15 of the best dishes at new Austin restaurants in 2021
When I look across the Austin dining landscape and see all of the new restaurants, trailers and pop-up operations that were born during such a traumatic time, I want to stand up on my table and applaud all of the servers, bussers, cooks, dishwashers, chefs and owners who have had the courage, fortitude and generosity to bash on regardless.
Even in a crazy 21 months since the pandemic started, we've been lucky enough to welcome dozens of new businesses, and I've been grateful to get to eat at many of them. As the year winds down, I'm taking a look back at memorable dishes I've eaten at new(ish) spots around town. I recommend you eat at all of the places listed, and when you do, make sure you get one of these dishes.
Duck confit crepe at 1417
Even as chef James Flowers’ new South Austin restaurant was fleshing itself out in late summer, the patio fully seated under twinkle lights as the construction area that was the dining room hid in darkness, you could taste the intention. The paper thin layers of bite-sized rolled crepe stuffed with rich duck confit emboldened by a dollop of grape mostarda and set off by persilade’s herbaceous pop, all showered with a hazelnut crumble, delivered the sense that this French-inspired neighborhood restaurant from members of the Hopfields team was destined to deliver robust flavor with modest fuss. (1417 S. First St. 512-551-2430, 1417atx.com)
2021 Austin360 Dining Guide:The 20 best new restaurants that opened in the past year
Oatmeal cream pie at Abby Jane Bakeshop
When I would see my Granny Eller’s late-model white Cadillac roll into our driveway as a kid, I knew I was in for a few things from my tiny grandmother visiting from Abilene: a big hug, some salty language, a raspy laugh and a trunk full of Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies. Abby Jane’s sublime craft version of the childhood treat launched me into a nostalgia spiral. And no offense to Granny Eller or Little Debbie, but there’s really no comparison. Marquis flour from Barton Springs Mill imparts a nuttiness to the cookie that barely contains thick, rich ermine filling made with buttery Sonoran wheat from the neighboring mill. (16604 Fitzhugh Road. Dripping Springs. 512-383-5923, abbyjanebakes.com)
Cheeseburger at Bad Larry Burger Club
Is it a burger pop-up? Is it a rock show? Is it a social media phenomenon/troll? Is it high-low art? Is it a go-kart club? Is it a joke? Is it serious? Yes. Bad Larry Burger Club is all of those things. It's also the place where you’ll get, if your online ordering fingers are nimble enough, one of the city’s best burgers. The team, helmed by Matthew Bolick of Better Half et al, smashes beef from local K&C Cattle Co. down to a floppy, latticed, crispy finish, with the caramelized sweetness from the American-cheese-blanketed burger countered by the tang of mustard, ketchup and pickles. It’s the best smash burger I’ve eaten and I can only assume the cultish popularity of the burger and all of its attendant ridiculousness will eventually mean a brick-and-mortar shop so people who don’t live on Instagram can try one for themselves. (instagram.com/badlarryburgerclub)
Rigatoni amatriciana at Birdie's
Chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and husband Arjav Ezekiel's East Austin restaurant epitomizes 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.
Malechek-Ezekiel creates American cuisine that takes many of its cues from Italy and France, straightforward food executed flawlessly. That includes this pasta dish that transports me to the trattorias of my old Roman neighborhood of Trastevere the way no dish in town has. 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. A perfect pasta dish. (2944 E. 12th St. birdiesaustin.com)
Jerk chicken at Canje
The influences at chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s East Austin restaurant stretch from the Food & Wine best new chef’s native Guyana across the Caribbean to Jamaica. While Canje may feature some of the hallmarks of upmarket dining — from interior design to specialty cocktails — the jerk chicken packs a traditional wallop. The grill’s flame marks the bird with a gradation of hues ranging from tan and tawny to caramelized cobalt, but the chicken still retains a spectacular juiciness. The true fire comes from the Scotch bonnet blast that initially stings before a full blaze crescendo. Despite the jerk’s electric sizzle, you can still catch that baking spice buzz from allspice and nutmeg that linger beyond peppery assault. You can dip the chicken into an accompanying charred tomato sauce for a touch of relief, but you’d be wise to order a colorful melon salad laced with basil if you really require culinary cooling. (1914 E. Sixth St. 512-706-9119, canjeatx.com)
Chicken fried steak at Commerce Cafe
The chefs at Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley’s Commerce apply smart touches to elevate the humble — and to be honest, usually boring — chicken fried steak. The hulking top sirloin cooked to a blushed medium is encased in a craggy and rippled shell as crispy as perfectly fried chicken breast, and the dredge billows with smoked paprika, cayenne and garlic powder.
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. (118 S. Commerce St. Lockhart. 512-359-4993, commerce-lockhart.com.)
Chicken and waffles at Fat Daddy's Chicken
There are plenty of silver linings to be found amid dark days. The tumult of the past two years led to some unique opportunities. Career maintenance technician Ahneris LaPicca recognized that the chance to open his own restaurant might not get better than the deal he struck upon in the early days of the pandemic, so the Brooklyn native persuaded his wife, Rosalind, that the time was now.
The two LBJ High School graduates serve an array of comfort foods, from collard greens to a fried pork chop sandwich, but the star of the show is in the restaurant’s name. The fried chicken is cooked to order, and it’s as hot, juicy and salty as you want it. The best way to eat it? Perched atop supple waffles and drizzled with maple syrup, of course. (1075 Springdale Road. 737-209-0337, fatdaddyschicken.com.)
Beef tartare at Little Trouble
This subterranean restaurant off Lockhart’s town square is rife with playfulness and history, from the cheeky name scripted in neon on the exterior of the 125-year-old red brick building to the vintage red lips illuminating the staircase that leads to a dining room dotted with vintage chandeliers and overseen by a picture of Dolly Parton dressed in bunny ears.
The beef tartare exhibits the same weighted wink, with sticks of smoked cheddar in the dish echoing the cheddar blocks found at the Lockhart’s legendary barbecue restaurants. (101 E. San Antonio St. Lockhart. 512-995-6333, littletroublelockhart.com.)
Scallop and salmon roe shumai at Qi: Modern Asian Kitchen
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. Her finesse with dim sum fueled the popularity of Lin Asian Bar + Dim Sum, which she opened in 2018, but it’s on its grandest display at Qi, the beautiful restaurant with a patio that overlooks West Sixth Street.
The pork soup dumplings are joined by a crabby cousin, and dumplings range from the pan-seared to the steamed, but my favorites from the dim sum roster are these scallop shumai, the folded crowns holding a mince of sweet, supple scallop speckled with the salty, oceanic pop of salmon roe. (835 W. Sixth St. No. 114. 512-474-2777, qiaustin.com.)
Grain bowl at Rogue Radish
When I tell people that one of my favorite dishes in town is a grain bowl, I’m often met with quizzical looks. How can something seemingly so simple taste so great?
Max Snyder, the former executive chef from the late Pitchfork Pretty, an Austin360 Dining Guide Top 10 staple, has spent a career working with great chefs and focusing on the minutiae of his craft. His attention to detail leads to the orchestration of a powerful culinary symphony composed of various textures and flavors of fresh, seasonal ingredients.
The grain bowl 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 rice 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. (2501 E. Fifth St. 512-653-1836, rogueradishtx.com.)
Pulled pork sandwich at Distant Relatives
Chefs who feel hemmed in by the path they’ve carved for themselves for decades would do well to look at what Damien Brockway has done with Distant Relatives. The New England native didn’t necessarily forsake his fine dining past when he decided to become an independent operator working out of a trailer, but he did follow a deeply personal passion that put him on an entirely new course.
Gone are the tweezers and affecting lights of Counter 357, replaced with off-set smokers and work boots. Brockway is exploring the foodways of the African diaspora and of his own family. He does his pig-farming family, who once lived in the Southeast, proud with thick strands of smoky pulled pork splashed with a tomato hot sauce, traditional coleslaw replaced with a mango and papaya slaw piqued with sugar cane vinegar and chili puree. The pillowy brioche bun holds a story that spreads from Africa to the Caribbean and American South.
(3901 Promontory Point. 512-717-2504, distantrelativesatx.com.)
Whipped feta at Summer House
Sitting in the courtyard of the Bunkhouse-run Summer House on Music Lane at Hotel Magdalena puts you in a mellow 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, sophisticated dining experience on a property that was once home to the Willie Nelson-owned Austin Opry House.
The menu from executive chef Jeffrey Hundelt replicates the feel of a backyard lakeside grill-out session, and when that kind of hang starts with a smart but simple dish of whipped feta sweetened with mascarpone and tomato jam, you know you’re going to want to kick back and stay awhile.
(1101 Music Lane. 512-442-5341, summerhouseonmusiclane.com.)
Khao poon naam gai at SXSE Food Co. Chef's Table
The SXSE Food Co. truck opened in 2018, but this year, self-taught chef Bob Somsith introduced a new series of special tasting Chef’s Table dinners paired with beer from the 4th Tap Brewing Co-Op that his truck calls home. The aggressive and juicy caramelized fish sauce chicken wings and crispy rice dish studded with fermented beef serve as a good tease for the chef who centers his tasting menu dinners around themes.
Somsith grew up in Laos cooking at his mother’s side, and you can taste the comfort in the khao poon naam gai the chef served as part of his "Rustic Nostalgia" dinner. Springy vermicelli noodles twisted through a fragrant, herbaceous, sweet and mildly spicy red curry infused with rich hen broth. Somsith’s approach to serving special dinners spun off from his street food truck concept should serve as inspiration for other chefs looking for new avenues of expression.
(10615 Metric Blvd. 512-902-5048, sxsefoodco.com.)
Lomi lomi tataki at Tiki Tatsu-ya
The wildly imaginative Tatsu Aikawa and his team pulled inspiration from Tiki bars like the legendary Trader Vic’s in California, along with iconography from Tatsu’s native Japan and the melting pot of Asian cultures in Hawaii, to create a fantastical bar buoyed by its own elaborate fictional backstory.
The first thing you notice will be the incredible set design, from elaborate shadow boxes to antique Tiki masks and a massive Shisa dragon water feature.
“I’m not building a restaurant-bar this time, I’m building Disneyland,” Aikawa told me in the fall. Indeed.
And the things you may remember most, if you don’t have too many of them, are the explosive Tiki cocktails. But the food at this bar is no afterthought. And while the pu pu platter (with its chicken wings and cheesy crab dip) is best suited for helping mitigate the punch of the tropical cocktails, the lomi lomi tataki is an elegant take on a Hawaiian dish that you might expect to find at a fine dining restaurant, the salted pearls of salmon and skinned tomatoes set in tomato kosho, with sea beans and macadamia oil balancing salinity and nuttiness.
(1234 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-893-5561, tiki-tatsuya.com.)
Bluefin tuna belly at Tsuke Edomae
Chef Michael Che brings the precision of a craftsman and the passion of an artist to his pursuit of the perfect sushi bite. Inside his intimate omakase, 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.
His intensity and joy are contagious, and although he says he makes his Edo-style sushi for himself and not customers, you can tell he hopes you enjoy eating it as much as he does making it.
I could select any of the dozen or so bites I had at Tsuke Edomae for this list, but I will go with the richness of the chef’s signature farm-raised bluefin tuna belly lightly torched with binchotan charcoal.
(4600 Mueller Blvd., No. 1035. 512-825-3120, tsukeedo.com.)