By Chris Biggs
When I was traveling in Hawaii a few years ago, I checked in to my hotel prior to dinner and asked the concierge where I could find a good vegetarian meal. Her response? "Check out Panda Express - I think they have good vegetables there."
While I'm by no means a food snob, the story above is simply intended to illustrate how difficult it can be to get advice about where to eat as a vegetarian - or as someone who's vegetarian-inclined (full disclosure: Lori and I are pescetarians, meaning that we do eat seafood on occasion, although we eat fully vegetarian about 95% of the time. I try to avoid Panda Express 100% of the time though). And given the general lack of good on-the-ground intelligence around vegetarian dining options, we’re particularly passionate about documenting vegetarian recommendations during our travels and sharing our discoveries with you as we go.
This spring we re-visited Austin, Texas, which is the fastest-growing city in America for a number of reasons: a thriving economy, amazing tacos, an eclectic music scene, delicious tacos, lower-than-average housing costs, and life-changing tacos. Also, the tacos are really good. You'll find dozens of articles online with headlines like, "The 13 Absolutely Can't Miss Tacos in Austin!," or "Eat These 37 Tacos in Austin Right Now!" They're all good lists but few are wholly vegetarian-focused; check our recommendations below for the real scoop.
All-Around Awesome: Tacodeli
Multiple locations; we frequent the 1500 Spyglass Drive location (10-12 minute drive south from downtown Austin)
For the better part of this last year, Lori and I have debated our favorite Austin taco spot, with me consistently advocating for the classic Torchy's. On our most recent trip the vegetarian tacos at Tacodeli proved me wrong once and for all, and I'm glad to say I'm an enthusiastic convert to the cult of Tacodeli.
One of the nicest things about a lunch at Tacodeli is that vegetarians have no fewer than six excellent taco options (note: vegan options exist as well, as well as the ability to modify tacos on the menu).. Three must-haves include the sweet potato-filled Papadulce; the Space Cowboy, and the Frontera Fundido Portobello. While the latter two tacos are mushroom-based they are different enough to warrant a try, especially since the Space Cowboy is spiced up with grilled corn, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and guacamole with a little kick to it. A nice thing about Tacodeli, too, is that it rotates in specials on a regular basis, so check the board near the cash register to see if any new vegetarian options pop up during your visit.
Also, the Tikin Xic grilled salmon taco is the most flavorful, juicy taco I've had anywhere in Austin. It's not vegetarian but it sure is damn good.
The only knock on Tacodeli is that it's not as authentic as some of the many small taquerias found throughout the city. Tacodeli succeeds in taking a non-traditional approach to its menu that appeals foremost to gringos. While the prices may be higher at Tacodeli the overall quality of both the tacos and their service is top-notch. Be prepared to drive to Tacodeli, too, as it’s not walkable from downtown - and don’t be surprised if the occasional bird swoops by as you eat outside. After all, humans aren’t the only species who love Tacodeli.
Also, please note that most Tacodeli locations close as early as 3 pm, so be sure to get there for breakfast, lunch, or linner (that all-important taco meal between lunch and dinner).
Breakfast Tacos: Veracruz All-Natural
Multiple food truck locations, at least three of which are located conveniently in or near downtown Austin; check here for more location details.
So here's the deal: the overall menu at Veracruz is pretty underwhelming. Their veggie quesadilla is bland and a bit greasy, their guacamole is sinfully weak, and the menu otherwise doesn't have much for vegetarians to choose from.
But none of that matters once you take your first mouth-watering bite of their Migas breakfast taco, wrapped in a fresh, chewy flour tortilla. I'm pretty sure that if everyone had a Veracruz Migas taco for breakfast there would be no more war, nations would be inspired to pool together resources in pursuit of a cure for cancer, and perhaps even Donald Trump would stop behaving like an evil cartoon character (no promises on the latter though).
If you're in Austin for a short trip and only have a chance to grab one taco, make it a Migas from Veracruz. The eggs are light and tasty; the avocado, pico de gallo, and cheese come together in a symphony of flavor; and the tortilla chips add that extra crunch that pushes this taco into next-level territory. Pull a Nike and just do it.
Overall Experience: Torchy's Tacos
Multiple locations; we prefer the location at 1311 South 1st Street (20-25 minute walk from downtown Austin)
If you ask your Uber drive where to grab tacos in Austin, there's a high likelihood they're going to recommend Torchy's - and for good reason. The tacos are consistently awesome, the outdoor seating area is actually part of a quaint converted trailer park, and significant lore has developed around the restaurant. Heck, even President Obama visited Torchy's during his speaking engagement at South by Southwest (SXSW), the hugely-popular technology, music, and film festival held in Austin each March.
There are only a limited number of vegetarian options on Torchy's menu, and I'd advise starting with the Fried Avocado. While I don't agree with the adage that frying everything makes it taste better, I do think that the avocado's pairing with refried beans, pico do gallo, and other toppings brings forth a gooey, worthwhile vegetarian taco experience. I also highly recommend The Independent, which incorporates strips of portobello mushroom, beans, corn, avocado, and more - all drizzled with a delicious ancho aioli.
While Torchy's may not have as many vegetarian options as Tacodeli, it does do well on the pescetarian front, including both the Mr. Orange (blackened salmon with light accents) and the Mr. Pink (seared ahi tuna) - both of which are heavy-handed on the salt but delicious in spite of it. As a side, too, consider getting an order of street corn, a fire-roasted treat that comes in a small cup and tastes just like fresh corn-on-the-cob, accompanied by queso fresco and a creamy ancho aioli. Kindly, Torchy's has taken the liberty of shearing the street corn from the cob for your convenience, avoiding the need to floss immediately after eating.
Torchy's is worth a visit for every Austin visitor and, given it's proximity to downtown, should be one of the first places on your list.
Hidden Gem: Tyson's Tacos
4905 Airport Boulevard (10 minute drive north from downtown Austin)
Tyson's Tacos isn't one of the big players in the Austin scene, although the long lines suggest that it's a secret that locals - including University of Texas students - have picked up on long ago. Case in point: neither of our Uber drivers on the way to-and-from Tyson's had ever heard of it, although that didn't stop a swarm of Tyson's loyalists from lining up around the restaurant to place their order.
The bulk of the vegetarian options can be found on Tyson's breakfast and brunch menu. Start with The Rage, a beautifully designed taco that features egg, beans, avocado, cheese, and a creamy Sriracha sauce. Val's Classic Migas taco is solid - not quite as good as the Migas at Veracruz - but also consider diving into a hearty Yoda taco that features potato, beans, and avocado. On the vegetarian menu, I tried Kelcie's BYO but recommend you skip it - save the calories for something tastier.
A good rule of thumb here: everything with the Sriracha mayo is delicious. Ask for extra on the side and keep it in your pocket for an hour after the meal, at which point you'll break into cold withdrawal sweats. Can't get enough of that sauce!
One last pro tip: if you go on the weekend, be sure to get there early to avoid a long lunchtime line. Like most taco joints, Tyson’s isn’t big enough to accommodate all of its hungry eaters at once.
There are certainly other noteworthy vegetarian tacos in Austin. While I haven't yet had the pleasure of dining here, Papalote is often cited as having a mean cauliflower-based taco. Additionally, a lot of reviews suggest that El Chilote is worth a look; I personally found their vegetarian options to be underwhelming, although they're one of the few taco restaurants to offer an assortment of healthy salad options - which may rightfully be in order after a multi-day taco-eating binge. Plus their tangy chimichurri sauce can make almost any taco bearable.
The most important thing to remember about eating tacos in Austin is that, much like playing tee-ball in elementary school, there are no losers. We all win. But since your time is limited and your expectations are high, stick to the recommendations above for some sure-fire bets.
Have other favorites not on the list? We'd love your feedback - please feel free to leave a comment below!