Beyond SXSW: Partying Outside the Lines in Austin

It's a fine line, but when choosing a restaurant you really should be more concerned with the two great indicators: the freshness of the salsa, and whether the tortillas made on-site. Ones to try that pass the test:

Fonda San Miguel: (2330 W. North Loop) Interior Mexican cuisine in an upscale atmosphere. Sunday brunch is especially popular. www.fondasanmiguel.com

Curra's: (614 E. Oltorf) Also serving interior Mexican, but in a slightly more casual setting, just south of downtown. The famous tamales can be shipped to your door. www.currasgrill.com

Hula Hut: (3825 Lake Austin Blvd.) Tex-Mex with an island twist – and a sizable outdoor seating area overlooking scenic Lake Austin. The fish tacos and fruity margaritas are especially good. www.hulahut.com

Maudie's: (2608 W. 7th St.) This much-loved Tex-Mex spot has been winning awards since the 1950s. Though there are several locations, the Lake Austin outpost is closest to downtown. www.maudies.com

There are dozens – if not hundreds – more cafes, taco shacks and upscale eateries that have come to define the city. Here's a boiled-down list of where you can find the heart and soul of Austin on a plate:

Magnolia Café: (1920 S. Congress Ave.; 2304 Lake Austin Blvd.) Two locations: both on the edge of the SXSW scene, both open 24 hours. Try the Magnolia Mud (a hot mix of queso, beans and spices), and you might never leave Texas. www.cafemagnolia.com

Kerbey Lane Café: (3704 Kerbey Lane) Though other incarnations have crept up across the city, it's really worth visiting the original – a converted house on unpretentious Kerbey Lane. It's open 24 hours, but no matter what time you go, order the pancakes, largely considered to be the best in the free world. www.kerbeylanecafe.com

The Driskill Hotel: (604 Brazos St.) To actually stay at this historic downtown hotel during SXSW, call at least 9 months to a year in advance. But even if you're at La Quinta, at least stop in to have a drink and admire the opulent lobby columns, marble floors and stained-glass dome. Hard to believe it was once a cattle showroom when the Driskill first opened in 1886. www.driskillhotel.com

Shady Grove: Austin boasts about 200 music venues, but this Barton Springs joint is consistently voted the one with the best patio. And in March, that's exactly where you want to be eating. The burgers are roughly as popular as local radio station KGSR's unplugged music series, "Live at the Grove." www.theshadygrove.com

Also Entertaining

SXSW isn't the only game in town, nor is live music in general. Should you find yourself hankering for a fest alternative, check these out.

Sock by Sockwest: The second Sunday of each month (that's March 9 for SXSW-goers) the Scoot Inn (1308 E. 4th St) transforms into a high-energy sock hop. Kick off your shoes and dance like crazy to doo wop, rockabilly, ska, R&B, girl groups and more – all on a baby powder-sprinkled dance floor. http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=85556421

Improv Comedy: Austin's improv scene has long been heating up. Check out the unscripted goods at Get Up (http://getup.austinimprov.com), a two-person show starring two of Austin's most seasoned performers; Coldtowne (http://coldtowne.com), a slew of orphaned Katrina improvisers who've made Austin their adopted home; and the Hideout (www.hideouttheatre.com), the downtown home of Improvised Shakespeare, among other shows.

Alamo Drafthouse: Movies and beer? Yes. And a tasty food menu as well. Two downtown locations (320 E. 6th; 1120 S. Lamar; www.drafthouse.com), screen indie classics, cult first-runs and this week, SXSW selections -- all with discreet seat service of your favorite brews, pizza, salads and more. http://www.drafthouse.com/

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