and cheese from scratch.
If you make it here, keep an eye out for Saukam who, more often than not, can be found “cozying up to the bar with a big plate of their linguine with jumbo prawn scampi.”
Hungry for a taste of Austin? Let Journy do the planning for your next trip, so you can focus on the fun part: eating!