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Paul Petersen returns to Central Texas with Tex-Mex-barbecue fusion at Vivo Lake Creek

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Paul Petersen, the Texas chef who gained national attention at the Gage Hotel in Marathon and appeared on the TLC show "BBQ Pitmasters" a few years ago, has been quietly working at the Vivo at RM 620 and Lake Creek Parkway for the past six months after leaving Rick's Chophouse in McKinney last year.

This isn't the first time Petersen has worked with Vivo owner Roger Diaz. "Back when I was a young skater trying to become a rock star, I waited tables at La Fiesta Patio Cafe in San Antonio," Petersen says, referring to a restaurant that Diaz operated. He started bussing tables and then moved up to being a server.

Petersen eventually moved over to Zuni Grill on the River Walk and then on to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. After cooking for three years in Manhattan, Petersen moved back to Central Texas to open Little Texas Bistro in Buda, right around the same time Diaz was opening the first Vivo on Manor Road.

"(Running Little Texas Bistro) did wonders for me," he says. "It was a great restaurant and highly regarded. I didn't shut down because we weren't making money — it just wasn't what I wanted to do."

Instead of signing paychecks and dealing with the logistical concerns of being a business owner, he wanted to focus on making good food. He made a splash on the national food scene when in charge of the kitchen at the famed Gage Hotel in Marathon before moving on to Rick's Chophouse in McKinney, where he earned four stars from the Dallas Morning News. But four stars wasn't enough to keep him there. "I was sick of Dallas. I wanted to be back in Austin," he says. "I know and love Tex-Mex, and it seemed like a natural fit for Roger and I to do this."

As soon as he signed on to take over the Lake Creek location of Vivo, Petersen insisted on cooking with Diaz's mother, who came up with most of the original menu and salsas. He spent a day with her and learned some of her secrets, which he's now infusing with his own. The kitchen at the restaurant in Northwest Austin is much bigger than the original on Manor Road, so he has room to experiment with dishes such as in-house smoked brisket that require more space.

Petersen says he's keeping the core menu, while elevating it "big time" with dishes including brisket tacos, crab enchiladas and pan-seared queso fresco with mango and papaya salsa. Margaritas will likely always be a best-seller at the restaurant, but Petersen has revamped the wine list and added lunch service since starting there, too.

Eventually, some of the changes might trickle down to the other location, but the size of the kitchen at Lake Creek is what allows him to experiment with various dishes and menu changes.

"We're never going to be four stars, but we're going to act like it," he says. Just because the economy has put a damper on fine dining doesn't mean diners aren't more educated than they ever have been. "They still want an elevated experience," he says.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Vivo Lake Creek

12233 N. RM 620

331-4660, vivo-austin.com

Open Mondays 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays 11 a.m. to midnight, Saturdays noon to midnight and Sundays 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.