Before festival season arrives, we take a moment in February to catch our breath at a few establishments that have set the bar high in terms of standards, as well as expand palettes — and minds — with an inventive chef.
Those that have visited any of the three funky trailers scattered throughout town have, no doubt, found themselves coming back to East Side King for more. I know I’ll never forget the first time I had a helping of the crisp and spicy Brussels sprout salad or deep-fried beets with zippy kewpie mayo. And I think my heart skipped a beat the first time I bit into the soft steamed bun of the pork belly, cucumber and hoisin-sauce classic otherwise known as Poor Qui’s Buns — a veiled reference to one of ESK’s chef/owners Paul Qui.
But honestly, there’s something about a trailer that feels a bit impermanent to me. There’s always this apprehension that it could, one day, just disappear. Which is why when ESK announced plans to open not one, but two brick-and-mortar locations at the University of Texas Campus and later on South Lamar, a sense of relief settled over me and reinforced the hope that this tasty Asian street food concept was indeed here to stay.
Sure, the first location is at a place once home to cheap beer, great live music and a disgusting cigarette smoke-stained drop-panel ceiling, but it was nothing a little bit of demo work, a few extra sitting booths and tables, and an airy outside patio couldn’t fix. And now that the initial buzz has had a chance to settle since the restaurant opened a few months ago, it’s one of the best spots in town to sit outside on a warm, sunny day with a cold beer and several cardboard plates full of the restaurant’s ultimate classics.
You can still get the Poor Qui’s Buns and the dangerously addictive Brussels sprouts. But the Yoshi Mart Curry Buns are not to be missed. And and the deep-fried chicken thighs in sweet and spicy sauce give a whole new meaning to Grandma’s fried chicken — the secret is in the fish sauce brine. If you’re looking for a remedy to the season’s persistent allergy flare ups, the Chicken Tortilla Ramen with corn, avocado, chicken, jalapeño, garlic and lime in a rich bacon-dashi broth is just the thing.
Solid food, a great downtown location, and a steady urban-chic vibe have always made this spot a main attraction. Now celebrating its fifth year as one of Austin’s top restaurants, Parkside’s secret to success is delivering a menu of innovative new items — like the fluke crudo with tangerine purée, bone soil, rosemary and espelette chili pepper — but staying true to key items loyal fans have come to love, such as the platters of fresh oysters sourced from the East and West Coasts, crispy fried okra and, perhaps, the best burger and fries in town (a large claim for sure, but one I’m willing to stand by).
Daily happy hours until 6:30 p.m. with a half-price menu of food and drinks make an early evening meet-up with friends particularly appealing. While some may opt for wine or bubbly from the well-appointed wine list or a boozy cocktail such as the Fernet About It, I’ll have the classic gin-based cocktail made with lime and Chartreuse, also known as The Last Word.
There are many who claim the masterminds behind Sway took a lot of risks to bring this vervy new restaurant to fruition. What with the fully-exposed kitchen, the potentially service-challenging layout of large square tables, and the unusual assortment of ingredients and dish compositions highlighting chef René Ortiz’s modern take on Thai food (most of which is informed by his culinary experience in Asian-inspired Australian kitchens). But sometimes, taking risks pays off with great reward. It seems that Sway is certainly seeing the reward after a few months of straightening out a some kinks and opening diners’ minds to a new way of doing things.
With the no-reservations-for-parties-under-10 policy, my preference is to dine here to early Tuesday or Wednesday evening, and more frequently for a quick fix of Tom Kha Gai over lunch. However, if you’ve a lust for being a part of "the scene," as well as for tasting an array of mind-bending flavors and often unbelievably spicy dishes like beef jungle curry with red chili, baby corn, peppercorns and a little coconut cream, then weekends are the time to visit.
A few things to note: do save room for dessert; don’t miss the Sway house brew kombucha tea from Kosmic Kombucha; and do take time to appreciate the excellent exotic beer and well-paired wine list.