Food for Thought

Austin's fast-casual restaurant chains offer quick, tasty dining alternatives

Austin's fast-casual restaurant chains offer tasty dining alternatives

Phonatic's Bun Tom Nuong Shrimp Vermicelli. Photo by Kristi Willis
phonatic shrimp roll
Phonatic's shrimp and pork spring roll. Photo by Kristi Willis
Tarka samosa chaat. Photo by Kristi Willis
hat creek
Hat Creek burger. Photo by Kristi Willis
Verts' doner kebap spit. Photo by Kristi Willis
phonatic shrimp roll
hat creek

Great local food isn’t reserved for Austin’s fine dining scene. A growing number of locally owned fast-casual chains are serving up tasty, inexpensive meals, often with an international flare. The menus feature fresh, quality ingredients with vegetarian and kid-friendly options making them an easy choice for a family outing that doesn’t feel like a sacrifice for the adults.

Don’t have a local fast casual joint in your neighborhood? You shouldn’t have to wait long — they are spreading like wild fire through the city.

Determined to bring Vietnamese cuisine to the masses and make it as common as Chinese food or sushi, owners Pat and Sara Lee chose a fast-casual format for PhoNatic. The menu offers authentic, traditional dishes like pho, Vietnamese beef soup, and rice noodle vermicelli dishes, as well as less traditional items like the popular banh mi slider appetizer. More adventurous diners might try the durian or jack fruit smoothies made with Asian produce that Lee says can be acquired tastes.

With an average dish price of $7-$8 and an easy to navigate kids’ menu, it’s clear why Austinites are becoming PhoNatics. The Lees recently opened a second location in SouthPark Meadows and have plans for a third spot in Cedar Park this fall.

Craving their favorite street food from hometown Berlin, UT students Michael Heyne and Dominic Stein started Verts to satiate themselves. The doner kebap — a sandwich with Turkish origin that is wildly popular throughout Europe — is made of spit-roasted beef and lamb or marinated chicken on puffy grilled white bread. Like many sandwich bars, you get to choose the other fillings and can substitute a wrap or bowl if you prefer. A veggie patty option is also available for those who prefer a meatless version.

If you are new to kebap, the friendly staff will gladly instruct you on how to enjoy it without making a mess. You can wash down your sandwich with a choice of local brews from Austin Beerworks, 512 Brewing or Live Oak Brewing or enjoy a Black & Blue iced coffee on tap from Cuvee Coffee. With six locations and a seventh opening soon, Verts is turning Austin into the doner kebap capital of Texas.

Tarka Indian Kitchen
Owned by the same group as the Clay Pit, this fast-casual Indian restaurant offers an ample selection of flavorful kabob, curry and biryani dishes as well as naaninis, a panini-style sandwich on naan bread. Tarka lets you pick the protein and the heat level (give careful consideration before ordering hot), and offers an extensive vegetarian menu that will appeal to true carnivores. 

Even the drink menu has Indian flare offering mango lemonade, chai, tamarind soda and freshly whipped lassis, a yogurt and fruit drink. Tarka makes it convenient to get your curry fix with three locations in Austin and Round Rock, an online ordering system and even an iPhone app. Save your favorite meal combinations, and garlic naan is just a few clicks away.

Hat Creek Burger
If your tastes are less exotic, Hat Creek Burger can satisfy your burger and fry fix. The brainchild of cheeseburger-obsessed founder Drew Gressett, this local chain keeps it simple with a straightforward menu that focuses on quality and bringing people together. Burgers come in three varieties — Premium Gold Angus, turkey and vegetarian grain patty — all on a freshly-baked bun. Order a side of hand cut fries and a Blue Bell milkshake and you’ve got the perfect all-American meal.

You can opt to make your burger “skinny,” wrapped in lettuce rather than on a bun, or choose one of the chicken sandwiches, gluten-free chicken flashers (Hat Creek's answer to the nugget) or fresh salads. My personal menu favorite is the Hat Creek cherry limeade made with fresh lime juice. Hat Creek currently has three locations in Austin including one in the Red Zone food court at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Hook 'em Hat Creek!

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