It’s no secret that Austin, Texas, is a food city. ATX is known for its meats and for its tacos, but the eating landscape isn’t limited to barbecue and Tex-Mex. Instead, Austin offers a flavor profile for every eater. You can find it all here, from Indian fare to pho to fried chicken. The city’s fast-casual scene is equal parts ones to watch and well-loved, established brands, and has some of the widest variety of any scene in the U.S.
QSR will be in Austin on September 17 for a Fast Casual Meet Up—a free night of networking, brews, and bites at Fareground—and to get in the spirit we’ve rounded up the best fast casual eats in the area. Click through to get the scoop on the top fast casuals in one of the country’s quirkiest (and tastiest) cities. If you’re interested in attending, RSVP up at the link above.
During its journey from a single food truck to a massively popular Korean barbecue and Mexican fusion joint with six brick-and-mortar locations around Austin, Chi-Lantro BBQ’s most popular item hasn’t changed. The brand still offers its crowd-pleasing Original Kimchi Fries, a delightfully messy combination of French fries, either spicy pork, spicy chicken, tofu, or ribeye, kimchi, cheddar and Monterey jack cheese, onions, cilantro, sesame seeds, sriracha, and a signature “magic sauce” that put the brand on the map back in 2010.
Founder Jae Kim accidentally discovered the hit dish one late night at the truck; while slinging his Korean-Mexican fusion dishes out of his food-truck window he decided in a pinch to pile several ingredients atop French fries. Today, the Original Kimchi Fries are a cult classic in Austin, and Chi’Lantro is an established favorite, with a food truck that still hangs out downtown and a thriving catering business specifically tailored to the dozens of South by Southwest events that take over Austin each year.
Austin wouldn’t be Austin if you couldn’t order a craft beer in the drive thru. At Flyrite Chicken, you can do just this while also sampling a variety of premium chicken sandwiches, tenders, wraps, salads, breakfast tacos, a local craft beer selection, wine, and other goodies served out of the drive-thru windows at two of their locations and from the counter at their third location in the Austin–Bergstrom International Airport.
Aside from discovering a legal way to serve beer in the drive thru, Flyrite founder and fast-casual veteran Kevin Warden has developed a clean-label, high-quality menu that manages to both harken back to and disrupt traditional fast-food chicken joints. Along with its fried chicken, milkshakes, and house-made sauces, the Flyrite menu includes gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options, allowing the brand to expand the audience of their sleek, modern drive-in concept.
No matter what type of burger you’re looking for, Hopdoddy Burger Bar has you covered. The 36-unit chain offers more than a dozen burger options, including beef, bison, chicken, lamb, tuna, and veggie, all topped with myriad cheeses, veggies, and sauces and made in front of guests. Order the Hot Honey & Sage Fries or Green Chile Queso fries as a side and don’t forget to try a milkshake or grab a local beer or signature cocktail from the bar, too.
One of the chain’s three Austin locations is a great choice for a hearty dinner in the city that won’t cost you a huge chunk of change; the Classic Burger starts at $7.50 and shareable appetizer fries ring up at about the same.
PhoNatic founders and husband-and-wife team Pat and Sara Lee created the brand out of a desire to make Vietnamese food (specifically pho—the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup made with rice noodles, broth, and add-ins) less intimidating and more "Phun, Phast, and Phresh."
The brand kicked off in 2011 with a first location. There are now three PhoNatic locations in the greater Austin area, all offering a variety of traditional pho soups, Banh Mi sandwiches, street tacos, build-your-own grill or salad bowls with the guest's choice of protein, and classic Vietnamese dishes like Spring Rolls, Beef Stew, and Chicken Cabbage Salad. Founder Pat Lee grew up in the Asian grocery business and knows his stuff when it comes to sourcing—the brand offers a variety of fresh ingredients that will please even the pickiest of eaters.
Have you really been to Austin if you haven’t tried P. Terry’s? The 16-unit chain is a city staple, offering up hamburgers that start at just $2.35 and doubles-with-cheese and veggie burgers that will run you $3.95, plus fresh-cut fries, fresh-squeezed orange juice and lemonade, creamy milkshakes, and other classic fast-food staples that are equally as affordable and equally as delicious.
P.Terry’s owner Patrick Terry founded the brand in 2005 after being inspired by Mack Eplen's, a burger stand in his hometown of Abilene, Texas. The P.Terry’s stands combine the nostalgia, affordability, and late-night hours of a 1950’s burger joint with all-natural ingredients and upped quality for a can’t-miss, authentic Austin experience.
Locals love the tacos at Tacodeli, and, in a city where you can find Tex-Mex options on every corner, earning local approval is a pretty big accomplishment.
The brand has been serving a “farm-to-taco” menu since Mexico City native and Tacodeli founder Roberto Espinosa opened the doors in 1999, using top-shelf ingredients such as local and organic produce, non-GMO organic corn tortillas, and antibiotic-free and vegetarian-diet chicken to create a plethora of breakfast and lunch tacos. In addition to the taco options, Tacodeli offers soups, salads, sides, and award-winning salsas at its 11 locations in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. And if you can’t find a Tacodeli restaurant in which to hold your taco feast, you can get the goods elsewhere; the brand partners with farmers markets around Austin, Dallas, and Houston to offer its signature product.
Founded by reporter-turned-chef and restaurateur Tinku Saini, Tarka aims to package an authentic Indian cuisine experience into something quick, flavorful, affordable, and environmentally friendly—and so far it seems to be achieving these goals.
The brand opened its first location in Austin in 2009, and now boasts eight units around Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Tarka’s flavorful curries, kabobs, biryanis (a rice dish), and freshly baked flatbreads are offered up in a relaxed counter-service setting, and the brand also offers delivery and carry-out party platters. And Tarka is also delivering on its goal to go green; the City of Austin has recognized the brand as a “Green Restaurant” thanks to the brand’s extensive eco-friendly packaging and recycling efforts.
With dozens of locations, there’s no question that Torchy’s Tacos is one of Austin’s strongest Tex-Mex success stories. Founder Michael Rypka launched Torchy’s out of a trailer in 2006, and, since then, the chain has established busy brick-and-mortars throughout Texas and in Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
Rypka, a trained chef, opened Torchy’s with the goal of focusing on interesting taco combinations. Torchy’s has met that goal and gone beyond, offering a menu filled with tongue-in-cheek, tasty tacos like the Democrat (barbacoa, avocado, cotija cheese, cilantro, onions, lime, and tomatillo sauce on a corn tortilla) and the Republican (grilled jalapeno sausage, pico de gallo, cheddar jack cheese, and poblano sauce on a flour tortilla). Most tacos hover around the $5 mark, and Rypka says that the average guest orders one or two tacos per person, making Torchy’s one of the best values in town.