Back in January, when CultureMap editors and our panel of judges voted on the five best restaurants in Austin, we were looking for talented teams of culinary innovators, for restaurants crafting experiences while elevating dining for the the entire city. And, of course, we were looking for really delicious food.
As we write this in July, we find ourselves appreciating these businesses in a broader, more nuanced way. The five nominees now represent what Austin's dining scene once was, before restaurants were struggling to keep operating, keep employees on the payroll, and navigate the pandemic-induced economic crisis.
There might be more heartbreak ahead for Austin restaurants, but there will also be an end to this sad season. When that comes, and the city begins to rebuild, we will look to places like the Tastemaker Awards Restaurant of the Year nominees to inspire and lead us into that next chapter. And based on these five picks, we expect that next chapter to be one filled with cuisine from across continents and cultures, led by culinary pros who not only create food, but build community.
Learn more about these five eateries and then tune in on Thursday, July 23, at 7 pm as we crown the winner during our first-ever Tastemaker Awards — Virtual Edition, hosted by Bun B. It's our way of celebrating the extraordinary spirit of the Austin restaurant and bar scene during this challenging time. Tickets to the virtual event are still available and include a Tasting Tote featuring bites, sips, and more to enjoy at home.
You know that saying, "jack of all trades, master of none"? Bufalina is whatever is the opposite of that. This elevated pizza restaurant has instead picked a few things and does them really, really well. The original Bufalina, located on East Cesar Chavez, is a wisp of a restaurant, with an oversized pizza oven taking up a good portion of prime dining space. During non-pandemic times, there is almost always a wait, thanks to near-perfect pies, an innovative-yet-approachable wine list, and a staff that sticks around long enough to remember the regulars, of whom there are many. Bufalina reminds us that dining doesn't have to be fine to be excellent.
Currently: Bufalina's East Austin and Burnet Road restaurants are both open for takeout orders. The restaurant recently launched Bufalina Wine, a new program that gives diners access to the restaurant's lauded wine list.
There are few restaurants that have been bequeathed the kind of attention Comedor has received over the past 15 months — and for good reason. The powerhouse team of chefs Gabe Erales and Philip Speer has created a destination restaurant in Austin, the kind of spot that has magazine editors flying in from New York and foodies adding it to their must-visit lists. Comedor's attention to detail, from the chic, black-box restaurant design to Erales' modern Mexican cuisine and Speer's absolutely inspired dessert menu, is enough to make it on any best-of list. But it's the team's commitment to community, through side projects like Assembly Kitchen and Comedor Run Club, that make it one of those once-in-a-blue moon kind of institutions.
Currently: Comedor is currently open for limited dining, delivery, or pickup.
Tatsu-Ya team, we don't deserve you. They splashed onto the scene with Ramen Tatsu-Ya, built us the Japanese-Texas smokehouse we didn't know we needed with Kemuri, brought Tokyo to Domo Alley Gato's East Sixth patio, and then plopped back onto the scene with this Burnet Road hot pot concept. (Did we mention they did this in just seven years?) Like all Tatsu-Ya concepts, DipDipDip is a beautifully curated sensory overload. The restaurant's signature shabu-shabu makes dining out an event, one that is equal parts delicious as it is, dare we say, fun.
Currently: DipDipDip's dining room is currently closed, but patrons can order sandwiches and ice cream through its DipDipDip Sandwiches + Ice Cream pop-up.
Nixta is another restaurant with its fair share of accolades — including a recent spot among Food & Wine's Best New Restaurants. This East Austin taqueria perfects the basics — the housemade heirloom tortillas have a cult-like following — and allows co-owners Edgar Rico and Sara Mardanbigi to defy tradition in beautiful ways. Duck confit is reimagined as a carnitas taco, and the tuna tostada is a simple name for a dish that merges flavors and cultures. And the vegetables! Oh, the vegetables. Nixta's beet "tartare" — roasted beets, salsa macha aioli, avocado crema, fresh horseradish, and lime — could convince even the most impassioned carnivores to ditch the meat.
Currently: Nixta Taqueria is currently open for contact-free pickup.
It's not an Austin best-of list these days without Fermin Nunez and Sam Hellman-Mass' Suerte. If you've visited this east side Mexican spot, you know the restaurant implements the ancient technique of nixtamilization to prepare its masa, which then appears in dishes across the menu. Though its offerings (chips y dips, quesadillas, tacos) are approachable, that shouldn't be mistaken for ordinary. Though barely 2 years old, Suerte has secured its spot among Austin's most iconic eateries.
Currently: Suerte is currently open for limited dining service during lunch and dinner.