You love Uchi. You’re well-versed in the glories of Franklin Barbecue. You wonder: “What if those two restaurants had a baby?”
Settle down. This isn’t that. It’s something simpler. And more complicated.
Those who come to Loro expecting a hybrid version of Uchi and Franklin Barbecue will soon realize that this is something completely different. It’s not an equation whereby those two James Beard-winning superpowers are added to one another or multiplied. It is a new formula altogether. One that most closely resembles a thoughtful Asian … sports bar?
The outdoor televisions grabbed my attention and sent my mind reeling as I drove past the soon-to-open Loro earlier this year. It wasn’t what was on the televisions; like the rest of the building, they were still dark. It was simply the existence of the televisions.
Austin food-lovers and those who traverse South Lamar Boulevard on a regular basis had long wondered what the collaboration between Uchi founding chef and partner Tyson Cole and barbecue maestro Aaron Franklin would look and taste like. The moniker of “Asian smokehouse,” eventually painted on the side of the building, hinted at the taste, and the televisions were some of the first clues as to the look and feel.
Stepping inside the airy, light-filled restaurant after it opened in April, it quickly became evident that, despite the counter service and a rustically elegant Austin 2.0 dancehall aesthetic that might be suited for the classic country soundtrack of Franklin Barbecue, Loro isn’t like anything we’d experienced from Franklin or Cole.
Their new concept lowers the barrier of entry that has long existed for their two famous restaurants. Gone are the prohibitively high prices of Uchi and equally challenging wait times of Franklin — yes, there are wait times that can reach an hour at Loro on weekend nights, but this is a populist place for folks who don’t have the appetite for those two defining characteristics. And diners expecting some transcendent Voltron that smashes together the two chefs’ famed restaurants should adjust expectations.
Don’t expect the exquisite and delicate flavor profiles of Uchi’s sushi and cold dishes or the world-class brisket of Franklin Barbecue. You will find fish, liked supple oak-smoked salmon, and the sliced brisket (served only after 5 p.m.), while just sneaking into the Top 10 brisket in Austin, is not in the class of the sublime meat found at Franklin. It may be the same beef and wood as used at Franklin, but without the magic touch of the handmade smokers at Franklin, the dish is a tasty reminder: You can only buy Franklin Barbecue’s brisket at Franklin Barbecue.
What you will get is whispers of both spots in an environment and from a service model unlike either.
The dish that best illustrates the partnership of Cole and Franklin is the smoked prime bavette ($18), sourced, like Franklin Barbecue’s beef, from Creekstone Farm. The medallions of voluptuous French skirt steak, vaporous with post oak smoke, are cut by the lash of pickled onions and the grassy sting of shishito salsa verde, though I prefer the citrus and herbaceousness and tang of the Thai green dipping sauce that accompanies a snack of fried wonton chips ($5.50).
You can get the bavette by itself on a plate — OK, paper-lined metal tray ($18) — or scattered with vegetables and herbs throughout a rice bowl fragrant with Thai flavors of coconut and galangal ($13.50). The either/or treatment also applies to hoisin-lacquered pork belly char siu ($12 plate, $13 rice bowl) and the most tender chicken breast you’ve ever eaten draped in mild yellow curry and served in a rice bowl ($13.50) or with greens and herbs for self-made wraps ($14). The green curry sausage comes sliced on a plate with piquant papaya salad ($11) and also as a sandwich on a bun brushed with chili aioli ($11).
I’m not sure if the mix-and-match style of proteins is intended to appeal to those looking to avoid the carbs of rice and bread, minimize food costs or simply to hide the fact that the menu is somewhat limited in its protein options. There are a few stand-alone proteins like deeply smoky salmon in a refreshing but cloying cucumber-yuzu broth that is too much of the latter and not enough of the former ($18) and lithe smoked turkey tingled with apricot gastrique ($13.50).
Most notable, of course, is the brisket. Unlike the cobalt bark-lined slices jiggly with slowly rendered fat at Franklin Barbecue, you can’t order this brisket fatty or lean, and you ask for it by the plate ($15.50), not by weight. That means you may get two lean but still very pliant slabs weighing in at about a quarter-pound strewn with herbs and cooling in a tame chili gastrique. On paper, the combination of smoked meat and gastrique exemplifies what one would expect from the joining of the two chefs, but I wanted more acidic bite and contrast.
While the brisket plate is only served at dinner, you can get the smoked and grilled beef chopped into fat-moistened shreds on a sandwich dressed with the crunch and cool of papaya salad and Thai herbs all day ($12). The chopped beef also unnecessarily stretches across a nicely seared but squishy burger made of brisket and bavette ($8.50) that’s only available at happy hour (2 to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday). Thinking about asking to remove the brisket from the burger? Please see the note at the bottom of the menu that reads, “We kindly decline all substitutions or modifications.”
Such a note is not unheard of at restaurants, but it speaks to this operation’s apparent desire for speed and efficiency at the sake of customer service. You are handed a menu before entering the restaurant and make your way to an ordering station squeezed between patrons at the bar, where you place your entire order at once and are then asked to close your tab/credit card and determine a tip amount based off a presumed level of service.
Want another dish, water refill or cocktail? You’ll be dodging other customers and food runners as you return to the short lines that extend from the bar and repeat the process, credit card swiping and all. One of the restaurant’s exterior walls reads, “Have a quick bite or stay all night.” But that all-night will likely involve negotiations with your tablemates about whose turn it is to go wait, order and pay, along with a pocketful of receipts. Sitting at the bar allows for running tabs, though the bartenders are often busy tending to the usually steady stream of customers in line.
The ordering is not the only hassle. You may not be told while ordering to next head to the service stations at either end of the dining room and grab your own share trays or cutlery, but that will become obvious when the food runners find the blinking indicator at your table and leave the dishes without fork or description. The system also means there is no pacing of larger orders, which can result in a table full of cooling plates. Have you received your entire order? You better keep track yourself because the various runners likely aren’t aware of all that you have ordered or who ordered what. Want a water refill or napkins or a knife? More walking for you, as there is nobody refilling glasses and no napkins on your table.
One of the two dessert options, a salted chocolate chip cookie ($3.25), is outsourced as well, delivered every other day from the Steeping Room, according to an employee.
If my quibbling sounds more like whining, maybe it’s because I was at first holding Loro to traditional restaurant standards, when it is clear they are trying to eschew those and benefit from a new business model that can facilitate paying what must be massive rents while keeping prices quite reasonable. The style referred to by some as “fast-fine” or “fine-casual” (note the ceramic bowls, fresh herbs and quality beef) has found success at restaurants like Souvla in San Francisco, a town facing even greater challenges in terms of cost of living and minimum wage standards. I can appreciate the money-making acumen, but when you can see the seams on a business so clearly, the experience feels less hospitable.
Even the cocktails come frozen (the floral gin and tonic is far superior to the beach bar sake mango slushie, both $8) or, like the syrupy ginger Old Fashioned, pre-batched in what are in the bar world fittingly calls “speed bottles.” Operational efficiency seems to be given greater consideration than customer experience.
The dining room and massive two-tiered patio blend brawny wood and steel with more delicate touches like lantern-style candles suspended by leather straps and wicker hanging chairs outside. The space evokes the leisurely feel of the Hill Country, and that sense of ease and idle is echoed in shareable snacks like the perfect crackle and juiciness of gluten-free fried chicken karaage breaded in potato flour and cornstarch ($9.50) and oak-grilled snap peas mixing smoke and vegetal sweetness and zipped by kimchi emulsion ($6.50).
The communal dishes don’t inspire you to reconsider Asian or Texas cuisine in a way you might at the superior Kemuri Tatsu-Ya Asian smokehouse izakaya in East Austin, but that’s likely by design. Loro seems content on being a refined take on an Asian-flavored fast-casual sports bar without the sports fans (I’ve never witnessed any customer paying attention to one of the approximately dozen flat-screen TVs inside and outside). Maybe that’s why that exterior wall also bears a modestly tongue-in-cheek line, “The best Asian smokehouse on South Lamar.”
An esteemed film critic told me years ago that one should review the film that is on the screen and not the film you wished had been made. Loro has produced a new and surprisingly populist concept to Austin. It’s one that appears ready made for easy exporting beyond South Austin. But the unwieldy package, as with some of the flavor profiles, is in need of closer inspection.
2115 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-916-4858, loroaustin.com
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Bar food, snacks and veggies, $3.50-$10. Meats, $11-$18. Sandwiches and rice bowls, $11-$13.50.
Hits: Kale and Asian pear salad with smoked salmon, chicken karaage, smoked prime bavette, brisket, Malaysian chicken bo ssam, char siu pork belly rice bowl.
Expect to pay: $20 (price per one person, does not include alcohol, tax or tip)
Notes: Free on-site lot parking. Happy hour runs from 2 to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. To-go orders accepted by phone from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: James Beard award-winning chefs Tyson Cole and Aaron Franklin give an Asian smokehouse spin to the fine-casual concept.