Like it or not, Austinites often get wrapped up in the new. Give us a shiny bauble and we forget to play with anything else. That’s especially true of local restaurants, where the latest opening often distracts us from the eateries that continually make our scene great. That’s why this month, I am revisiting three places that remain bafflingly unsung.
From an inviting Mexican classic that grinds its own masa to a dynamic izakaya, each piece of the June trio fits neatly into the city’s dining trends, but with quality transcends mere fads. The latest hot spot will be around next month, so join me in getting back to the essentials.
For the past few years, Austin diners have been enraptured with all-day cafes like the newly opened Hank’s. The light-filled spaces appear all over social media, where they provide a perfect backdrop for an aspirational selfie with a slice of avocado toast.
So it’s a bit of a mystery why Forthright, one of the most pleasant eateries in the category, does not receive more attention. Its office building locale, far away from the bulk of downtown foot traffic, starts to explain it. But performative eaters have been known to travel to much less accessible restaurants for a good Instagram.
It’s certainly not for a lack of trying. The Michael Hsu-designed space is pure eye candy with the necessary details (light wood, large expanses of Carrara marble, Windsor-like Salt chairs) all checked off the list. Maybe it's missing a fiddle-leaf fig, but otherwise, the space has all the modern totems of an Apartment Therapy spread.
And spiffy digs or not, it offers a contemporary menu that is perfectly tailored to Austin’s active lifestyle. Most of the offerings are light, showcasing peak produce in dishes like simple toasts (the wild mushroom is a welcome respite from regulation avocado), organic chia pudding, and salads full of textural pop.
The sunny bowls are as welcome in this year’s scorching weather as a rose gold Birkenstock sandal. Order the Super Food bowl, a kaleidoscopic mix of quinoa, kale, shredded carrot, shaved beets, radish, and chopped almonds brightened further by a sharp orange ginger dressing.
As is de rigueur at any such establishment, Forthright has something to cut through all that health food: a solid burger with an unfussy preparation of cheddar-smothered Angus beef on a fluffy challah bun. It’s one of the best sandwiches downtown and a sly acknowledgment that even while sipping golden milk lattes, we are still a burger town.
The Capital City isn’t exactly known for restaurant diversity, but one of the bright spots here is the ready availability of top-notch Japanese food. The popularity of restaurants like Uchi, Soto, and Musashino helped expand Austin’s culinary vocabulary, paving the way for the experimentation of newer spots like Loro and Kemuri Tatsu-Ya.
With so many superlative eateries competing, Fukumoto often feels lost in the shuffle — although the lively izakaya uniformly serves sushi and yakitori that deserves to be any best-of list.
Most impressively, it remains approachable without bowing to Western sensibilities — no Uchi Hot Rocks here — serving accessible dishes like karaage and cornflake-battered shrimp alongside offerings like grilled chicken hearts and monkfish liver with ponzu and fried maple leaves.
That extends to the sushi menu, which largely avoids maki in favor of nigiri featuring everything from yellowtail, scallops, and bigeye tuna to raw octopus, pickled ginger blossom, and duck egg omelettes. The sashimi teaser is practically mandatory with a 10-piece selection of chef’s cuts for only $23.
Like Kemuri, Fukumoto never forgets that eating out is entertainment. You can see that in playful touches like takoyaki-style corn dogs and in the drink program, which makes the most of its lack of hard booze with an expansive sake selection and wine-based cocktails like the shiso-tini, a drink as refreshing as owner Kazu Fukumoto’s personality.
With a rich history that spans hundreds of years, interior Mexican cuisine is not a trend. It’s not even “new” in Austin, where one of the first restaurants to garner international attention — Fonda San Miguel — has been operating since 1975.
But there is no denying that contemporary restaurants like Suerte are increasingly taking inspiration from the vibrant flavors and often labor-intensive techniques of pre-Columbian cooking. The current local resurgence owes a lot to El Naranjo’s Iliana de la Vega.
Her resume certainly demands some attention. The Oaxacan version of El Naranjo garnered write-ups in the New York Times and Bon Appetit and in 2014, the Mexican government awarded her the prestigious Ohtli award in recognition of her contribution to gastronomy. In other words, Austin is lucky to have her.
Although her Sinaloan pork burritos (made with indulgent house flour tortillas) and grilled shrimp adobados are worthy of raves, save those for a return visit. Newcomers should order one of her three moles, served with your choice of Berkshire pork chop, duck breast, chicken breast, shrimp, or seasonal vegetables.
The mole negro is alchemy, fusing over 30 ingredients into a sauce that reveals new flavors with every forkful. Much lighter is the mole amarillo — still complex but with the tang of tomatillos — and the pipian verde — delicately thickened with toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds.
Unfortunately, that’s not available on the new lunch menu, but you can still get a taste of the mole negro in duck enchiladas, a godsend for curmudgeons like me who can barely stomach Rainey Street’s crowds.