What is Tex-Mex Cuisine?
Certainly, we all have an appreciation for Tex-Mex cuisine, but let’s delve into its intriguing origins and discover what it truly entails.
According to some accounts, the fusion of Mexican and American culinary traditions occurred when early Mexican immigrants settled in Texas. Naturally, they wanted to prepare dishes from their own culture, but they encountered a lack of ingredients in America that were readily available in Mexico. While traditional Mexican cuisine has deep roots spanning thousands of years, Tex-Mex distinguishes itself by incorporating ingredients such as cheddar cheese instead of queso blanco and the use of flour in place of or alongside corn (as seen in Mixla tortillas).
During the Great Depression of the 1930s and 1940s, the City Plan of Austin enforced segregation, mandating the Mexican community to reside on the East Side. Despite these challenging circumstances, Austin experienced a surge in Tex-Mex cuisine. The credit for the popularity of this genre primarily goes to the Mexican community in Austin, who managed to build a thriving community and achieve prosperity despite the segregation laws. Tex-Mex proved to be an ideal blend of traditional Mexican recipes with American ingredients, a culinary marriage that captivated the taste buds of many.
Now that we’ve explored the historical aspect, let’s dive headfirst into a list of the finest Tex-Mex establishments that ATX (Austin) has to offer.
Rosita’s Al Pastor
1911 E. Riverside Drive
Prepare to be pleasantly surprised by this restaurant. When my then-boyfriend, now-husband first took me to their taco truck in front of a Bingo Hall on East Riverside in 2017, I immediately thought, “This embodies the essence of Austin, and it’s bound to be incredible!” Since then, Rosita’s Al Pastor has become our go-to destination for tacos.
While their entire menu is fantastic, I insist that you try their Al Pastor tacos paired with a Mexican coke. For an even more enjoyable experience, head over to Lakeshore at Lady Bird Lake Metropolitan Park, find a bench, and relish your meal with a stunning view.
Rosita’s has grown from a humble taco truck to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, complete with a convenient drive-through. For longtime fans like us, the original taco truck still stands in their parking lot, faithfully serving exceptional food on a daily basis.
Juan In A Million
2300 E. Cesar Chavez Street
Since 1980, Juan In A Million has been a family-owned and operated establishment. Upon entering, you can immediately feel the love that permeates the atmosphere. It could be the prompt and friendly service, the mind-blowing food, or the fact that Mr. Juan himself often greets and converses with the patrons of his restaurant. This place truly stands out.
As a local tour guide, one of my favorite questions to ask visitors is, “Have you dined at Juan In A Million yet?” If they haven’t, I promptly recommend my signature order: “The Don Juan with 5 extra tortillas and a side of queso!” This dish combines all the delightful elements of breakfast into one massive, irresistible breakfast taco that locals know to share among friends.
1511 E. 6th Street
Rudy Cisneros, known as “The Man Who Made Huevos Rancheros Famous,” founded Cisco’s Restaurant in 1950, making it the oldest operating Tex-Mex establishment in Austin. Today, it is owned by Rudy’s grandson, Matt Cisneros, and has achieved such legendary status in the city that it has been approved as a Historic Marker—a testament to its iconic status.
Step inside Cisco’s, and you’ll be greeted by a nostalgic ambiance, adorned with personal photos of notable Austinites, vintage tiles, and a lunch counter featuring sassy, red barstools. It’s like stepping into a culinary time capsule from half a century ago. And why change a good thing when you’ve got it, as Cisco’s exemplifies?
Claim a table or find a spot at the counter, and treat yourself to their amazing food. While their world-famous Huevos Rancheros are an obvious choice, you can’t go wrong with their migas or picadillo either. Oh, and make sure not to miss out on their complimentary biscuits—they are simply delightful.
Enchiladas Y Mas
1911 West Anderson Lane
When a restaurant’s motto is “Never Trust a Skinny Cook,” you know you’re in for an extraordinary gastronomic experience. Since 1994, Enchiladas Y Mas has been a cherished, family-owned establishment that serves some of the best Tex-Mex in Austin. Unlike some places that merely aim to feed you quickly, dining at Enchiladas Y Mas feels different. From the homemade salsa to the Chicken Enchiladas with Verde Sauce, every item on their menu is a delicious testament to the love poured into their culinary creations.
At Enchiladas Y Mas, you’ll be welcomed as if you’re entering a home, and you can expect to be generously fed. The inviting atmosphere adds to the experience, making you feel right at home.
2608 W 7th Street
In 1954, when Maudie Hamilton first opened her namesake homestyle cafe, little did she know she was starting an Austin icon. After owning the restaurant for decades, she sold it in the early 1990s to Joe Draker, who transformed it into a Tex-Mex haven, solidifying Maudie’s Cafe as one of the top destinations for this beloved cuisine. With seven locations throughout Austin, Maudie’s Cafe has become a favorite neighborhood Tex-Mex joint for many.
Open every day of the week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Maudie’s offers mouthwatering dishes that will tantalize your taste buds, regardless of the time of day. Some of my personal favorites include the Marfa Stack (cheese enchiladas topped with fried eggs), Mango Margarita, and their showstopping fajitas.
Tamale House East
1707 East 6th Street
The first Tamale House in Austin opened its doors in 1958. Initially a small, family-run business with a menu featuring just eight items, it has evolved over the years. The family’s passion and commitment to their culinary legacy are evident in every bite. The current incarnation of their establishment, Tamale House East, emerged in 2012, perfectly timed to coincide with South By Southwest and the ever-evolving East Side of Austin.
Ordering a 6-pack of tamales and some Veggie Compuesto (queso with fresh guacamole and black beans served with tortilla chips) is always a safe bet at Tamale House East. To complete your meal, pair it with one of Maudie’s margaritas. If you visit on a Saturday, you might even have the chance to enjoy live music while dining. And if you’re looking to spice things up, Thursdays are the perfect time to visit for live salsa music and dancing!
Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop
2305 East 7th Street
Since Joe Avila opened his restaurant in 1962, Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop has become one of the go-to places for Tex-Mex on the East Side. Operating exclusively for breakfast and lunch, this spot offers all the beloved Tex-Mex comforts, such as tacos and enchiladas. However, their migas and huevos rancheros during breakfast are simply not to be missed. And remember to save room for their Pink Cake for dessert—it’s a must-try!
El Secreto de Abuela
817 Airport Road
El Secreto de Abuela is the best-kept secret in Austin when it comes to Tex-Mex cuisine. Before you even step inside, the charming depiction of Abuela (Spanish for Grandmother) on the exterior hints at the delightful culinary experience awaiting you. With excellent service, a family-friendly atmosphere, and generously portioned dishes that are perfect for sharing or taking home, El Secreto de Abuela offers an unforgettable dining experience.
Open from breakfast through dinner, their sizable menu features a range of options, from delectable seafood dishes to Mexican classics like menudo, as well as crowd-pleasers like fajitas and enchiladas. For brunch, I highly recommend trying their Egg & Chicharron Breakfast Tacos, accompanied by some pancakes and a refreshing Horchata. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
El Alma Cafe y Cantina
1025 Barton Springs Road
El Alma Cafe y Cantina takes a unique approach to Tex-Mex cuisine while still delivering that cozy, comfort food experience that makes these dishes so beloved. On a pleasant day, there’s nothing quite like enjoying Happy Hour on their patio, which offers the perfect amount of shade and a breathtaking view of Downtown and Butler Metro Park.
The only challenge at El Alma is deciding what to order, as their $4 tacos feature all your favorite fillings. Don’t let the price fool you; they’ll leave you feeling completely satisfied. Among their drinks, their Micheladas are definitely among the very best in Austin. However, you can’t go wrong with the La Llorona Margarita either—a spicy concoction made with ghost pepper tequila, prickly pear puree, lime juice, and agave. Just be warned, it packs a punch! Another standout dish at El Alma is their Chile Rellenos, with three options to choose from: Sweet Potato, Duck, and Shrimp & Crab. Personally, I’m determined to try all three.
1624 W. 5th Street
No “Best of ATX Tex-Mex” list would be complete without the iconic El Arroyo. You’ve probably come across their witty signs on social media, but the food and the humor are no mere gimmicks. El Arroyo has been serving up fantastic food and good times since 1975.
Once you’ve taken a selfie next to their famous sign and stepped inside, you’ll understand why El Arroyo has such a dedicated following. If the weather is nice, request a spot on their patio and indulge in a refreshing margarita. It’s the perfect accompaniment for contemplating their extensive menu. An order of queso with their delicious chips and salsa is always a great way to start. Choosing between the lime-marinated Steak Ranchero and the Chile Rellenos with Shrimp is always a dilemma for me—they are both outstanding. But remember, there’s no rule saying you can’t order multiple dishes. And if you can’t finish everything, don’t worry, they provide takeout containers for that very reason.