After a disappointing 2018, Austin’s 2019 culinary scene seemed to bring more style over substance, more out-of-town interlopers, and more eateries that tried to deaden criticism with booze. The highlights were few and far between.
Still, highlights there were.
The best Capital City restaurants of 2019 all share a commitment to not following trends. The menus reflect their chef's biography rather than their resumes. From approachable tacos that revive pre-Hispanic techniques to comfort food that combines high with low, these seven restaurants would make best-of lists any year. Combined with promising newcomers like Hestia and Provision — both too green to be considered for this report — they also point to a brighter 2020.
It has become a cliche to call this downtown stunner sexy, but visceral might better capture its allure. Yes, the architecture has a sensuality that makes Austin seem more metropolitan that it really is, but the flavors are plucked from the earth. Whether its huitlacoche funking up a quesadilla, amaranth in a chocolate tamal, or smoked butter languoring on marrow tacos, this is food reaching into the id.
Since opening the first Ramen Tatsu-Ya in September 2012, the restaurant group has drawn consistent raves for its food. Far less noticed has been the other factor that keeps customers coming again and again. There’s an uncommon sense of community in each of the restaurants, from the chatty lines waiting for noodles at the original to the never-ending party at Asian smokehouse Kemuri. That continues at the innovative DipDipDip. Though the shabu-shabu spot breaks with tradition by giving customers individual hot pots, no other Austin dining experience has quite the ability to bring its guests together. While dipping meats in the eatery’s luscious selection of broths, the crowd says it all with their eyes.
Though the menu reads like a tony Los Angeles cafe (confit! furikake! lacto-fermentation!), there’s nothing precious about this happy East Austin joint. With purple paint, a gold disco ball looming overhead, and vibrant floral upholstery, Nixta relishes in the luridness of a Pedro Almodóvar movie. Though the refried beans may use duck fat instead of lard, it does so without any compulsion to show off. More importantly, it presents the techniques and ingredients found in the top echelon of Austin restaurants at a price point that doesn’t seem like a splurge. It’s everyday fare that believes everyone is worthy of pleasure.
Rosedale Kitchen & Bar
When Chameleon Group first announced it was replacing upscale seafood restaurant Guild with the far-more-casual Rosedale, it didn’t seem thought out. The name invited confusion with East Austin’s Rosewood and the all-day cafe trend already felt tired. Boy, was I wrong. Under chef Janelle Reynolds, Rosedale has become a sleeper hit with an approachable menu that is crowd-pleasing, but not at the expense of actually being good. The duck confit is shatteringly crisp and paired with a peppy blueberry gastrique, roasted brassicas wade in a better-than-ranch garlic crema, and the Texas blue crab dip centers what’s important — lavish scoops of the sweet, sweet meat.
Fun is rarely a word I associate with quality cuisine. Roadside diners are fun, so is the Chili’s on 45th Street in its own way. But this east side food truck manages to endlessly entertain the palate. In one sandwich, the team behind the Soursop trailer combines sweet chili honey, green papaya relish, fried shallots, and a healthy dollop of ranch. Buffalo sauce is reinvented with a dose of gochujang and after-school tater tots get a healthy dose of fried chicken spice. From the cheeky branding, one would think the owners regard the entire operation as a lark. Make no mistake, the thought put into every dish is very serious.
When CultureMap published its mid-year check-in of the most promising restaurants of 2019, Uroko was already near the top of the list — and that was before I tried its dazzling evening omakase. In the space of an hour, the chefs whisk guests through a dozen crescendoing bites, from whole fried giant prawns to tomago, a sweet folded omelet stamped with the eatery’s name. Miraculously, the experience never feels rushed. Diners still have the chance to swoon, chatter, and order another round of sparkling sake.
In a year when Austin restaurant interior design lurked in the shadows, this Arrive East Austin anchor burst through in a riot of colors. Not only is the dining room awash in cobalt blues and Schiaparelli pinks, the dishes themselves are brightly hued by the kitchen’s ebullient use of spice. By almost any measure, 2019 was a bummer year. Bold in its use of vegetables, bolder still in the connections it drew between Indian-Goan and Texan cuisine, Vixen’s was decidedly not.