If there’s one lesson everyone should take home from 2017’s tragicomic Fyre Festival, it’s that hype has little correlation to quality. That goes double for Austin restaurants in 2019, where some of the hottest new eateries have less value than an old Ja Rule tape.
This month, we are ignoring the buzz and instead exploring some of the Capital City’s unsung eateries. Their strip mall locations might not be fashionable, but their vibrant global flavors sizzle where it counts.
Like a favorite cashmere sweater, this unsung North Austin Italian joint has a lived-in feel that guests want to return to time and time again.That’s not to say it’s not without its surprises. Penne pasta tossed with roasted seafood and sun dried tomatoes is amped up with ground coffee, and duck breast in a balsamic black current reduction slow burns with green chilis. More often than not we snuggle up with a spaghetti carbonara knitted with specks of rich guanciale — a true classic needs no other flash.
La Bodega Gourmet
This charming Bee Cave shop is packed to the ceiling with gourmet treats, including imported cheeses, organic coffee, Spanish wines, and infused oils. There’s also a scattering of paella pans should you choose to attempt to master the famous Catalan soccarat at home. But why bother when chef Eric Paz makes an inspiring new version every day? Enjoy it with a glass of sangria between 6-9 pm on Wednesday and Thursday for only $15.95.
Asian fusion may have gained steam in the haute kitchens of the 1980s, but the cross-pollination of foodways was far from a new idea even then. Long before Wolfgang Puck was tossing fried wonton chips on an American chopped salad, Nepalese cooks were borrowing ideas from India, Thailand, and China to create a distinctive hybrid. It’s most glorious creation is arguably the momo, an enthusiastically spiced Himalayan dumpling. Order both the veggie and chicken versions at Saffron to enjoy with an orange wine brought from home.
With so much of the buzz in Austin sushi coming from the city’s core, it’s easy to forget that big names don’t have the monopoly on quality Japanese fare. A trip north to Steve Riad and Tina Son’s strip-mall stunner quickly disproves that theory with just-caught escolar, toro, and horse mackerel. Those with reservations about raw fish will find much to like, such as delicately battered rock shrimp tempura and udon noodles tangled in a soothing broth.
Most of Austin’s Mediterranean restaurants butcher meze (they might as well call it meh-ze). The spots offer forlorn pools of hummus and baba ghanoush instead of offering a proper prelude to a feast. Thankfully, there is at least one local eatery that gives meze its proper due. Yes, the familiar eggplant and chickpea spreads are there — and both radiant. Troy also serves acuka (a spicy walnut pâté) and a vegetarian tarama that sneaks in carrots in place of the traditional cured roe. Each are available individually, but we’ll bet you order them all in the grand “best of” plate.
There are now three locations of this family Mexican restaurant, but the Braker Lane original still does it best. Visit at breakfast for zesty huevos divorciados, textbook migas, and chilaquiles beefed up with barbacoa. By mid-morning, the eatery is usually bustling with regulars, which might make those seeking hangover relief wince. Never fear, succor comes easy with a michelada rimmed with tajín.