One of the most celebrated restaurants in Austin is a little Mexican luncheonette on Congress Avenue (between 2nd and 3rd), Las Manitas. It would be an unassuming little place, the standard booths along one side, formica diner bar on the other, some tables in the middle, until you look over and notice that one entire wall is filled with framed articles about the place from national travel and food magazines, and that the place is almost always full to overflowing.
The menu has maybe a dozen items, plus the daily specials, simple northern and interior Mexican. The service is fast; it's unusual to wait more than five minutes for your food. And the food is good. Really, really good. The particular crowd favorite are the frijoles, which are cooked with bacon, and are about as close to the platonic ideal of refried beans as I can imagine.
True to the luncheonette ideal, the place is only open for breakfast and lunch; it closes at 4 PM on weekdays and 2:30 on weekends, of, as you will see, particular note is the fact that breakfast is served until closing on weekends. The best of the lunch menu are probably the flautas, carne guisada and fajitas and any of the daily specials, though you can't really go wrong.
Where Las Manitas really shines, though, is at breakfast, and this is also what it is most famous for. The migas are excellent, as are the huevos rancheros, but my favorite is the plato de chorizo, which is just a big old plate of scrambled eggs and chorizo, with their frijoles on the side. The eggs and chorizo are also available in breakfast tacos; sometimes I get the plate and a taco or two. And want more when I'm done. They also have a soy-based vegetarian chorizo, which I personally consider blasphemy, but odds are it's good too.
I've never been much of a convert to Mexican drinks, but people who are assure me that the aguas frescas and horchata are also excellent.
Somewhat separate from the food is the role Las Manitas has as a social phenomenon. It's one of the premier Austin power lunch locations, especially for the political set, a role that originated in it being former governor Ann Richards' favorite place to stop for lunch (Bill Clinton favors the more self-conciously trendy Guero's, a few blocks across the river, when he's in town, and the Bush daughters have a well-documented relationship with Chuy's, which is frankly a bit of a tourist trap). The overall mix of customers is an odd one, suited politicos and yuppies mixing with Mexican construction workers on their lunch breaks, tourists, and the usual Austin dusting of peirced and tattooed alternative types.
Las Manitas's overwhelming success has also allowed its owners to promote numerous social causes, including much of the funding for a Latin American art gallery down the block, with pieces constantly rotating in on the restaurant walls from it.
In short, if you live in Austin, you presumably don't need me to tell you about this place. But if you don't, and you're ever in town, eat there. Seriously. This is not optional.