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2021 Austin360 Dining Guide: The 20 best new restaurants that opened in the past year

The 2021 Austin360 Dining Guide includes Buddy's Burger, De Nada Cantina, Huckleberry Food Truck, Qi Austin: Modern Asian Kitchen, and Store House Market & Eatery.
Matthew Odam
Austin American-Statesman

Welcome to the 2021 Austin360 Dining Guide.

I don’t have to tell you how brutal the last 20 months have been for restaurants and the people who own them and work in them. 

Many restaurants closed and more have narrowly survived, while workers, fearful for their health or inspired to forge new beginnings, have fled the industry. 

Also in this year's Dining Guide:5 classic Austin restaurants inducted into our new Austin360 Restaurant Hall of Fame

We are a long way from anything resembling the restaurant world of the previous decade. Short-staffed businesses have led to stressed-out employees, slimmer margins and a noticeable, if understandable, decline in customer service. 

Many owners and chefs are taking fewer creative and business risks in the face of so much uncertainty, and possibilities that once seemed endless in the industry have narrowed. 

But restaurants and those who fuel them press forward. And the dining public has proven, at times more with their dollars than graceful appreciation, that these restaurants and their employees are an essential part of the fabric of our social lives and our culture.  

Austin360 Dining Guide 2020: How restaurants have pivoted and persevered

I can’t tell you how happy I am to bring you this year’s iteration of our annual dining guide. Last year's guide focused on the struggles restaurants and their workers faced, the forced pivots owners and chefs made to keep their businesses viable, the food and experiences we missed, and the way things used to be.

This year’s guide offers a portrait of promise, profiles of creativity and a diverse array of restaurants that are part of a hospitality community nudging its way through the first layers of a chrysalis born of trauma. 

The restaurant world is reshaping itself by the week, but these operations (and many more not listed) bring the glimpse of a brighter future after so many dark months. 

The list of businesses that have opened since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 represents that evolution with fine dining chefs who have reinvented themselves with food trucks, first-time entrepreneurs taking a gamble on themselves and their visions, and smaller towns enriched with culinary talent that has flocked from Austin's soaring rents. 

Bites from the past: Read Matthew Odam's Dining Guides and other food lists from 2015 to 2019

The list is arranged alphabetically, not ranked numerically. All of the restaurants and trailers, except the two grocery food court stalls and the omakase at Tsuke Edomae, offer outdoor seating. Consideration for inclusion was given to how well these restaurants and trailers are achieving the goals they set for themselves, whether that be something relatively simple in execution or daringly complex. Businesses had to open before Sept. 1 to be considered for this list.

You’ll find everything from a fast-food burger joint to a tiny omakase that seats eight people, an elegant downtown Austin restaurant and a comfort food cafe in Lockhart. These restaurants and food trucks might not all have the biggest financial backing or name recognition, but they do all share one thing: passion. 

The pizzas at Abby Jane Bakeshop are some of the best in Central Texas, though they were temporarily removed from the menu during a chef shuffle in late summer.

Abby Jane Bakeshop

(16604 Fitzhugh Road, Dripping Springs, 512-383-5923, abbyjanebakes.com)

Many diners have bitten into the flesh of fruit plucked recently from a tree, or pulled a vegetable from the ground and tasted the reward of that immediacy. And stories about local ranchers raising grass-feed beef strike romantic chords at farm-to-table restaurants. 

But pastry chef and baker Abby Love of Abby Jane Bakeshop knows that most diners have less of an appreciation for the science and alchemy involved in transforming grains into wonderful baked goods. 

“Grains certainly aren’t as sexy as a cow or a beautiful radish,” Love told me. “We’re several steps removed from the feel-good part that people like to get excited about.”

Abby Love, who owns Abby Jane Bakeshop, says she never would have been able to open the bakery she wanted in Austin given the city's expensive real estate.

Love sources her flour from the mill owned by James Brown, who stone-grinds almost exclusively Texas-grown grains. The process makes for a more nutrient-rich product and a quality you can taste, like in the Rouge de Bordeaux flour that imparts nuttiness and notes of baking spices in a pitch-black brownie made with black cocoa powder and a whisper of coffee.

Some of the differences I can’t explain; I can only taste. Like the best baguette I’ve had in Texas, the tawny loaf somehow crunchy but not hard, that’s used to make a perfect ham and cheese sandwich. 

The pizzas were briefly put on pause in late summer, but are back for one weekend as specials for the next two months (Nov. 13-14 and Dec. 11-12). Let's hope for more in 2022. Bubbled and charred, sturdy yet supple and dressed up with everything from mozzarella and pepperoni to an earthy and vegetal combination of spring onion and mushrooms shimmering with oregano oil, they’re some of the best in Central Texas.

Birdie's dishes, such as a fluke crudo with tomato, peach and cucumber, are all ingredient driven.

Birdie’s

(2944 E. 12th St. birdiesaustin.com)

Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and Arjav Ezekiel moved to Austin from New York City a couple of years ago and wisely took some time to imagine exactly what they wanted their first restaurant to be. 

Veterans of Gramercy Tavern and United at the Whitney, among others, the married couple initially considered a fine dining restaurant. But their time dining and working in Austin changed their minds. 

“We kind of fell in love with the casual way people ate here and interacted with restaurants,” Ezekiel told me. 

“We wanted to open a place where we could drop in twice a week, a place where line cooks could go to, a place front-of-house people could go to, the kind of place a neighborhood could fall in love with,” Malechek-Ezekiel said. 

What they opened was the best new restaurant in Austin. It’s the epitome of the kind of fine dining translated into a casual milieu that was popularized a decade ago, and they pull it off thanks to the confidence, grace and precision born of their fine dining backgrounds. 

A look back:Veterans of top NYC restaurants to open casual restaurant Birdie's in East Austin

The beef tartare at Birdie's comes studded with local nuts and Sonoran wheat berries.

Chef Malechek-Ezekiel creates American cuisine that takes many of its cues from Italy and France, straight forward food executed flawlessly. 

“Simple food you want to eat with wine,” in her words. 

That means an unfussy and bright salad of arugula, sunflower seeds and lemony vinaigrette well suited for the citrus and minerality of a glass of Weingut Beurer’s Trocken Riesling. That same pour also goes nicely with silken fluke crudo punched with the sweet heat of peach and peppers and cooled by cucumber. 

The wine is one of about 10 by the glass on Arjav Ezekiel's expansive list of low-intervention labels that come with great one-word menu descriptors. Try to corner him and he’ll geek out with you on wine with the enthusiasm of a guy talking about his favorite records, or just ask the person taking your order at the counter for a good bottle rec. 

Birdie's owners Arjav Ezekiel, right, and Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel met while working in New York City.

Yes, it’s a counter service restaurant. The owners say it helps them manage staff efficiently and pay them fairly. It also adds to the casual nature of the spot with the back patio that feels like a 2005 Brooklyn rooftop hang, complete with a soundtrack bouncing from Cat Power to hip-hop, but it also means no reservations, very possibly some awkward standing around waiting to put in your initial order and a bit of confusion about whom you should flag down for what. 

The food, wine and friendliness at Birdie’s will make you forgive those speed bumps. 

If there’s a better beef tartare in Austin than Malechek-Ezekiel’s mince dotted with shiitake mushrooms, pecans (brilliant touch) and Sonoran wheat puffs, I haven’t had it. Eat it with the leather and dark red fruit of the Refosco from Ronchi di Cialla, which also can stand up to the pungent wallop of cavatelli and anchovies. 

Birdie’s takes the neighborhood restaurant idea to a transcendent level with its rigatoni amatriciana. No pasta dish I’ve eaten in Texas has transported me to the trattorias of my old Roman neighborhood of Trastevere the way this dish did. The firm bite of the homemade pasta, the shower of Pecorino, just the right amount of guanciale cut to just the right size and sizzled to just the right texture, and a sublimely simple tomato sauce. The perfect pasta dish. 

Sometimes your new favorite neighborhood restaurant reminds you of an old favorite 6,000 miles away.

Buddy's Burger delivers classic smashburgers at an affordable price.

Buddy’s Burger 

(9001 Cameron Road. 512-401-3325, buddysburger.com)

The family of twins Zain and Isha Fidai, and their cousin, Saad, was ahead of the smashburger craze. They created a recipe for the juicy, crispy smashers in 1999, and that family favorite serves as the basis for the trio’s Buddy’s Burger, which opened in the summer of 2020. 

Zain and Isha Fidai, right and center, and their cousin, Saad, left, opened Buddy's Burgers in the summer of 2020.

Buddy’s blends the new school with the old. That means hormone-free and never-frozen beef flattened into small, 3-ounce patties, capped with a suspended lava flow of American cheese and scattered with the shrapnel of shredded lettuce. Unlike some newer, fancier burger options, the price remains affordable and the set-up is classic — no heirloom tomatoes, hydroponic butter lettuce or fancy cheese that requires a Google search. 

More:Burger Time: Affordable seasoned smasher at Buddy's Burger blends old and new

The ragged, crunchy-edged patties cling to each other as if to keep from spilling out of a slightly sweet bun smeared with a tangy spread called Buddy’s Smack Sauce (also a recipe from 1999). The meat is generously salted, enhancing the beef's flavor, and pressed as thin as a pancake. Each bite packs all of the savory, juicy, tangy and crunchy wallop you hope for from a cheeseburger. 

Patrick Terry has proven with the 16-year run of his P. Terry’s empire that Austinites are hungry for a fast, affordable burger made with better ingredients than the national chains offer. While it wouldn’t be fair to either the newcomer or the dominant P. Terry’s to directly compare a nascent operation with the reigning king of the niche, it’s clear that a path has been cleared and lighted for a place like Buddy’s. Buy some (theoretical) stock in Buddy’s Burger, because I think they have the blueprint to be around a while. 

Commerce Cafe relies on farm-fresh ingredients for their salads and other dishes.

Commerce Cafe 

(118 S. Commerce St. Lockhart. 512-359-4993, commerce-lockhart.com)

Chef-owners Nathan Lemley and Sarah Heard deliver French-accented farm cuisine at their Foreign & Domestic in Austin’s North Loop neighborhood. The restaurant the Luling residents opened last year on the Lockhart square has a decidedly more Texan drawl. 

Yes, the farm fresh salad with candied pecans, a smoked pecan vinaigrette and fresh seasonal fruit (maybe peaches, maybe strawberries) is beautiful in its simplicity. And the crispy pork chop sandwich that nods to the German traditions of Central Texas with its beer mustard and pickled red onions is not to be missed. But Commerce’s take on chicken fried steak tells you everything you need to know about the restaurant. 

Few dishes occupy a place as deeply ingrained in Texans’ nostalgia centers as CFS. But memories of the dish usually provide more comfort than current iterations, often pounded flat, dried out and suffocated with one-note gravy. 

Commerce Cafe in Lockhart serves one of the best chicken fried steaks in Central Texas.

The chefs at Commerce apply smart touches to elevate the humble classic. The beef is hulking, not pressed as thin as a skipping stone. The casing is as craggy and rippled as a perfectly fried chicken breast, and the dredge billows with smoked paprika, cayenne and garlic powder. 

And this dish doesn’t get all of its size from the breading, bundled up like blankets trying to hide an empty bed. The top sirloin inside the clingy auburn shell is thick, tender and betrays the slightest blush at its center. 

The zippy red-eye gravy truly sets the dish apart. One swipe and you get a tingly smack of vinegar that announces this ain’t your papa’s CFS. The roux-based gravy carries a depth with it from coffee, breakfast sausage and smoked paprika rarely found in the spackle that often clings to the Texas café staple. 

All De Nada tacos are made with homemade blue corn tortillas.

De Nada Cantina

(4715 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512-615-3555, denadacantina.com)

You can nail the décor — the colorful brick-lined patio, vintage chandeliers, wood and wrought iron door, metal Corona tables, Mexican textiles and tropical plants — but the quality of a taqueria comes down to the tacos. 

Fortunately, De Nada tastes as good as it looks. Hospitality veteran Stephen Shallcross brought the flavors of Louisiana to East Austin with his Sawyer & Co, but his new venture mines even more familiar flavors from a different neighbor. 

Shallcross tapped members of his Dine 4 culinary team to create the tight taco menu at his stylized but worn East Austin taqueria and also wisely recruited the input of ATX Cocina chef de cuisine Allie McMillan, who previously worked at La Condesa. 

The tacos here aren’t modernized, chefy takes on tradition, but more reminiscent of straight-forward street tacos showered with onions and cilantro (OK, there is a very glaring gringo concession of confit chicken draped in queso, but I’m not mad at it). 

Strands of fat-laced beef soak up a smoky salsa tingled with habanero on a barbacoa taco, and the flat top puts a crispy, crunchy edge on threads of carnitas enlivened by pickled onions on another. 

De Nada Cantina in East Austin comes from Austin hospitality veteran Stephen Shallcross.

The vegetable offerings, which, like all of the tacos here, come on gentle homemade blue corn tortillas, carry as much flavor and heft as the ones aimed at carnivores. Hunks of zucchini as thick as steak fries carry caramelized sweetness brought on by a grilled char, with a fine mince of mushrooms grounding the flavors; and chimichurri and lardy black beans enhance the sweetness and fat of sweet potato chunks on another taco. 

You won’t find many taquerias with this kind of next-level drinks program. Created by Chris Bostick, one of the state’s top bar men and founder of the exceptional Half Step on Rainey Street, the list of agave spirits includes about 50 additive-free, non-diffused tequilas and a dozen mescals. The cocktails include a punchy margarita finished with Jarritos grapefruit, and a wild drink that's half margarita and half Fairweather Tejano Dreams Cider with a spicy chamoy straw. I got the sense the crowd of mostly hospitality workers I saw dining there for lunch on a Monday this summer weren’t solely there for the tasty tacos. 

Distant Relatives usually has a couple of barbecue sandwiches on offer, in addition to the trailer's smoked meats and flavorful side dishes.

Distant Relatives

(3901 Promontory Point Drive. 512-717-2504, distantrelativesatx.com)

If you visited fine dining restaurant Counter 357 in downtown Austin in 2018 before it closed, you encountered executive chef Damien Brockway, often with tweezers in hand, working intensely in a pristine open kitchen surrounded by the fine dining restaurant’s eponymous ring seating.

Distant Relatives is a smokeshack trailer that explores the foodways of the African diaspora.

Now you can find the chef decked out in work boots, slinging open a weathered 500-gallon smoker to check on pork shoulder or beef chuck and punctuating thoughtful discourse on African American foodways with his high-pitched cackles. 

Gone are the ornate dishes anointed with microgreens. In their place at his trailer at Meanwhile Brewing Co.: to-go containers heaped with coconut collard greens punched with fermented seafood and corn grits dotted with pickled okra. Strip loin laced with truffles have been replaced by rosy-ringed hunks of chuck piled into sandwiches smeared with pimento cheese.  

“I’m an African American person inspired by the culture, heritage and history of my people, and I’m inspired to celebrate that by honoring and highlighting traditions while creating something completely unique and new,” Brockway said. 

We should watch with interest Brockway’s new path in the culinary world, as his evolution has likely only just begun to take shape. 

The beef rib at Fil N' Viet vibrates with the five spice buzz of pho.

Fil N’ Viet

(1720 E. 12th St. 281-798-4334, filnviet.com)

Crispy, fatty cubes of sisig — a Filipino preparation of pork face and belly that leaves the meat supple on the inside and crunchy on the outside — spill from a Vietnamese bánh mì, dressed with that sandwich’s traditional pickled vegetables, jalapeño and cilantro. The savory sandwich at Fil N’ Viet  is a perfect marriage of two Southeast Asian culinary cultures. 

The pandemic has served as quite an adjustment period for some couples. If they were fortunate to work from home, limited social engagements meant a lot more time together. The forced closeness and isolation led some to a breaking point, or at least an understandable irritation. 

But the upheaval wrought by the coronavirus brought chef Kevin Truong and his wife, Rosie Mina-Truong, closer. They decided to open a business together.

More:Best Thing I Ate This Week: Vietnamese and Filipino flavors find harmony at Fil N' Viet

The upheaval caused by the coronavirus led chef Kevin Truong and his wife, Rosie Mina-Truong, to open a food trailer dedicated to the flavors of Vietnam and the Philippines.

When the pandemic emptied hotels of their guests, Kevin, who has traveled extensively in Asia and worked at the now-closed Counter 357, lost his position as chef de cuisine at Revue inside the Fairmont Austin hotel. That break gave him the opportunity to focus on a more personal passion.

Kevin, who is first-generation Vietnamese American, teamed with Rosie, who had turned to cooking some of her mother’s recipes at home as a means of comfort and connection to her native Philippines. The couple that met while working at the luxury Fairmont decided to wed their love of food and culture.

The juicy fried chicken wings, some of the best in the city, blend sweet and sour profiles of tamarind and the Filipino sinigang soup for deep flavor. We’ll call the accompanying garlic ranch a delicious concession to the state where the couple met. 

The Filipino staple of chargrilled chicken inasal is tangy and fragrant with lemongrass and punctuated by a pert calamansi dipping sauce. And the beef rib, tender from a braise and firmed up by the grill, vibrates with the five spice buzz of pho. Sitting alongside a delicate and artful rectangle of Vietnamese quiche and soft mound of Filipino garlic rice, the plate visually echoes Kevin’s fine dining background but without all of the attendant fuss. 

You won't find a better chicken burger in town that the one served at Hold Out Brewing.

Hold Out Brewing 

(1208 W. Fourth St. 512-305-3540, holdoutbrewing.com)

Designer Lauren Dickens designed a beer can for her friends at Hold Out Brewing that reads, “Save Austin Drink Beer.”

What does the tongue-in-cheek messaging, rendered in bold, sharp design like all the merch from Hold Out and sibling establishments Better Half and Brew & Brew, mean, exactly? 

Hold Out Brewing chef Rich Reimbolt brings a chef's touch to the bar food served at the urban brewery.

Well, if you drink Hold Out’s canned beer at home, you’re mitigating spread of coronavirus, and a portion of proceeds from all such labeled merch goes to the Central Texas Food Bank. So, there’s that. 

But the wry slogan also captures the ethos of the brewery that opened in 2020.

Hold Out and its siblings stand for the things that have helped make Austin the place so many love: community, affordability, creativity, a touch of defiant swagger and cold ones in a laid back atmosphere. And they’re anti the things that threaten those principles, namely pretense, high prices and keeping up with the Joneses. 

So, how does that translate to a brewery and its food? It means an array of finely tuned brews well suited for next-level bar food from chef Rich Reimbolt, like one of the city’s best hamburgers and a griddled chicken burger draped with Swiss cheese and given an umami blast from tangy miso ranch dressing. 

That same miso ranch accompanies brown sugar-brined chicken wings par-baked low and slow to render as much liquid fat from the skin as possible and then fried to a glassy, juicy finish. Save time, order wings. 

Chef Davis Turner's Huckleberry food truck at Circle Brewing Co. serves seafood reminiscent of the chef's Gulf Coast upbringing.

Huckleberry

(2340 W. Braker Lane. 512-900-5818, huckleberrytx.com)

Chef Davis Turner says he couldn’t have imagined ever working in North Austin when he attended culinary school in the underdeveloped part of town 15 years ago. And he certainly couldn’t have envisioned a seafood truck. At a craft brewery. Across from a professional soccer stadium. But here we are. 

Turner, who grew up near Corpus Christi, spent most of the past decade working for meat-focused restaurants, with time at Contigo and Franklin Barbecue on his resume, but he and partner Melinda Reese, a Florida native, decided to open a seafood truck that paid homage to the coastal comfort in which they are rooted. 

Huckleberry represents the growing trend of Austin breweries to partner with standout third-party food trucks.

The trailer that sits at Circle Brewing Co. in North Austin sources most of its seafood from the Gulf, including thick black drum they dredge in a seasoned blend of cornmeal and rice flour and then fry to a crackling finish. The fish is served on a fat sandwich perked up with a lemon caper remoulade, tangy housemade pickles and a dress of lettuce, tomato and onion. 

The sandwich’s poofy and collapsing challah bun comes from Slow Dough in Houston, which also creates the maximalist rolls for a po’boy that holds plump fried shrimp coated in the same well-bodied breading as the fish.

The limited space on the truck, which Turner and Reese hope to spin off into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, makes for a curtailed menu of largely fried foods (a watermelon salad serves as bright contrast to the hot fish), but Huckleberry grills salty and crispy-edged smashburgers on Thursdays and delivers sparkling ceviche on Wednesdays. 

If the ceviches, like poached shrimp tingled with Fresno chilies and a trio of citrus juices, are any indication, a potential restaurant that would give Turner and his team more room to operate is very enticing. 

Southold Farm + Cellar sits on a ridge overlooking the Texas Hill Country.

The Kitchen at Southold Farm + Cellar 

(330 Minor Threat Lane. Fredericksburg. 512-829-1650, southoldfarmandcellar.com)

Brown and green hills roll, seemingly endless, from Southold Farm + Cellar’s ridgetop perch into the western sun.

The fixed menu at the Kitchen at Southold Farm + Cellar just adds to the appeal of one of the state's best wineries.

The snapshot could serve as the perfect photo to accompany the "Why I Moved to Texas" essay penned in a glossy magazine by a 30-something Hollywooder looking for more space, a slower pace and fresh Instagram fodder. 

Who could blame them? Even after spending 46 years of my life regularly visiting the Hill Country, the view at Southold even makes my breath catch. 

The vista and a glass of some of the state’s best wine alone are worth the 75-minute drive from my home in South Austin. But West Texas native Regan Meador, and his wife, Carey, who relocated the winery that specializes in low-intervention wines to Texas after five years of operations on Long Island, doubled down on the 62-acre property’s appeal in March when they opened The Kitchen at Southold Farm + Cellar.

The kitchen, led by Eden East and Weatherup veteran chef Courtney Watson, serves a fixed menu of seven small plates that lean on local and seasonal produce for their Hill Country flavors. The dishes — such as a golden beet gazpacho marked by a dollop of creme fraiche; thinly sliced pork tenderloin scattered with hot pepper agrodolce; a wheat berry, blue cheese and arugula salad that is a study in textural contrasts; and honey pie brightened with local peaches — are smart without being precious, direct but not simplistic. All perfectly suited for the expressive wines on which Southold has built its reputation, many of which you can purchase only at the winery. 

The biscuits from Olamaie now have a restaurant to call their own.

Little Ola’s Biscuits 

(14735 Bratton Lane, No. 310. toasttab.com/olamaie/v3)

When Olamaie chef-owner Michael Fojtasek decided to temporarily close his fine dining restaurant near Judges Hill on March 15, 2020, he probably could not have imagined that one of the city’s best restaurants would remain dormant for more than 19 months. (Fojtasek reopened Olamaie the first week of November.)

Like many others, Fojtasek realized that spring that he would have to pivot his operations to stay afloat during the pandemic. Luckily for the Dallas native, he had a baked-in advantage. 

Opening day:Olamaie chef opening biscuit shop Little Ola's Biscuits this week in North Austin

Olamaie’s biscuits have been a special off-menu treat for those in the know (read: anyone who eats at Olamaie) for years. So, last summer, Fojtasek shapeshifted his restaurant into an impromptu biscuit shop called Little Ola’s Biscuits. 

That temporary idea became a permanent one earlier this year when Little Ola’s took over the building that was once home to lobster roll beacon Garbo’s. (Heidi Garbo moved her restaurant to North Loop 1.) 

After temporarily closing his fine dining restaurant Olamaie, chef Michael Fojtasek pivoted to opening Little Ola's Biscuits in North Austin. The biscuits are also served at the revamped Butler Pitch & Putt, where the chef has been a Monday night regular for years.

The breakfast and lunch spot serves the biscuits, which are baked to an exterior finish somewhere between crunchy and crumbly with a densely flossy center, separately, spread with butter and jam, or as sandwiches. 

The tomato, egg and oozy cheddar cheese sandwich zipped with smoked tomato mayonnaise makes for a strong breakfast option, especially if accompanied by a glossy and decadent cinnamon roll, while the hulking and craggy fried dark meat chicken sweetened with a honey glaze puts all of the fast food pretenders to shame. 

Little Ola’s also serves sides like summer squash, corn and melon salads, giving a casual riff to Olamaie’s long-held farmers market ethos.

“I think what the pandemic caused me to do is think about things that are more functional than sexy,” Fojtasek said. “I just wanna put good stuff out there.”

Sticks of smoked cheddar in the beef tartare dish at Little Trouble feel like a nod to the cheese served at some of the legendary barbecue restaurants in Lockhart.

Little Trouble

(101 E. San Antonio St. 512-995-6333, littletoublelockhart.com)

The cheeky name scripted in neon on the exterior of the 125-year-old red brick building, the vintage red lips illuminating the staircase leading to the subterranean restaurant, the catacomb-like interior dimly lit with vintage chandeliers, the old picture of Dolly Parton dressed in bunny ears … it all creates a sense that you’re just as likely entering a burlesque show or a movie set as a modern Texas tavern. 

Tell me the provocative space in the basement of the historic building used to operate as a hideout for outlaws or moonshiners or that it was a dirt-floored boxing gym (that one’s true) and I’d believe you. 

In a town full of smoked meats, Little Trouble serves a hulking grilled ribeye.

The evocative setting reminds me of the small-town, boot shuffling cousin of Justine’s in East Austin. It makes sense then that the restaurant is helmed by one of that unique Austin restaurant’s former chefs, Casey Wilcox, who opened Little Trouble with Alex Worthington, co-founder of salsa and queso company Culinary Cowgirls, in the spring of 2020 on Lockhart’s historic town square. 

Small town Texas may not be accustomed to Little Trouble's stylized sultriness, but folks’ll likely cotton to it when they get a taste of Texas bistro fare like poached shrimp kicked up with Buffalo-style hot sauce and mellowed by dollops of dill dressing. Those spicy shrimp and their pickled vegetables will wake up the sleepiest palate. 

The sticks of smoked cheddar in the beef tartare dish dotted with pickled jalapeños serve as a clever nod to the cheddar blocks found at the barbecue restaurants that have given the identity to the town that is a smoky mecca for meat-loving pilgrims. And the rich minerality of a fried egg sauce that sits beneath a massive grilled ribeye takes a diner classic of steak and eggs for a chefy twirl. 

Dong Myung Kim and Kang Sook Lee ran a Korean BBQ restaurant in Dallas, and you can taste those flavors on a dish of beef rib at the couple's Narrow Street 512.

Narrow Street 512

(11301 Lakeline Blvd. 737-708-8033, narrowstreet512.com)

Grocery shopping on an empty stomach is always a risky proposition for me. I end up buying way too much (often random) food and spending twice as much as I should, and because hangry brain, hardly any of it ever makes sense together in terms of creating meals once I get home. 

That’s why the food court is one of the beauties of many Asian markets. At places like H Mart and Hana World Market, you can have lunch or dinner in the food court, so you don’t go blazing into the market like a food-deprived maniac lost of his senses. 

You have to make your way to the back of the food court at H Mart in Lakeline to find Narrow Street 512 tucked in the corner along a, well, narrow street of sorts. 

The husband-and-wife team of Dong Myung Kim and Kang Sook Lee opened their Korean food stall in H Mart in the spring of 2020 after a decade of operating Woo Mee Oak Korean BBQ in Dallas.

The husband-and-wife team of Dong Myung Kim and Kang Sook Lee, whose son came up with the stall’s name based on its location in the store, operated restaurants in Seoul and Chungcheongnam-do for about 20 years before immigrating to Dallas in 2009, where they owned Woo Mee Oak Korean BBQ for a decade. 

There are few dishes that counteract the hot Austin summer like naengmyeon. A tight tangle of firm buckwheat noodles sits in beef broth made with brisket. On top of the noodles you’ll find matchsticks of cucumber and radish, a soft poached egg, a couple of thin cuts of brisket, and a heap of fermented chili paste, all showered with sesame seeds. 

The key, of course, is the mound of granular ice piled into the side of the bowl that suspends the mild beefy flavors in its chill. Squeeze bottles of white vinegar and spicy mustard accompany the dish, so you can control the pucker and pique. If you want something to warm you, the hot beef soup is a study in simplicity and comfort, notes of cabbage whispered from the opaque beefy broth.

Given their long history with Korean bbq, you know you can trust the sliced beef rib marinated with soy, sugar, garlic and sesame will come packed with umami. Udon noodles need to get ramen’s publicist because what’s not to love about these voluptuous wheat noodles? Here they come sloshing around in a beefy gravy packed with wok’s breath and stir-fried beef.

A bonus of the H Mart location: After an inspired lunch, you can search the market in hopes of replicating some of the dishes you loved.  

Chef Ling Qi Wu came to Austin diners' attention with her soup dumplings at Wu Chow, and her restaurant Qi Austin: Modern Asian Kitchen more than fulfills the promise of that popular dish.

Qi Austin: Modern Asian Kitchen

(835 W. Sixth St. No. 114. 512-474-2777, qiaustin.com)

Chef Ling Qi Wu worked at La Traviata and Chinatown after moving to Austin from New York City, but the Fuzhou native didn’t come to the attention of most local diners until the opening of Wu Chow in 2015. 

Diners fawned over her soup dumplings, and the tender pouches packed with porky broth helped drive the popularity of the downtown restaurant’s weekend dim sum. The heat around the dumplings sparked chef Ling on her own path, and she opened Lin Asian Bar + Dim Sum in 2018. 

I’ve never had the kind of positive experience at Lin that has made it one of the toughest weekend tables in town, but chef Ling’s latest interpretation of modern Chinese has drawn me back for more visits than any new restaurant over the last year.

Salt and pepper shrimp is one of several standout entrees served at Qi Austin: Modern Asian Kitchen.

Yes, I go for the dim sum, available day and night throughout the week. There’s toasty pan-fried bao the color of brûléed flan, plump lobster dumplings bulging against gelatinous wrappers decorated like tiny bunnies, and crispy chicken and basil pot-stickers. And soup dumplings, of course, including a crab version bursting with the salinity of the sea. 

But I’m also there for the crackling skin of Peking duck, creamy pecan shrimp and a sizzling skillet of Akaushi beef laced with chives and peppers like a Chinese take on fajitas. And the service has been as hospitable and consistent as any new restaurant in town. 

The modernist touches at the beautiful restaurant with a patio overlooking West Sixth Street extend from a brilliant mural inside the paper umbrella-dotted dining room to scallop shumai speckled with roe (which make a perfect picture with the whiskey-braced Almost Famous cocktail) and a ginger creme brulee’s accompanying berry-holding sugar-glass crown fit for Austin dim sum royalty. 

Rogue Radish, a trailer specializing in veggie-forward grain bowls and salads, sits behind Greater Goods Coffee Roasting Co. in East Austin.

Rogue Radish

(Rogue Radish. 2501 E. Fifth St. 512-653-1836, rogueradish.com)

When I tell people that one of my favorite dishes in town is a grain bowl from the trailer Rogue Radish, I am often met with quizzical looks. How can something seemingly so simple taste so great?

It’s an anecdote from which the trailer’s owner, chef Max Snyder, probably derives bemusement and pride. 

The former executive chef from the late Top 10 staple Pitchfork Pretty says he has spent a career working with great chefs and focusing on the minutiae of his craft. He’s also a professed champion of the underdog, even if the underdog is a vegetable. 

“I’m the kind that’s advocating for steamed zucchini or whatever,” Snyder told me. “It’s not the same as a smoked scallop. ‘Smoked scallop’ sounds tantalizing just in a sentence. But steamed zucchini takes a lot of finesse, you know? A lot of TLC.”

The grain bowls and salads at Rogue Radish are a celebration of season, simplicity and astute use of ingredients.

Snyder applies that care to bowls made with almost all local produce and proteins (he looks beyond Texas for items like avocados and citrus when need be), orchestrating textures and flavors of fresh, seasonal ingredients into a powerful culinary symphony. 

The aforementioned grain bowl, which is part of a very concise menu, weaves cherry tomatoes, toasted seeds, sunflower sprouts, cucumbers, basil and more atop a bed of steamed brown rice, quinoa and wheat berries tossed in a grassy roasted shishito dressing for a bowl that has abundant layers of flavor (sweet, salty, piquant, bitter) and texture. A flattened fan made of crunchy, chewy sticky rices seared to a crackle in coconut oil and dialed up with a dusting of dehydrated habanero powder adds a final round of texture and flavor. 

The trailer, which Snyder has moved a couple of times before landing behind Greater Goods Coffee Roasting Co., a location about which he raves, is veggie-centric, but if you eat meat, you should add the goat loin. Marinated with massive amounts of garlic, fish sauce, maple syrup and more, the pan-roasted meat is deeply flavorful and takes the grain bowl and the trailer’s chickpea-studded salad to another level. 

Snyder named his trailer after resilient vegetables that were sprouting in the concrete sidewalks of Tokyo. It’s a lovely metaphor for a fine dining chef who turned the challenges and disruption of the pandemic into a one-man-bowl-band. 

It’s exciting to watch a chef of his pedigree reimagine his career during a time of such upheaval. I’m equally excited to see what he does next. 

Salty Cargo explores the flavors of Hawaiian cuisine at a food stall in Hana World Market.

Salty Cargo

(1700 W. Parmer Lane, Suite 100. 737-465-1821, saltycargo.com)

The Americanization of cuisines is a process that can sometimes distort and embarrass the food (and diner): think cheeseburger egg rolls or barbecue chicken pizza. 

But that’s not the type of shape-shifting chef John Gocong is talking about when he discusses the Hawaiianization of food. The California native, who is of Hawaiian ancestry, is referring to how Filipino, Chinese and Japanese culinary cultures have influenced the cuisine of the 50th state. 

You can taste the Chinese char siu flavors in hefty Hawaiian-style ribs at Salty Cargo that are braised to incorporate deep cinnamon, anise and red bean curd flavors and finished over a yakitori grill to create a crunchy armor. 

Huli huli salmon pops with sweet and umami flavors from caramelized fish sauce and soy.

Gocong previously led the sushi bar at downtown restaurant She’s Not Here, and the tropical Asian flavors from that restaurant are mirrored with a supple cut of fatty New Zealand salmon prepared huli huli style. Salty Cargo adapts the Hawaiian take on teriyaki by enriching it with a brown butter poach. The salmon packs a sweet umami blast from brown sugar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, vinegar and caramelized fish sauce, with the chef crisping the exterior in a pan before it comes out of the kitchen. 

A veteran of Uchi, Gocong’s love for raw preparations is displayed in a relatively unadorned version of poke, the ruby baubles of sustainable bluefin slicked with a touch of sesame oil and pork fat to complement the fish’s natural richness, with pickled pineapple cutting it all through with its acid bite. I guess we can call that Salty Cargoization of poke. 

Sammataro started as a pop-up in East Austin before moving to Lost Creek and then back east.

Sammataro

(1108 E. 12th St. sammataro.pizza)

Issac Flores has spent the last year or so being something of the elusive Pied Piper of pizza in Austin. He and his business partner, Kelsey Hutchins, returned to Austin from New York City in 2018 and opened Sammataro first as a pizza pop-up in East Austin in 2020.

Issac Flores hopes to open a brick-and-mortar location of the pizza trailer he opened with Kelsey Hutchins in 2020.

The business then moved to a trailer in Lost Creek, back to pop-ups in East Austin and in late October to its current home at a food truck court on East 12th Street. And, there may be a brick-and-mortar restaurant in West Lake Hills in his future.

Got all that? Because here’s the thing: Keeping up with the nomadic pizza entrepreneur is worth the effort. Sammataro produces some of the best pizza in town. 

More:Sammataro, maker of some of the best pizza in Austin, relocating to East Austin

Flores puts his dough through a 48-to-72-hour cold fermentation. He then bakes the 16-inch pizzas in a low-domed, wood-fired oven, realizing his dream of a fantastic pizza with a puffed and torched edge run through with a crunchy base that gives just the right amount of wiggle and pull. The nascent pizzaiolo says the style is intended as an homage to his two favorite NYC spots, Lucali in Brooklyn and Scarr’s Pizza in the East Village. 

The standard Sammataro pie, with slices that snap into a neat fold, comes with a covering of high-quality, low-moisture mozzarella and milky pools of fresh mozzarella, suspending fans of basil atop a zippy tomato sauce that pops with acidity and sweetness. The pies manage a precise balance of cheese, sauce and dough, which makes them super crushable without leaving you feeling desperate for a nap. 

Sweet corn risotto at Store House Market & Eatery tastes of summer.

Store House Market & Eatery

(813 Main St., Bastrop. 512-412-6114, storehousebastrop.com)

Moving can be a real pain, right? All the boxes, hiring movers, those damn packing peanuts. Try moving a farm. 

Sonya Cote and David Barrow did just that in 2020, when they loaded up 18 18-wheelers with nutrient-dense topsoil from their Eden East farm on Springdale Road in East Austin and hauled it to their newly acquired land off Main Street in Bastrop. 

Sound crazy? Well, you can’t have a farm-to-table restaurant without a farm. The wife-and-husband team opened Store House Market & Eatery about a mile down the street in January. 

The couple had been considering the town for several years, looking for cheaper land and more opportunity than Austin afforded. 

“Bastrop just spoke to us because of the community that’s growing here,” Barrow said.

Rhode Island native Cote, who is the executive chef at Hillside Farmacy and ran Eden East restaurant at the couple’s East Austin farm, continues her farm-to-table practices with the farm that produces radishes, turnips, brassicas, okra, tomatoes, eggplant and more. 

Cote smokes a bounty of seasonal vegetables for a barbecue plate as redolent with smoke as a Central Texas brisket and serves them atop an equally smoky tomato romesco sauce at the couple’s restaurant that’s housed in a structure that dates back to 1846. 

Fried quail knots at Store House in Bastrop represent chef Sonya Cote's smart take on comfort food.

Her creativity with vegetables extends to a butternut squash queso appetizer that puts any nut-based vegan quesos to shame. And you can taste summer in a sweet corn risotto dish showered in sprouts. 

Cote says that she’s prepared to evolve the menu, which features rotating specials based on the farm, but I can’t imagine she’ll ever receive pushback on fried Lockhart quail knots and a hulking ribeye rounded by a mound of blue cheese grits. 

Pair the latter with a perfectly executed Old Fashioned from standout barman Brian Floyd, formerly of upmarket Austin cocktail haunts Weatherup and Half Step. 

Seems Cote and Barrow weren’t the only Austin talents drawn by Bastrop’s allure. I bet Floyd had an easier packing job. 

Executive chef Jeffrey Hundelt works the open grill at Summer House on Music Lane.

Summer House on Music Lane

(1101 Music Lane. 512-442-5341, summerhouseonmusiclane.com)

Walk down South Congress Avenue these days and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Santa Monica (or Chicago or New York City or the set of a Bravo TV show). Major bougie, Instagrammable brands dot the once sleepy part of the street. But step just a few feet off of Austin’s premiere shopping and strolling avenue and things slow down a bit.

Sitting in the courtyard of the Summer House on Music Lane at Bunkhouse’s Hotel Magdalena puts you in a mellower mood. The stellar soundtrack, a Bunkhouse staple; the aesthetic, call it Texas Hill Country meets California high desert; and a smart but approachable menu combine for a chill but sophisticated dining experience on a property that was once home to the Willie Nelson-owned Austin Opry House. (You can spy Scott Newton photographs of Austin’s patron saint around the hotel.) 

The whole fish dish at Summer House is indicative of the kind of casual lake house hang that the creators of the restaurant were after.

Summer House is the Austin-based boutique hospitality company’s first full foray into the restaurant space in the United States (their Mexican hotel in Todos Santos also has a restaurant), and even though the concept was in development for several years, it feels of the moment. That’s because there’s a casual timelessness to executive chef Jeffrey Hundelt’s menu that captures the lake house hang that Bunkhouse was after: grilled scallops with roasted corn relish, a whole grilled fish, tuna tostadas, and snacks like whipped feta sweetened with mascarpone, and a crowd-pleasing caramelized onion dip. 

Throw in a slightly tart and tingly Texas Redbud mezcal cocktail perfectly balanced with lime, yellow chartreuse, hibiscus and bergamot liqueur and you’re gonna wanna stay awhile. 

Summer House, which stays rooted just enough in the spirit of old South Austin to not get sucked into the vortex of the corporatized gloss of New South Congress, is the best of all of the big-monied restaurants to open in Austin during the pandemic. 

Tsuke Edomae, which sits in the small space formerly inhabited by Kyoten Sushiko, serves edo-style sushi.

Tsuke Edomae

(4600 Mueller Blvd. No. 1035. 512-825-3120, tsukeedo.com) 

“I don’t make sushi for people, I make sushi for me.” 

Watch chef Michael Che behind the counter of his tiny omakase in Mueller and you believe his words. He sways gently, with the rhythm of the classical cellist that he is, eyes closed as he forms silken cuts of fish to wasabi brushed pearls of rice. 

When chef Otto Phan decided to find a new tenant to take over the space that held his shuttered Kyoten, he wanted a chef who shared his intense passion. He found him in Che.

The chef, who has worked at larger sushi restaurants and ran his own trailer, Tuske Honten at Hop Squad Brewing Co., experienced a conversion when he first dined at Kyoten several years earlier. Following that dinner, he says he sat in his car for more than half an hour, questioning the kind of sushi he had been making, as inspiration and possibility flooded his mind. 

Che’s newfound enlightenment led him to edo-style sushi, a classic and unadorned preparation that reflects the traditions of early 19th century Tokyo. You won’t find splashes of truffle oil, crunchy bits of fried garlic or other toppings on Che’s nigiri.

Chef Michael Che, seen here at the food trailer that served as the jumping off point in his career as an independent operator, brings a palpable passion to his food.

He simply cures and ages the fish and serves it brushed with a slick of soy sauce and perched on vinegared rice dabbed with fresh wasabi. Strains of classical music fill the air, as Che references his suffering and dedication to his culinary art. 

But the Morrisey of Masago doesn’t demand reverential silence from the handful of guests during his seven-course sushi dinner. Though he does have a few rules: Don’t put the accompanying pickled ginger on top of your fish; eat with your hands; and don’t let the individually presented pieces of fish sit on the plate in front of you for more than 15 seconds. Violating that last rule will get you kicked out with a refund. Seriously. He’s done it. 

One other suggested rule: close your eyes when you eat. Doing so allows you to more deeply appreciate the richness of farm-raised bluefin tuna belly lightly torched with binchotan charcoal, the sweetness of unagi, the salinity of custard-like uni and the delicateness of aji. 

Che may make sushi for himself, but I’m glad he’s decided to share it with us. 

ABOUT MATTHEW ODAM

Native Austinite Matthew Odam has served as the Austin American-Statesman’s restaurant critic and reporter since 2011. He also writes travel and feature stories for the newspaper, where he has worked since 2007. A winner of numerous state and national awards, Odam has also contributed to Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Traveler, Food & Wine and more. 

When he’s not eating, thinking about eating or writing about eating, he's enjoying life with his wife, baby daughter and dogs, Ziggy and Boo Radley; playing golf; reading; watching movies; cheering for the Astros; and exploring all that Central Texas has to offer.

@austin360.com

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