The Best Tex-Mex Restaurants In Austin
photo credit: Richard Casteel
There are a handful of things Austinites will readily debate over—which neighborhood has the superior HEB, the correct pronunciation of Menchaca Road, or whether or not Schlotzsky’s Deli is really considered an Austin institution, to name a few—but nothing, perhaps, as much as the best Tex-Mex restaurants in town.
It's likely that your favorite Tex-Mex spot is the one closest to your house. But what makes for a great Tex-Mex joint? Strong margaritas are an obvious prerequisite, and there are other things to consider, like the fajita sizzle factor and the queso soupiness coefficient (QSC), all of which can make or break a place. Fortunately, we live in a city where you never have to get into a committed relationship with just one restaurant. Whether you’re a life-long Austinite, or just in town for the weekend, here are the best Tex-Mex restaurants in the city.
There's often a wait at the East Side staple Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop, and that’s because of the exceptional Tex-Mex/Mexican diner food, especially the breakfast tacos made with fluffy house-made flour tortillas. Order the migas with tortilla chips that are still a little crispy, the super tender carne guisada, and the crispy bacon that somehow defies the very laws of pork belly physics. Joe’s is also a bakery with a huge variety of pan dulce—make sure to get some pink cake and conchas on the way out.
A Tex-Mex institution that dates back to 1952, Matt’s El Rancho is enormous, with multiple dining rooms, a sprawling patio with a fountain, and seating for 500 people. And even then, there’s almost always a wait for a table. The legendary Bob Armstrong Dip, the original mashup of queso, beef taco meat, and guacamole is reason enough to make the trip to Matt’s. But the strong margaritas, homemade tortillas, textbook enchiladas, and the red-hot fajitas are also reason enough to get in the car and go.
Habanero Cafe, the old-school working class Tex-Mex/Mexican diner in South Austin, has been around for over 20 years, but it feels like it’s been there forever. Fittingly, the grilled fajitas are so good they transcend time and space. Here you’ll find some great no-nonsense Tex-Mex food, including a seriously spicy habanero salsa (in addition to the regular red salsa), fries on nearly every plate, and the delightful huevos gringos, where two over-easy eggs get covered in queso alongside carne guisada.
The exterior of Enchiladas Y Mas might not look like much, but the long line of people waiting outside is the first indicator that through those doors is a lively, always-bustling restaurant with enchiladas, fajitas, and strong margaritas. The inside is about as bare as the outside—don’t expect any theme park level decor—but it’s the food that has given this place a cult-like following of locals. We like to get the cheese enchiladas topped with more cheese and a side of beef fajita meat on top. It’s like a savory crown on an already rich plate, and it makes a hearty enough meal on a Sunday afternoon to soak up even the worst of hangovers.
Simultaneously functioning as a dive bar and Tex-Mex eatery since the 1970s, Texas Chili Parlor is probably one of the only spots in town where you can sit back with a Mad Dog margarita (that’s as potent as it sounds) and order a plate of enchiladas covered with a giant scoop of Texas-style chili. Walking into Texas Chili Parlor feels almost like entering a cave—it’s dimly lit and chilly inside—and there are usually a handful of people sitting at the bar that look like they’ve been there since the restaurant’s inception.
La Mancha leans fully into the playful, almost kitschy image of what it means to be a Tex-Mex restaurant, and that’s what makes it so much fun. Don’t expect to leave with a new outlook on life after eating their enchiladas (and if that’s ever happened to you anywhere, please let us know where it was). Instead, expect a large menu of solid food that serves equal parts as a tasty dinner and a means for soaking up one too many potent margaritas.
We often go to Tex Mex Joe’s for brunch on the tree-lined deck out back because of the great breakfast plates like chilaquiles and the huevos rancheros, as well as an enormous menu of Tex-Mex hits and nearly every combo plate imaginable. When we’re feeling particularly indecisive, we’ve come to rely on the “Tacos Locos” menu with more out of the ordinary combinations, like a breakfast taco that combines carne guisada, scrambled eggs, and cheddar cheese.
The casual and family-owned restaurant Eldorado Cafe self-styles itself as “Mexican comfort food,” but it occasionally veers wholeheartedly into Tex-Mex territory. The broad menu includes queso, burritos, crispy tacos, carne guisada, and enchiladas (even Dart Bowl-inspired enchiladas, RIP). It’s extremely popular for its bold flavors and big portions—and there’s almost always a wait during peak dinner hours. There are heavy Old Austin vibes, with a colorful, low-key, and kid-friendly space. The service is big-hearted, and with that there’s a passionate community of regulars.
A Tex-Mex staple that’s been around since 1990, Mi Madre’s is not a fancy spot by any means, as the whole building kind of feels like it’s being held together by some duct tape and string lights. But there are two air-conditioned dining rooms and a small, comfortable patio populated by some hungry grackles who have very good taste. While Mi Madre’s is open for lunch and dinner, our favorite time to go is during brunch hours for the enormous breakfast tacos or breakfast plates like huevos rancheros and migas.
Hula Hut serves Tex-Mex with a Hawaiian twist, and it’s probably the only place in the known universe where you can get an order of sizzling Hawaiian fajitas, coconut shrimp, and dessert nachos all in one meal. The drinks are about what you’d expect from a tourist-friendly space that caters to large groups—cheap, sweet, and not particularly noteworthy. But you’re here for the views of the lake (try to come at sunset), the better-than-average food, and the lively energy that surrounds it all.
Fajitas are the name of the game at Polvos, so much so that there’s an entire portion of the menu dedicated to them. You can keep it classic with beef or chicken fajitas, venture into the sea with grilled fish and shrimp, or go all out with a “market price” ribeye. Whatever you decide on, it’ll come out on a dangerously-hot skillet, with a handful of house-made flour tortillas and a ticket to the salsa bar inside where you can mix and match to your heart’s delight, like a 12 year-old kid at a soda fountain. There are two locations in Austin: a newer, slightly-sterile one downtown, and the original on South First.
Known best perhaps for their huge and affordable breakfast tacos, Ken's Subs, Tacos, & More is built for volume, and the food comes out fast and fresh. As the name implies, they do indeed have subs, including a very good Philly cheese steak. It’s the Tex-Mex side of the menu that we like a lot, including the old-school crispy taco, carne guisada, carnitas, and solidly-executed beef enchiladas.
You go to El Chile when you want a margarita menu with almost a dozen different options, and some Mexican food or Tex-Mex to go with it. Which means they have both queso flameado and a creamy queso blanco on the menu. There’s a big patio on a relatively busy stretch of Manor Road, and all of the food—from the tacos to the chicken mole to one of our favorite ceviches in town—is consistently good.
Right across the street from The Domain, on Burnet Road, Dos Salsas is a two-story Tex-Mex restaurant bursting with energy, sizzling fajitas, and strong margaritas. This is a great spot to go with a big group of friends when you just want somewhere unpretentious and fun to grab dinner before going out for a night on Rock Rose. There’s also a 75% chance you’ll hear the staff come out to sing happy birthday on any given night.
Most of the food at Vaqueros is exactly what we want out of a good neighborhood spot—the enchiladas are tasty, and the fajitas are tender—but the tableside queso is worth the trip alone. It all starts with a sizzling pile of peppers, chorizo, and shredded cheese that your server tosses with oil as you watch the whole thing turn into a small mountain of cheesy magma. It’s located near the Barton Creek Square Mall in Westlake, but there’s also a location in Steiner Ranch if you find yourself out a little farther west of town.
Joann’s on South Congress is part Tex-Mex restaurant and part American diner with a retro decor, lots of pastels, and a heavy reliance on theme and interior design à la Wes Anderson—all in the lobby of the Austin Motel. But that doesn’t mean that eating here is all show and no substance. Instead, you can expect to get tasty renditions of Tex-Mex classics, like green chicken enchiladas, barbacoa plates, and skirt steak fajitas. Just don’t be surprised when you also find green peas in your guacamole or soyrizo on your queso.
In the shell of what was probably a Japanese restaurant in a former life right next to the I-35 upper deck, Hornitos is no-frills Tex-Mex at its best. The enchiladas come in just about every variety—including a sampler version if you can’t decide between the ultra-classic ranchero, tangy chicken verde, or a more savory chile con carne—and the fajitas come out on a skillet hotter than the Austin summer sun. And even though their location by an underpass on an I-35 frontage road might not sound ideal, it makes for a really convenient stop on the way home from work.
Despite being in a strip mall next to an Office Depot and an indie film theater, Vivo is a remarkably cozy spot with an interior that will instantly transport you to an old house in Hyde Park. And if that doesn’t take you there, the margaritas certainly will. You’ll find most of the classic Tex-Mex staples here, but you’ll also find a few house specialties that are a little less common in Austin, like some very good puffy tacos, pambazos, and sopapillas.
Looking like something out of The Simpsons, the interior design of the Burnet Road location of El Mercado is a trip, a flamboyant blend of 1980s bright colors and murals, with neon parrots overhead. The food is solid, with textbook renditions of classics like queso, crispy tacos, enchiladas, and fajitas that come out blazing hot. We’re really into the Pastor Poncho Nachos—they’re composed nachos that are topped with beans, al pastor pork, pineapple, and cheese. It’s al pastor, but make it nachos, and it really works. The original location on South 1st that opened in 1985 is still open, and often has live music.