Ask anyone in Austin to name the best sushi in the city and they’ll confidently list off Uchi, Uchiko, Kyōten, Otoko, and Fukumoto. Those in the know will point to another spot — an unassuming Japanese restaurant crammed between a Party City and a now-shuttered Hancock Fabric near Lakeline Mall. That spot is Soto and, as of this week, South Austinites will no longer have to make the arduous trek up north to indulge.
Andy Chen, owner and executive chef, brings his magic to South Lamar, replacing Cantine in the Lamar Union development. He’s spent 20 years honing his craft, learning first in family restaurants in Kyoto during his teen years. Subsequently, he trained under the world-renowned Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto, and lent his talents to French and high-end sushi restaurants on the East Coast before opening his own business.
Soto’s original location in Cedar Park has a cult-like following and much of that can be attributed to Chen. He’s a permanent fixture behind the sushi bar, slicing fish, plating items, and greeting regular patrons by name with an ear-to-ear grin. For the first three years of Soto’s existence, Chen spent every day at the restaurant and met his fish shipment from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market every other night. He managed the books, wrote the menu, crafted the food, built the business, and had two more kids. If hard work equals success, then he deserves every bit of it.
Though the new location arguably has a much higher profile, Chen brings the same earnest, honest approach to the new digs. High ceilings, an open bar area, and ambient lighting hint that the final product will be intimate enough for a date night but accessible for larger parties. Though presumably the decor will be fleshed out a bit as the restaurant matures, the monochromatic palette and minimalist leanings echo that of the original location. There is nothing to distract the diner — food is the star of the show here.
We sampled a 12-course omakase, each course reflecting the chef’s thoughtful approach to the perfect bite. Our evening opened with a crispy fried gyoza filled with silky foie gras. Every element was in harmony — nothing overtaking anything else. This was a consistent factor in the wild variety of courses that peppered our evening. Tuna tataki with freshly-shaved truffle, fried shallot and jalapeno; hotate (scallop) painted with yuzu, garnished with micro cilantro; and Ikura, grilled flaky black cod basted in sweet miso, a simple but stunning green tea crepe.
The menu will carry forward approximately half of the dishes served at the Cedar Park location and adds a 16-course omakase. The second Soto location aims to make their cocktails just as much of a draw. The bar program was designed by Bryan Masamitsu Parsons (formerly of Kemuri Tatsu-ya and Soto Cedar Park) and will offer craft cocktails and high-end Japanese spirits including whiskey and shochu along with sake, wine, and beer once their TABC license is finalized.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Soto is that it doesn’t have a giant PR machine behind it. There are no loud press releases or ad buys, no restaurant group to leverage. Their success comes as a result of years of experience, word of mouth, elbow grease, and dogged determination. Because of these humble roots, dining at Soto feels special, like you’re part of something bigger. Sure, the food is exquisite — beautifully presented and prepared — but what makes this place outstanding is the clear connection to someone’s dream made reality.