Back in January, I bemoaned what seemed like a dismal freshman class for 2019. Six months later, midterm grades are in, and Capital City dining looks as sharp as ever. Undoubtedly, the wave of shutters in 2018 had a chastening effect, but with it has come a renewed focus.
Gone is the New American noodling of 2016 and 2017 and eateries that ignore substance for style. The best new restaurants of the first half of 2019 trade all that in for tradition, diversity, and deep, personal connections to the food they serve. Turns out a kick in the pants is just what the city needed.
Architecturally, no recent hospitality project holds a candle to Tom Kundig’s gloriously inky design for Comedor. Largely avoiding the increasing Wes Anderson-ification of Austin, it manages to be both contemporary and timeless, shedding the city’s midcentury affectations. Of course, that’s just scratching the surface. Though chef Gabe Erales could no doubt write a treatise on pre-Hispanic cuisine, the experience of his food is far from academic. Pastry chef Philip Speer is equally unshackled. Just witness how dried Oaxacan flying ants give unexpected heft to a mango sorbet.
The newest member to the Ramen Tatsu-Ya family hasn't really had the chance to prove its mettle, having only been open since June 27. Still, new additions rarely arrive with such burning ambition. From its tall dim sum-like carts — styled as particularly as a magazine spread — to its almost hedonistic sourcing, this innovative take on Japanese shabu-shabu is what Austin’s foodies will be talking about in the next few months. True, the experience can be overwhelming, as a retinue of servers variously explain specials, turn on burners, and set the stage for the meal to come, but that all becomes background noise in the flash of ponzu, meat, and broth.
Mum Foods Deli
This diminutive eatery, squeezed into the Manor Road cottage that most recently housed Elaine’s Pork and Pie, was designed to only last one year. By next spring, Austin will likely have word on what Suerte owner Sam Hellman-Mass plans to do with the Eastside Cafe campus where this local deli currently operates. In the meantime, Austinites should take every advantage of the charming space, the divine hot pastrami, and the BYOB policy. The Rachel — flashbacks to Jennifer Aniston’s choppy ’90s hairdo aside — is 2019’s must-have sandwich.
This East Austin Korean spot has a quiet elegance, a rarity in the Capital City’s increasingly clamorous dining scene. Part of that is the frequent presence of owner Lynn Miller, surely in the running for Austin’s consummately welcoming host. The enveloping minimalism of the dining room plays a role in that, too. Most importantly, Oseyo’s food never veers far from tradition. Miller’s family recipes are rustic and nourishing, leaving the bombast to New American joints.
Sometime between Sabra’s first appearance on grocery store shelves and the near ubiquity of hummus in school lunch boxes, the famous Mediterranean dip lost some of its luster. Leave it to Berty Richter of Hummus Among Us to bring it back to its former glory. With help from chef Kevin Fink and the Emmer & Rye team, he leveled up his popular food truck in February, turning it into a Fareground food hall kiosk serving stuffed pita sandwiches, vibrant vegetables, and ethereal yeast doughnuts. Not to worry, hummus is still on the menu — and deeply satisfying.
For the many people who spent their formative years studying, chatting, or canoodling at Hyde Park’s Dolce Vita, its October 2018 shutter was a tragedy. Thankfully, when Uncle Nicky’s took over the building in January, it managed to pull off an improbable feat, introducing a new concept without usurping the hallowed space. Smartly, the team continues to offer gelato, coffee, and cocktails along with a tasty array of Northern Italian snacks. Though sleeker Dolce Vita, Uncle Nicky's quickly hooked into the neighborhood, ensuring the studying, chatting, and canoodling will continue for a generation to come.
No other bite I tried this year had as immediate a punch as Uroko’s crawfish temaki. Thinly sliced avocado wallows with plump crawfish tail salad, happily chugging along the bass notes while pickled jalapeño takes the highs. Crispy quinoa sprinkled in the roll pops like a snare. It’s impossible not to give into the moment when the tastebuds go pit-a-pat.
With the outgrowth of fancy destination restaurants over the past few years, one would think that Austinites have endless hours to dine. The truth is that most meals are gone in a bolt, barely noticed in the blur between office and soccer practice. Vaquero Taquero’s genius is that it never gives into that rush. The tacos are served quickly, but the process of cooking al pastor on a trompo and nixtamalizing corn for tortillas is anything but — and that’s saying nothing of the long heritage that went into the recipes. Here’s to the magic in the everyday.