Austin staples like Hoover's and Evangeline Cafe have long made pork chops and chicken fried steak for satisfied fans, but the interest in doing something new with comfort food has exploded in recent months. The following spots are advancing the conversation on what comfort food means in Austin in 2015.
Eight months in, Olamaie's co-chefs Grae Nonas and Michael Fojtasek are leading lights in Austin's modern Southern charge. The flavors here are described as "garden Southern," meaning you'll see veggies, grains and pickles getting plenty of run in addition to the meaty courses. The off-menu biscuits are a crowd-pleaser, as are the pickled veggies. Our favorite thing to do here is bring a group for drinks and order the entire small plates section. With fried catfish, beet salad, smothered cornbread, beef tartare with sunchokes, button mushrooms, and glazed sweet potatoes, there are favorites for every palate. The wine list is quite affordable for fine dining, and the sleek but refined cocktail menu is consistent.
When Fixe opened soon after Olamaie, it was fair to wonder if the competitors were riffs on the same idea. Thankfully, they aren't. Where Olamaie is genteel, Fixe is boisterous: Both have great food, but their atmospheres couldn't be more different. James Robert and Keith House are veterans of Eddie V's, and you can see it in the bustling bar scene, loud conversations and general party vibe. That's not a knock on the cooking: the menu is strong overall, with the seafood mains (think lobster and crawfish pot pie) being particularly memorable. The three differing grit treatments also offer a study in contrasts, with a choice of Gulf shrimp, Texas quail or a farm egg anchoring the plates. The apple rye cocktail makes for a perfect start to the party.
Erica Waksmunski isn't your typical Austin food trailer owner. As former pastry chef for David Bull at Congress, she dazzled Austin with fresh takes on favorite classic and childhood desserts — a role she continues today with Shawn Cirkiel's Parkside Projects. Waksmunski's Red Star does "East Coast Southern," meaning you'll find cayenne and buttermilk fried chicken with pickles; pimento cheese sandwiches with jalapenos and tabasco; and an open-faced "beetloaf" sandwich with black eyed peas, onions and mushrooms. The trailer makes for great takeout. It anchors the former East Side King spot at The Grackle, meaning that a whiskey to chase your meal is just steps away.
Comfort dishes are abundant at Bryce Gilmore's casual spot, though you'll have to get used to their reconstructed form. The current dinner menu has sunchoke tater tots with beets and dill oil; hand-milled grits with a red chile pork stew; and fancy beans with cabbage, bacon and sage. At lunch, you can also find a veggie-filled take on pot pie with broccoli, mushrooms and root vegetables, and tasty sweet potato bites accented with peanuts, chiles and coconut. This month the restaurant expands for late-night dining on weekends, with hours stretching until 2 am on Friday and Saturday. Service here is on point, and the cocktail program is rapidly becoming one of the city's best.
Dai Due focuses on local food — not comfort food — but Jesse Griffiths isn't afraid to make you a great bowl of chili. The menu changes often, but you can always find Dewberry Farms fried chicken and potatoes on Sunday nights. There are also biscuits and gravy with venison sausage on the breakfast and lunch menu, along with homemade pickles on many plates. If it's on the menu, grab the aforementioned chili. It comes in a huge cauldron topped with chopped jalapenos, a slab of cornbread and (for a surcharge) a fried duck egg on top. The warm and welcoming space on Manor Road hops at all hours with an appreciative and loyal crowd of regulars.
The latest project from Ek Timrerk (Spin Modern Thai, Titaya's) blends his Thai skills and comfort food to mostly great results. The coconut cabbage slaw is a dish that really works (and surprises): Coarsely cut slaw mixes with fried Brussels sprouts and pickled beets for a mix of textures and temperatures. The fried chicken thigh is also a winner, featuring the added bonus of tom sam (green papaya salad) and indulgent fried green tomatoes. Our only quibble was the panang mac and cheese: rather than a hybrid, it's essentially a curry sitting on top of a pasta — we prefer the other selections. Note: This counter sits inside the Hana World Market food court. Head inside the store to the far right, and bring cash.