Austin isn’t a city that’s exactly hurting for Mexican restaurants, but if yellow cheese and sizzling fajita plates aren’t what you’re in the mood for, consider a trip to La Popular, which is operated by a group out of Mexico City — which makes for a bit of a different vibe vs. the more traditional border-driven flavors you’ll find in Texas.
La Popular — which also operates a location near Sacramento, California — is built around a spacious bar and includes plenty of seating both inside and out. On a previous visit in advance of its formal opening a few weeks ago, we sampled a wide swath of both the food and drink menus, which I’ll address in turn, as this is foremost a place designed for both eating and drinking.
First, the food: While not quite interior Mexican, the central and coastal flourishes are obvious, including dishes built around mole and seafood — but which appear alongside enchiladas, tacos, and even bbq ribs. Do not sleep on the guacamole topped with beef chicharrones (a hearty portion) or the ribeye tacos. The latter don’t look like much, with a thin slab of carpaccio-like beef atop a corn tortilla, but the depth of flavor in these is better than any taco I’ve had in recent memory. I found the mole enchiladas to be a bit of a miss during our visit, but spiking them with one of the four salsas served tableside is an easy way to prop things up.
Rarely does a Mexican restaurant bring its A-game to innovative cocktails, but I was dazzled by more than a few of the tiki-influenced offerings on tap here, starting with the you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it Oaxacan Jellyfish. This concoction of rum, pineapple, lime, blue lemongrass, and coconut cream is essentially a non-frozen Pina Colada, served with a bubble of lemongrass smoke that is blown tableside. It only lasts a few seconds before popping — but it’s long enough to snap one of the most unusual cocktail photos you’ll ever take. While it’s a summery sipper, I was much more enamored with the Yucatan Toucan, a play on words for La Popular’s spin on a Jungle Bird cocktail. The bar doesn’t even list the ingredients for this one, but it’s built around a clarified mezcal punch, served with a cinnamon sugar skull that is set on fire — again, tableside. The mezcal spins this classic rum drink in just the right way, which the clarity of the cocktail makes you think it might just be healthy if you finish it off. Which I did. Of any drink served here, this is the one I’m dying to get the recipe for.
Other cocktails are further spins on classics, including the lively passion fruit-heavy Perlas, with reposado tequila and lime, and the Count Diablo, a far too smoky Negroni twist with mezcal and ghost pepper tincture, garnished with dried chili threads. Do save room for the Carajillo, which, aside from the Margarita, is the only unadulterated item on the list. The mix of Licor 43, espresso, and vanilla cream is the perfect dessert to pair with La Popular’s plate of miniature churros, served with two dipping sauces. Don’t want a cocktail? Check out La Popular’s nicely curated mezcal list, which is unusually broken down by agave species instead of region or producer.
Situated in a quiet part of Austin west of downtown, it’s easy to get here and the parking is free. The restaurant was packed during our preview visit, but service was able to keep up even though clearly everyone was still in their first few days on the job.
I’ll be back.
7415 Southwest Pkwy, Austin, TX 78735