Matt’s El Rancho
The Tex-Mex institution is still going strong after 67 years
by Karen O. Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
I could write this review in my sleep. Blindfolded. With one hand tied behind my back. That’s how well I know Matt’s El Rancho. I’ve been going there since I was 18, which was a looooong time ago. Way back when it was legal at 18 to drink a Matt’s margarita. Or two.
But I’m not the only one who loves Matt’s. The place has been in business for 67 years, so obviously a lot of other people love it, too. Yet in a town chock-full of great Tex-Mex restaurants, what sets Matt’s apart with such impressive longevity and die-hard clientele?
For starters, nostalgia. Like me, legions of Austinites have been going practically their whole lives. It’s not unusual to see a multigenerational family dining alongside frat boys, hippies, yuppies, bikers and scenesters. Everyone, it seems, loves Matt’s. It’s a family-run business that’s comfortable and familiar, right down to the staff, many of whom have worked there for decades and warmly greet customers by their first names.
But comfort gets you only so far. To succeed for six decades, a Tex-Mex restaurant has to have great food — and margaritas. And Matt’s has both. Its boastful slogan, “Always Good,” is justifiably true. In the decades I’ve been eating there, I’ve rarely been disappointed.
So let’s start with the important stuff: the margaritas. At Matt’s, they’re good and they’re strong. Back in college, my gateway margaritas were Matt’s exotically flavored neon-pink prickly pear and ruby-red sangria swirl. Eventually, I graduated to the signature Matt’s Knockout Martini, a potent lime concoction served in a cocktail shaker and garnished with olives. Today, my go-to is the more classic frozen top-shelf, perfectly tart and slushy.
For food, you’ve got to start with Matt’s legendary Bob Armstrong Dip. It’s a must. This addictive riff on queso takes a pool of molten yellow cheese and plops in a scoop of guacamole and spicy ground beef. It ain’t pretty, but it’s good. So stir it up and dig right in.
Next, you need a platter of classic bean-and-cheese nachos. Matt’s makes them old-school: individual half-moon fried tortillas, meticulously layered with refried beans, melted cheese, pickled jalapeños and fresh sliced onions. Their sublime, simple execution is a far cry from the messy mound of store-bought chips drizzled with liquid cheese found at other places.
For entrées, the tacos al carbon are the best in town: tender cubes of grilled beef tenderloin tucked inside warm homemade flour tortillas. If you like seafood, Matt’s grilled fish is always fresh, and its jumbo Gulf shrimp, whether grilled or fried, are always sweet and plump. The TexMex combo plates are all winners, especially the classic No.1 Dinner, which has been on the menu since 1952 and includes a taco, an enchilada, a tamale, rice and beans.
When you arrive at the sprawling hacienda, you’ll pass through two beautiful hand-carved wooden doors — and then you’ll wait. Even though the place seats 600 people, its immense popularity means it’s usually packed — especially on weekend nights — which is a good excuse to cool your heels in the jovial bar with a margarita. Of all the various dining rooms and seating areas in the massive restaurant, my favorite is the enchanting outdoor patio. Encircling a gurgling fountain, it’s a delightful place to soak in a sunny day or unwind at night under its twinkle lights.
At Matt’s, its enduring attraction is more than just great food, drinks, ambiance and service. It’s a feeling. And for me, it feels like home. I’m there at least once a week, unless I’m traveling, which is often. But as soon as I land, I steer my car toward Matt’s, where the incomparable Tex-Mex and hospitality welcome me back home.