It was on the half-hour flight between Houston and Austin that realized I might be descending into some culinary trouble. I, a vegetarian for a decade now, was flipping through the Texas Monthly’s Cook Like a Texan issue I had picked up in the airport—and (not unsurprisingly) could not find a thing I could eat. Between raving recommendations for the best smoked brisket, fried catfish and grilled rib eye, I was left lusting after a lonely side dish of cheese enchiladas. Everything is bigger in Texas, I thought — vegetarians’ problems included.
Luckily, Austin is far from your typical Texas town. A unique blend of local influences - chief among them, the 50,000-student University of Texas and the exploding South by Southwest music festival, which now attracts upwards of 30,000 attendees - have pushed Austin restaurants to expand its menus far beyond the standard Texas fare, catering to a more out-of-town and liberal crowd.
So in a state known for its big barbeque and fried chicken, Austin turns out to be a panacea for vegetarian diners.
Searching out recommendations before my trip, every Austin native I knew told me try Mother's Café and Garden. The earthy restaurant, about a 10-minute drive from downtown, has long established itself as a premier vegetarian restaurant in the city. The restaurant's garden room, while indoors, is tranquil and dimly lit - you can sometimes find a harpsichordist playing in the background. But the main attraction here is the food: they are known for its artichoke enchiladas and Bueno Burger, a medley of grains, seeds and tofu that gets regular raves on message boards as the best veggie burger in Austin.
The brunch at Moonshine's is not to be missed - even if it meant waiting out the crowd that starts congregating well before doors open at 10 am on Sundays. The offerings are as vegetarian-friendly as can be, given it is a Southern buffet brunch, with creamy jalapeno cheese grits, delicious cheddar and broccoli casserole and biscuits with a smoked chipotle sauce. Skip the sausage and get your protein by trying two standout egg varieties: green eggs (with pesto and tomatoes) and migas (scrambled eggs with tortilla strips). Make the long wait seem significantly shorter by sipping on one of the best Bloody Marys the city has to offer, a steal at $3.50 each.
Venture on a short drive, or 30-minute walk, from downtown Austin to the city's south side for some of the top vegetarian choices the city has to offer. Torchy's Tacos has become a staple in Austin's booming foot cart culture and is the biggest draw at the famed Trailer Park Eatery. The vegetarian options are, admittedly, not plentiful - only two of its 13 tacos are meat free - but they are delicious. Try both the fried avocado tacos with vegetarian, refried beans and the Dirty Sanchez (name aside, it is an appetizing combination of scrambled eggs, chillies, guacamole and escabeche carrots) and the Green Chile Queso, which comes topped with guacamole and cilantro.
It is difficult to save room for dessert at Torchy's, but if you do, hop over to neighbouring food cart Holy Cacao and sip on one of its specialty "cake shakes", ice cream blended with cake. Red Velvet Cake blended into chocolate ice cream is the perfect antidote to a sweltering Austin night.
Just two blocks up the street is the totally-vegetarian Bouldin Creek Café, a homey restaurant that prides itself in eco-friendly, locally-sourced dining that is a fresh spin on Austin's more traditional Tex-Mex offerings. Check out its Fajitas Italianas (sautéed portabellas and zucchini strips sub in for traditional meat offerings) or Farmer's Plate (featuring three sweet potatoes tamales)for a full meal. Or just swing in for a cup of coffee and take advantage of its sprawling, outdoor seating and ample board game selection to pass the night away.