10 Places to Eat in Amarillo
(That Don't Have a 72 oz. Steak on the Menu)
If you ever plan to motor west... oh, you know the rest.
Not entirely a tourist destination in and of itself, countless people pass through Amarillo, Texas on their way to somewhere else. Whether they are following the historical Route 66 highway or flying through on I-40, it's a sizable dot on a well-traveled map. From the highway, it appears to be like many other cities and towns appear to be from the highway, comprised of national chains, big box stores, and plenty of asphalt. Blurred views from the highway are never the best way to get to know a place, and Amarillo is no different.
You've probably heard of the roadside gem, Cadillac Ranch, and no doubt the legend of the 72 oz. steak at The Big Texan has made it onto your radar. The first is an art treasure that belongs to the world, hosted by the good people of Amarillo, the latter is a piece of over-the-top-kitsch that is as fun and silly as you might imagine. Venture out from the obvious though, and you'll find a few surprises, primarily a bubbling diversity that most people would never expect to find in the middle of the Texas Panhandle. Amarillo is home to a huge meat processing industry, and as with so many other jobs that most Americans would rather not do themselves, the work falls to people with fewer choices: immigrants.
That topic could go off in any number of directions—many of which can get rather heated—but for our purposes, let's focus on the fact that when new people become a part of our communities, it brings the opportunity to get to know them and enjoy their cultural contributions by way of food. On a recent week-long visit to Amarillo and the surrounding area, I encountered people from a far broader range of backgrounds than I ever do in Austin, or really any other city in Texas, including Houston, which boasts one of the most diverse population in the U.S. Perhaps it's because Amarillo is so much less sprawling, and within several city blocks it's possible to cross paths with people born in five different countries all within an hour's time (if you venture to those particular city blocks). The experience drove home a simple truth, that you should never assume you know a place—or a person, or a people—until you've actually taken the time to get to know them. Sometimes you'll be surprised.
The next time you are blowing though Amarillo, exit the highway, leave your assumptions in the car, and enjoy a good meal by the people of Amarillo, regardless of how long they've called it home. The suggestions below represent a good mix of old and new, but all are tasty.
2812 SW 6th Ave, Amarillo, Texas 79106
In a place where one of the primary industries is meat, either raising it or processing it, an all-vegetarian coffee shop may seem out of place. I camped out and worked here one day, enjoying cup after cup of their organic and fair trade coffee, and filling up on the bp3, a breakfast pita pocket with salsa, egg, black beans, spinach, and cheese. They also serve light lunch and dinner items ranging from blue corn nachos (you pick the toppings) to a hummus sandwich. Any vegetarians or vegans passing through will want to stop here for sure, and it's worth a stop visit even for meat-eaters (like me).
African Safari Restaurant
5945 E. Amarillo Blvd, Amarillo, TX 79107
For most Americans, African Safari will offer an out of the ordinary restaurant experience. Go with it. The tiny, hole-in-the-wall building is decorated only with a continuous coat of bright green paint. Pick out a seat, and don't expect a menu. You'll be helped when it's your turn, after several other tasks have been taken care of, perhaps. Let them know you'd like to eat, and you'll be offered the daily special. What they cook that day is what they have, and it's only one or two dishes. My friend and I tried their Somali spaghetti with a distinctively flavored sauce called Suugo as well as stewed goat served with a bed of lettuce and lime. It was plenty for the both of us. The Suugo is flavored by a Somali spice mix called xawaash, neither spicy nor mild, just boldly flavored. The goat ranged in tenderness depending on the piece, but the simplicity of it also disguised a complexity of flavor, especially in the tenderest pieces.
3303 Bell St, Amarillo, Texas 79109
This well-established Tex-Mex restaurant has several locations and is popular with locals. The standard Tex-Mex dishes we tried were just that, somewhat standard, neither good nor bad, but the grilled dishes rose above the fray. I was especially impressed with the quail, or Cordoniz, which as the menu suggests was grilled and marinated to perfection (I tried replicating this at home to no avail). Their menu also includes cabrito and lamb chops along with the usual beef and chicken fajitas. If you have a group, order the Paradilla and choose three different grilled meats.
El Carbonero Restaurante y Pupuseria
1700 E Amarillo Blvd, Amarillo, TX 79107
My friend and I had planned to go to another restaurant when I saw the word "pupuseria" on a sign and suggested a change of plans. Salvadoran food is less exotic for me than Somali food, and pupusas are a favorite (thick, tortilla-like masa cakes that are filled with a variety of ingredients). It was early-ish in the day so we tried a combination of breakfast items and traditional pupusas. The Huevos Revueltos (scrambled eggs with Salvadoran sausage) were a bit too salty to enjoy the entire huge portion of them, but the Platanos Frito (fried plantains) were as delicious as I'd hoped. We ordered one plain cheese and one cheese and squash pupusa (Pupusa Calabaza con Queso). The first was good, and the second has had me wishing it weren't an 8-hour trip to go back. The homemade salsa was some of the most flavorful I've had in a while, and their version curtido (a Salvadoran cabbage slaw) had a strong brined flavor. The combination of all three was as memorable as it was affordable ($2 for one pupusa). As giant bowls of caldo with crab claws reaching out of the broth were delivered to nearby tables, I was sorry I hadn't tried those.
Carniceria y Taqueria la Popular
1505 SE 3rd Ave, Amarillo, TX 79102
A good carniceria and taqueria is not unusual in Texas by any means, but Amarillo happens to have a really great one. Part supermarket and part restaurant, head towards the back of the store and order from the counter. The rellenos are highly recommended. This is simple food, a roasted poblano filled with cheese and breaded before being fried to a perfect consistency. It comes out plain Jane with no adornments or sauce. That part is up to you. Visit the condiment bar and choose which sauce you'd like, and try out some of the other items too, like escabeche or roasted jalapenos (or both). After sitting across from shelves filled with Mexican pastries during your meal, you'll feel compelled to pick up a few on your way out.
2417 S Grand St, Amarillo, TX 79103
Man v. Food featured Coyote Bluff Cafe's Burger from Hell back in 2008. It's a whooping burger topped with sautéed jalapenos, Coyote Hell Sauce, Tabasco, cheese, lettuce, tomato and grilled onions. I was less concerned about digestive distress than it being just a mess of flavors, but it worked, and it worked well. The patty itself was tender and flavorful, and while it was a mess to eat certainly, all the ingredients complimented each other. I have a high heat tolerance and didn't find it overly spicy, but if you're sensitive you might want to stick with one of the other burgers, ranging from the Old Fashion to the Hickory Burger. The cafe drips character, but has a tiny seating area and is popular. Don't be surprised if you have a wait, though I found it moved quickly.
515 E Amarillo Blvd, Amarillo, TX 79107
Amarillo's local donut chain is beloved enough by locals that a Krispy Kreme eventually shut it doors and closed up shop. There are multiple locations for your convenience, and unless you just don't eat donuts period, you're going to want to stop and pick up a dozen or so. The cherry frosted donuts induce cheerfulness with their bright red frosting that tastes somewhat like an old school Icee, but frosted donuts come in flavors from traditional chocolate to maple. The sugar coated cake donuts hit all kinds of sentimental notes, as do the fritters and cinnamon twists. Just try one of everything (maybe not all in one sitting).
2906 SW 6th Ave Amarillo, TX 79106
The light of the golden hour is just a little bit extra special in the Texas Panhandle. The phrase "golden light" is attached to several business names in Amarillo, but The Golden Light Cafe and Cantina is the one you need to pay attention to. Open since 1946, this dark little burger and beer joint was a fixture on old Route 66. Ownership has changed hands several times, but it still feels like a snapshot in time. Order one of their tasty, tasty burgers—as old school as the atmosphere calls for—and a cold beer and get friendly with the locals. On Friday and Saturday nights, live music fills the air and makes it all the more fun.
5615 E Amarillo Blvd, Amarillo, TX 79107
If you've watched King of the Hill, you're already in the know about Texas's not insubstantial Lao population (the second largest in the U.S.). But if you've never tried Lao food, or even if you have, head over to Ly's. The menu offers Americanized Chinese and Thai food, but go straight to the Lao section. My friend swore by the sausages, and after tasting the subtle seasonings of lemongrass and lime leaf mixed into the pork, I was a believer. The sausage recipe, like the others, are a family recipe. Our waiter suggested the beef jerky as an essential Lao item to try. We added an order of sticky rice and of Lap (sometimes spelled larb or larp) Phet (duck), a dish of stir-fried ground meat served with fresh herb leaves and thinly sliced red onion. All were winners.
2014 Paramount, Amarillo, Texas 79109
Tyler's is widely considered the best barbecue in Amarillo, and beyond that Texas Monthly included it on their most recent list of top 50 best barbecue places in the state. Pitmaster and owner Tyler Frazer's style is in keeping with the traditions of the Texas Panhandle, but he's raising the bar, looking at how barbecue has evolved in the past several years and intent on keeping step. You'll find the same tender, slow-cooked brisket that characterizes brisket throughout most of the state. But like much Panhandle and West Texas barbecue, there is a strong and distinct mesquite flavor. Tyler deftly manages to control the cook well enough to avoid the creosote after taste (an oily coating in the mouth) that mesquite can too often produce. People sometimes mistake the flavor for an extra spice in the rub, he says, but it's the taste of smoke and fire. Locals tend to go for the chopped beef sandwiches, a regional preference. Pick your favorite meat and don't pass on the sides. His delicious potato salad is traditional and fresh with big chunks of potato, and if you happen by on a Thursday, don't skip the creamy, homemade mac and cheese. See my feature-length profile on Tyler, here.
Wherever you decide to eat, don't forget to visit the beautiful Palo Duro Canyon.