We’ve all had it happen. A friend comes into Austin to visit and they inevitably ask where they should eat. Not wanting them to know most of your meals come from Royal Blue, you rattle off the first three restaurants that show up in a quick Google search.
Not to diss the big names in Austin food, but we think you can do better. You may not have heard of these three Austin hidden gems, but trust us, they are the heart and soul of what makes dining in Austin great. Impress your loved ones and stick it to your frenemies by giving them the inside scoop.
Sneeze and you’ll miss the unassuming building at 2512 E. 12th St., a few blocks from the bustling nightlife scene at the corner of Chicon Street. But don’t let the humble facade fool you. It may not have the giant windows and flashy neon signs of restaurants with big backers, but that has nothing to do with what’s going on inside.
Although owner Andria Millie’s resume includes stints at noted Seattle bistro Le Pichet and chef David Myer’s former fine dining fixture Sona, she first popped up on local radars with two simple salsas. The red one won an honorable mention in the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, and a small business — also named Cultivo — was born.
The painstaking process that went into each salsa (tomatoes are grilled then slow smoked, other ingredients are roasted or caramelized, and spices were toasted before being hand-ground in a molcajete) is a good representation of the care she puts into all her food.
Sourcing from local farms and quality meat purveyors like 44 Farms and Dewberry Hill, Cafe Cultivo’s food is all about the integrity of each ingredient. A simple plate of marinated cucumbers and pickled sweet peppers topped with Bee Tree Farm feta is just as captivating as the more complex dishes.
But try the entrees anyway, especially the potato gnocchi with a luscious wild boar ragu and the Gulf shrimp and grits, given a little heft with the addition of chorizo Rioja. If that sounds too heavy, the garden fresh gazpacho is a midsummer night's dream.
Although the interior of the restaurant initially looked a little ramshackle, it recently received a rework that is more fitting with the quality of the food. Thankfully, it still has the charm of a mom-and-pop. Our town could do with fewer brass fixtures.
Like many aspiring restaurateurs in the city, chef Tebi Nguyen started off small. Parked in a converted shipping container on East Seventh Street, his first venture — Saigon Le Vendeur — gained a cult following with only two entrees: a nimble bún (vermicelli with herbs and a dipping sauce) and arguably the best bánh mì in the city. Still, the strength of those two dishes always left me wanting more.
In April, Austin finally got just that with the opening of an expanded brick-and-mortar at 9070 Research Blvd. The two flagship dishes haven’t gone away, but now both the sandwiches and noodles are available with expanded proteins like lamb, shaken beef, and garlic butter prawns that show off the versatility of the basic forms.
However, the biggest boon of the larger kitchen is the addition of several new snacks. The menu is still fairly minimal, but now it makes room for fried egg rolls with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms and two varieties of summer rolls — one with a grilled pork patty and another packing a one-two punch of pork belly and shrimp.
Le Bleu has also introduced a contender for the crown in a town already brimming with great wings. The garlic-chili base of the glaze might have been merely good if not combined with passionfruit. But the fruit’s characteristic tartness gives it smack.
Better yet is the gỏi xoài, a shredded green mango salad with papaya, poached shrimp, toasted cashew, and fried shallots atypically balanced with the fattiness of pork belly. Yes, that last addition, as well as a few others, may be uncommon in recipes, but ignore the temerity of Yelp reviewers who try to tell Nguyen how to cook his own food.
Authenticity is a nice concept for antiquarians; it has nothing to do with cuisine.
It’s Italian Cucina
Speaking of judging books by their covers, the sign above this eatery at 1500 S. Lamar Blvd., Ste. 110 may veer a little too close to the Sbarro logo for the hip Austinite's tastes. If you choose restaurants to impress your followers, move on. There are plenty of Austin restaurants that celebrate surface.
If, however, you want you want stick-to-your-ribs Northern Italian cooking, put down your phone and waltz right in. Even with the Italian boom of a couple of years back, It’s Italian provides something that is rare in Austin: comfort food that doesn’t rely on schooled plating or trend ingredients to make an impact.
The eatery started as an Italian import shop and wine bar in East Austin in 2016 before morphing into a full-service restaurant in September 2017. The new location still has traces of its past, with a small selection of packaged goods; a terrific wine selection; and a welcoming presence from its affable owner, Al Fini.
That means sticking to classic dishes like tagliatelle in bolognese, pumpkin ravioli in brown butter, and chicken marsala. Full of pure bold flavors, it’s the type of food that anyone can understand. The tang of tomatoes knocks you out in the frutti de mare, while the fettucini tartufo gets down and dirty with truffled pasta and porcini cream.
And though steeped in tradition, It’s Italian’s brunch feels like a revelation in a migas town. You haven’t lived until you’ve let the yolk of a sunny side up egg further emulsify the creamy daily risotto and the bellinis are the perfect antidote to mimosa miasma.
In contemporary Austin, where everything seems to have been market-tested before seeing the light of day, it’s refreshing to see the risk of passion. Like Millie and Nguyen, Fini seems to understand Austin’s sluggish food scene won’t be woken up with another slice of avocado toast. Our town is a lot better for it.