Think back, if you can, to a time not so long ago before Rene Ortiz brought his inspired Mexican cooking to La Condesa on 2nd Street.
Before then, where did you go for Austin's best Mexican food? The always delicious Fonda San Miguel, most likely, or that local taqueria that doesn't exactly have a formal name.
But for Mexican food that breaks stereotypes and expands your flavor palate? Well, then you were out of luck.
Now, the innovative Rene Ortiz is ditching poblano peppers for banana blossoms (or rather, doing both) with the opening of new Thai restaurant Sway on South First Street, along with La Condesa partners Jesse Herman and Delfo Trombetta.
We had to ask Ortiz if reinvention was his intention with Thai. Was he trying to breathe new life into the East Asian flavors, to add an exciting and inspired new element to a somewhat stagnant (at least with the Americanized versions) cuisine?
"I don't think it's what I'm trying to do," says Chef Ortiz. "It's what I'm doing. I'm extremely confident in my work."
Amen, brother. If you've ever eaten at La Condesa, then tears likely came to your eyes when you heard the news that Ortiz will be working his magic with Thai cuisine. I love my Chicken Pad Thai as much as the next guy, but I'm ready to admit that there's way more to Thai food than I've ever taken home in a styrofoam to-go box.
Having moved to Sydney, Australia, around the turn of the millennium to helm the gourmet Japanese restaurant Ocean Room, Chef Ortiz soon made his way to the top of Wildfire, home to the largest kitchen in Australia and stunning views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor.
If you're drawing a blank on what good, traditional Australian cuisine entails (no, the Bloomin' Onion does not count), you're not alone. Much like us Texans who have piggybacked on the cuisine of our southern neighbors, the Australians have taken advantage of the expansive culinary world at their doorstep with the flavors of Southeast Asia.
Chef Ortiz himself was all too happy to partake in their teaching. "People [from Southeast Asia] that migrate over open these restaurants, and where are they going to go out to eat? 'Let’s go get some Thai food, let’s get some betel leaves, or a whole lobster, a whole crab, a whole fish, or whatever.' It sparked this whole transition of [Australian chefs] going and experiencing and traveling and opening up their version of that.
"I had the experience of trying those flavors, and I was like, 'Oh my god, this is amazing!' Having those experiences really pushed you into understanding it and loving it too."
With the tastes of Thailand still on his palate, Chef Ortiz's menu will easily be one of the most ambitious to emerge out of Austin's most recent restaurant renaissance. From fresh seafood to complex curries, Ortiz has a vision that crosses the Pacific Ocean with ease.
As for your current perceptions of Thai food? Feel free to leave them at the door.
"The few [Thai] restaurants that I’ve tasted here, I’ve been happy with. I think what I do is just different. It’s a little more thinking outside of the box, especially in regards to the bounty that we have of fresh produce from the local people here," says Ortiz.
"I think that a lot of restaurants here are unable to do the things that they want to do because they feel they are limited with the indigenous ingredients. Although you have some markets here, they don’t have everything. It makes it a little bit difficult. We really put the pressure on our providers, put the pressure on ourselves, to source the right ingredients so that we can provide people with a very, very unique experience.
"You understand tradition and you respect it, but there are new forms of cooking things. I always say abuelita [Mexican grandmother] doesn’t always know how to cook mole, and I do. I feel like I know a little more because there's a lot more technique that’s involved in it, whether the temperature of the chiles or the reactions of things. Thai food is the same way. If you’re doing a curry, people expect a curry to be just coconut and a green sauce, but it’s a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of detail to tradition and a lot of understanding that goes into it."
Just as important as Chef Ortiz's culinary creativity and globe-spanning experience are the people he finds himself surrounded with. Owners Herman and Trombetta (who both have lived in Thailand) brought in Michael Hsu to design an iconic building unlike any other in town.
In the center of the mahogany-drenched dining room (which seats an impressive 150) is the massive, open air kitchen, which is surrounded by bar seating for an unobstructed view of all the action. Pastry chef extraordinaire Laura Sawicki ("a super badass," according to Ortiz) will bring her sweets skills to the dessert menu, and Nate Wales will be managing the bar.
Not to be lost in this whole conversation is that fact that a wonderful French-Vietnamese restaurant, a world-class barbecue trailer, and a soon-to-be-iconic Thai restaurant have all opened on the same corner in South Austin within the past two years. Chef Ortiz is ready to do his part to keep Austin's foodie scene on its upwards trajectory.
"I hope that [Sway] keeps driving that force that everyone else has done for this city," he says. "You know, Tyson Cole and Bryce Gilmore, Franklin even, all these guys that have really pushed the envelope to make a difference, and I hope that we can do that with this restaurant.
"I still go to Shady Grove, I’ll eat my chips and queso and watch my little kids run around. I think it’s fantastic. All the new things that come in, I definitely try to make time to taste them and understand them. I love it.
"New business in Austin is always important to me, because I want people to grow, I want this city to grow, I want palates to grow, and I even want people to grow—sideways. I want them to get fat! That is extremely important to me. You need to get high on your own supply. We’ll give that to Biggie Smalls."
You still have a short time to wait before you'll get to sample Ortiz's menu. Sway will be open for lunch and dinner around the end of August/beginning of September.