- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
We all love Austin. That’s why we’re here. It’s a great place to live. And, it’s growing, making the move from town to city.
Despite our provincial pride, Austin still lacks quite a bit. And I’m not just talking about better sidewalks, a major league sports team and more comprehensive and convenient public transportation.
As someone who eats out daily, my curiosity about what Austin could use — and would devour — often focuses on the dining world. When I visit other cities, I see places I wish we had here.
Whether it’s the intimacy, execution and excellence of French bistro Le Pigeon on the edge of downtown Portland, Ore., or the myriad craft beers and charctuerie towers at the country chapel-like Edmund’s Oast in Charleston, S.C., there are spots around the country I covet.
The list contains concepts we don’t have and some we could simply use more of. I want the plump, garlic-infused beef hot dogs from Superdawg in Chicago and the Mediterranean-inspired small plates and dazzling wine list from that city’s Avec.
Portland has Chizu, a cheese bar with menu and service resembling a sushi restaurant. Austinites would love that. The restaurant group behind some of the best restaurants in New Orleans (Cochon, Herbsaint) makes killer artisan sandwiches in the sprawling, sunlit space of Cochon Butcher.
And some bars make food as well as they do cocktails, whether the eclectic Asian dishes at Expatriate in Portland, the surprising offerings at Trick Dog in San Francisco or the phenomenal cheeseburger at Chicago’s Au Cheval.
Some of my yearnings are less specific. I just want more Middle Eastern and Korean and Japanese izakayas and midpriced options. And did I mention sandwiches?
I am not the only one who daydreams of food and drink from outside Austin’s city limits. Chefs and restaurateurs travel the country — and world — for business and pleasure, taking inspiration from their peers and savoring that which has yet to take root back home. So I figured I’d ask them what they’d like to see open in Austin. Some answers were exact and others more vague. What was clear is that, despite our maturing dining scene, Austin is hungry for more. Who knows? Maybe some of these culinary dreams will come true.
Shion Aikawa, director of operations at Ramen Tatsu-ya
“Small”, “specialized”, “casual” and “accessible” are keywords. Coming to mind would be places like Paesano (a Philly-style sandwich shop) in Philadelphia or Kazunori (counter-style handrolls) in downtown Los Angeles. Though, I won’t be surprised if we see a Southern approach to this — maybe a queso and chips bar, a chicken fried steak sandwich parlor … the list goes on.”
Todd Duplechan, chef-owner of Lenoir
“Jessica and I ate at Shaya last time we were in New Orleans, and it was great. This idea of wholesome, slightly modern Middle Eastern food really speaks to me. Also it’s a great fit for Austin’s climate and health.”
(Editor’s note: Esquire magazine named the modern Israeli restaurant the best new restaurant in America last year.)
“Bagels. People say you can’t make bagels here because the water is different from NYC. My former pastry chef, Jasmine Jones, made some of the best bagels I have ever had, so I know this is not true. Most NYC bagel companies (Bergen, Murray’s, H&H) would do, but I’m definitely partial to Montreal-style wood-oven bagels.”
“I’d like to see a place like the Buttery in Santa Cruz, Calif. I visited about two years ago, and I absolutely fell in love with it. The Buttery is the perfect neighborhood breakfast/lunch restaurant. Throughout the day they offer very basic cooked-to-order breakfast and lunch items, and there is a display case filled with the freshest salads, quiches, premade sandwiches and pastries. We ate there almost every day we were in Santa Cruz. Simplicity, freshness and quality define the food at this restaurant.”
Justin Elliott, food and beverage wrangler at the Townsend
“I would desperately love to see the Saint Austere (in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn) open in Austin. Not necessarily for the food, which is just simple and well-executed continental small plates with a particular fixation on Italian, but for what it would mean for Austin if a place like that could open and simply excel without turning into a wild, flamboyantly overhyped and rapidly backlashed-against dumpster fire. I guess what I really crave being imported to Austin isn’t so much a restaurant, but a sense of steady commitment to serving neighborhoods well and, maybe moreover, a willingness on Austin’s part to allow neighborhoods to be better served. Also, a 24-hour bodega where I can get a proper sandwich for like $4.50.
“Dan Tana’s has been in Los Angeles for decades, and it looks and feels like it, but it has the best Italian-American food. It was the first restaurant I ever went to in L.A. when I was 12, and it hasn’t changed a bit. In a sense, it’s a dive, but always an odd major Hollywood character, same waiters and bartender and same surly maitre d’. Order the tableside Caesar, veal parm, garlic cheese bread and Travaglini Gattinara to drink. This is always my first meal when I’m in L.A.”
Evan LeRoy, executive chef and pitmaster at Freedmen’s
“I would love to see an Eataly here. Instead of the parade of similar Italian concepts that have recently opened in Austin, there should be a mecca of Neapolitan pizza, freshly-made pasta, espresso and gelato, all in one place. When we lived in New York City, I loved being able to just wander around while drinking a coffee and smelling everything. It’s a great place to kill time, without spending a ton of money.
“I would also love to see a Mission Chinese open in Austin. The concept (Americanized Chinese food with a rock-and-roll vibe) would fit in well with the vibe of the city and would add to the growing roster of elevated Asian options.”
Amanda Rockman, executive pastry chef at Cafe No Se and Central Standard
“B. Patisserie in San Francisco. The smell of fresh baked pastries is intoxicating, and then the frenzy of what to buy hits. It’s really just a sugar rush. I would love to see an all-inclusive pastry shop that has breakfast pastries to large format entremets-style cakes – really showcasing great pastry technique and super yummy flavors.”
Takuya Matsumoto, co-executive chef and co-owner of Ramen Tatsu-ya
“I’d like to see more of those Asian-style bakeries with the trays and tongs – where you grab whatever pastries you want. They are everywhere in Japan. Super convenient and delicious. Also I miss the onigiri in all the corner stores in Japan.”
Tatsu Aikawa, co-executive chef and co-owner of Ramen Tatsu-ya
“It would be great to have a takoyaki (battered and fried octopus snacks) shop that serves highballs; stand-up, counter-style sushi shacks; and a bar that specializes in regional sake selections (like 100 different kinds) and Japanese whiskey.”
James Robert, executive chef at Fixe
“There’s a restaurant called Cask & Larded in Winter Park, Fla., right outside Orlando, that I love. It is a gastropub-style place that brews their own beer and features Lowcountry Southern cooking. They also have a really good charcuterie program, in addition to a large-format menu that they execute perfectly.
“I sat in their brew room with a group of guys once and we ordered a whole roasted pig off of their large-format menu. It was awesome, and as perfect as it could have been. Brought out initially by two servers on a huge board, presented, then brought back to the kitchen where they took it all off of the bone. They brought it back out and served it very simply with salsa verde. Amazing. I think a place like theirs would fit right in here in Austin, and it would quickly become my go-to.”
Jason Stude, executive chef at Second Bar + Kitchen
“I would love for Alesi Pizza House from Lafayette, La., to open here. I’m biased because it’s where I began my restaurant career and it’s my extended family’s place, but I would eat there weekly. When I think of and crave (which I do) dishes like old-school chicken Parmesan, Italian sausage pizza, or spaghetti and meatballs, it’s exactly the restaurant that comes to mind.”
Iliana de la Vega, chef-owner of El Naranjo
“Growing up in Mexico City, where we have a large Lebanese community, I miss Middle Eastern food. On a recent trip to Stanford University, where I consult, I discovered a casual family-owned neighborhood restaurant called Anatolian Kitchen, where I have enjoyed delicious food as I remembered it. There is not such a place in Austin. It would be a great addition to the food scene.
“One of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had was eating at Devi, a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City, which unfortunately is now closed. If we could make chef Suvir Saran open one in Austin, it would be wonderful. It was perfect, traditional Indian cuisine, like none other I have experienced. Elegant, bold flavors that stayed in your memory forever.”