Downtown Austin's newest restaurant wows with innovative Mexican cuisine
Longtime local restaurateurs Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso, known for perennial favorites Eddie V's Prime Seafood, Salty Sow, and, more recently, Red Ash Italia, have struck gold once again with a modern Mexican concept at the Northshore building downtown. Never mind the unimaginative name, ATX Cocina is anything but.
The ample, airy space designed by Michael Hsu gleams with freshness, utilizing natural light with floor-to-ceiling windows and a neutral tone palette that gives a relaxing, comfortable ambiance. Like in fine dining venues in Mexico City, there is no sign of kitschy crafts or other similar trappings. Instead, it boasts a fantastic open kitchen, a wine counter with communal seating, two bars, a seafood counter, and a shady and comfortable patio. It has already become a favorite happy hour spot for the neighborhood, which includes Northshore residents, City Hall politicos, and courthouse lawyers.
Executive chef Kevin Taylor’s interpretation of the traditional flavors of Mexico is unique, based on his travels and personal experience. In 1976, his family opened Los Amigos in West Berlin, New Jersey, the first and only Mexican restaurant in the tri-state area, followed by a location in Atlantic City in 1977. His father, Curt, traveled extensively in Mexico and learned traditional cuisine from famed author Diana Kennedy. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Taylor worked at the Inn at Little Washington, the Mansion on Turtle Creek, and as executive chef of El Vez in Philadelphia. There, he met Austin native Nick Foles, quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, who introduced Taylor to his restaurateur father. After tasting his food, Larry Foles decided to bring Taylor to Austin to open this new concept. Lucky us.
Taylor strives to reproduce the flavors of Mexico by using the best ingredients possible, like corn from Masienda, an import company that sources non-GMO, heirloom varietals from small villages and farms in Oaxaca. The corn is nixtamalized in house, and the resulting masa is used in everything from hand-made tortillas to sopes, tostadas, and other street-style antojitos. In fact, ATX Cocina's salsa sampler is served with hot tortillas rather than store-bought chips.
"There is such a difference from tasting that flavor of in-house processing versus masa harina or processed corn flours," says the chef. "We are still in our infancy, but we are using the best things we can get our hands on, sourced from Texas and Mexico." This includes support for local farmers markets, sustainable fishing practices, and purveyors of humanely raised meats.
ATX Cocina's menu features traditional dishes like queso fundido — melted Chihuahua and asadero cheeses with house-made chorizo and chiles toreados (roasted jalapeños) — as well as Taylor's takes on classics. The hamachi crudo with chunks of mamey (a tropical fruit) and compressed jicama in an herby-coconut leche de tigre is sublime and beautiful; a simple Caesar salad is elevated with chile de árbol, anchovy vinaigrette, radish slices, and addicting chicharron de queso; and a butter-poached, chilled lobster with grapefruit mojo and chile morita butter served over greens is as decadent as it sounds.
The happy hour tacos come two to an order and are sufficient enough for a meal, with options that include roast duck with shaved onion and salsa verde, fork-tender short rib with fried queso asadero, and the best lamb barbacoa outside of Central Mexico. Most entrees are large enough to share, and we wholeheartedly recommend the chicken in white mole, quite possibly the best chicken dish we have ever had.
"After going to Mexico City and seeing that culture — not just the restaurants, but the history and beauty — I was in awe," says Taylor. "The flavors are so different, so true and beautiful. We are trying to capture that here, with ingredients that are coming from home, and respecting their flavors."
The bar is not an afterthought, serving a good selection of tequila and mezcal, as well as cocktails like the Piqueño Lorenzo, made with pastor pork fat-washed mezcal; Makers Mark; roasted pineapple shrub; and what they call "game changer," a mix of Persian and Key lime juices. The wine list is ample and well-curated, with a few vinos from Baja California. Happy hour features $3 off wine, draft beer, and cocktails, plus $4 off select appetizers.
ATX Cocina is open for dinner only, but the team hopes to add lunch and brunch in the next few months. We cannot wait.