Austin may be one of the largest cities in the country, but in some ways it is still a small town. So when an idea enters the zeitgeist, expect it to stick. As when fashion designers suddenly decree that printed midi dresses or socks and sandals are back, half of the fun is in seeing how the trend is interpreted.
Over the past few months, Austin has seen an influx of new restaurants combining approachable Asian-influenced cuisine and a major focus on cocktails. Below are three new spots adding their own creative twists to this trend.
There’s food made to be paired and food made to be enjoyed while drinking. This Rainey Street newcomer may not serve food designed to bring out the nuances of a Gruner Vetliner, but it knows what it is — a place to gossip with your pals before heading out into the madness of the district (or, more sensibly, to head home to binge watch 30 Rock for the fifth time).
That doesn’t mean that food is made without thought, but don’t expect subtlety. Anthem goes for the jugular, whether that is in the poppy Polynesian decor, a dessert-like banana daiquiri, or taquitos with queso, jack cheese, and applewood smoked bacon.
The maximalist approach hits its zenith with the Yummy Fries. In a city famous for its loaded fries, from Chi’Lantro’s kimchi version to Hot Mess’ namesake sausage and pork-topped monstrosity, Anthem manages to stand out. Adding (take a deep breath now) two kinds of aioli, sweet soy sauce, furikake, scallions, pickled ginger shoots, sesame seeds, bonito, and shredded nori to sweet potato waffle fries should not work, but sometimes bells and whistles combine to make a symphony.
I’ll admit it took me a few visits to warm up to this east side spot. Since Gardner closed in 2016, I have carried a grudge through each successive remodel of the space. I grumbled when Chicon took a detour to the Southwest and louder still when it added shipping crate dividers. The last straw (sorry) came when the previously monastic shell was blasted with Trapper Keeper colors.
Maybe it’s all the overproof rum, or that the place seems hopping even if you get there before the crowd, but the cold shoulder soon turned into a warm hug. Then, I tried the kimchi grilled cheese with sambal and apples, and realized how seriously the bar took its fun.
The small menu may be as tongue-in-cheek as the photo of the Golden Girls hanging on one wall. But there is a sincerity in there, too. The fried rice with beef tongue is the sort of dish a chef might work up after shift. As Austin gets ever more fancy, we need more easy, unpretentious food — even if it’s at the cost of old memories.
She’s Not Here
The older I get, the easier it is to succumb to immediate pleasures. Why struggle with convincing yourself you like Björk’s latest release when you can happily be chair-dancing to Ariana Grande? And why front at the dinner table when you can repeatedly dip a crab-stuffed hand roll in brown butter?
Like a good pop hit, She’s Not Here’s best Pacific fare gets stuck in your head. Halfway through an email, I’ll find myself craving its thin slices of wagyu, snuggled up with herbs and beefed up with a garlic tallow sauce, or marinated yellowtail shocked with green apple vinegar and pickled Asian pear.
The drinks impress as well, offering a more nuanced take on Austin’s roaring tiki trend. Start with the Smoke, a mezcal and pineapple crusher with a salty and sweet almond rim that acts as a cocktail and amuse-bouche all in one. Then make a dessert out of the Matcha, a vodka-based treat with honey, lemon verbena, and just enough coconut milk to turn the bright tea powder powder into a creamy mint green.