2023 in stories
Good soup, extravagance, and cozy cafes: Our staff share their favorite Austin meals of 2023
Hey, Culture Map readers: We wish you could have brought you along to some of our favorite meals this year. Actually, some of you probably were there — that's why we try to publish ahead of events, giving readers a chance to stop by instead of telling you how they went afterwards.
If you didn't take the risk, we get it. Who among us doesn't know the feeling of spending good money (and stomach space) on a disappointing meal? So we're here to share some real post-game opinions to inform your next year of culinary choice-making.
This year my top plus-one, Amber Heckler, joined us on-staff as our network writer, and now we have even more meals together than we already did. (Trust us — it was already a lot.) About as much time as we spent at press dinners, we spent hiding out at cafes in our time off. And we're still talking about some of those meals at the end of the year.
As much as Austinites like to think we can see through every menu, price range, or marketing strategy, the nuances matter. We've had plenty of surprises that shifted us from suspicion to delight, or excitement to "I think it's time to head somewhere else." We didn't try to represent any type of restaurant on this list, and the natural diversity of it reminds me that whatever you think you know about the Austin food scene, there's still room to expect the unexpected.
In no particular order, here are the 10 meals and menus we thought most about in 2023.
— Brianna Caleri, CultureMap Austin editor
Good vibes: Uptown Sports Club
Of all the restaurants that opened in Austin this year, Aaron Franklin's Uptown Sports Club stands out to me. Despite its newness, the old-fashioned decor, homey menu, and laidback service all make the joint feel like it's been around for decades — like finally making it out to that one place people are always talking about, but you just never pulled the trigger. This restaurant serves a thick gumbo, a fall-apart roast beef (befitting its owners worldwide barbecue fame), and fun, thick ice cream shakes. Although I'm tempted to gatekeep, I'll begrudging tell you this is one of my favorite places to bring my laptop and work. — BC
Reliable: Ng Cafe
On the days when we just need to get out of the house and grab a bite to eat without stressing over what cuisine to choose, time after time we've chosen the family-run Ng Cafe. The welcoming atmosphere of the recently renovated interior, combined with the friendliness of the owners, makes for a perfect afternoon hangout. Nguyet Quach makes all the French baguettes by hand every morning, and we have yet to find a tastier bánh mì in all of Austin. Honestly, there's not one dish on the menu that hasn't been extremely delicious and filling. Our recommendations include any bánh mì, pad see ew, pineapple fried rice, and Chinese hot and sour soup. Tasty desserts like the Vietnamese banana bread pudding are the cherry on top of a well-rounded casual dining experience. — Amber Heckler, network writer
A well-rounded feast from Austin Rôtisserie.Photo by Brianna Caleri
Takeout: Austin Rôtisserie
Maybe it was the timing of the delivery on a busy day; Maybe it was the way the chicken, falling off the bone, was packaged with the roast potatoes to catch the drippings. Either way, the wrapped-up family feast I received from Austin Rôtisserie felt like a godsend. I had the whole thing all to myself — a baguette, butter, several dipping sauces, a full rotisserie chicken, potatoes, an arugula salad, and a large jar of broth — and it afforded me a few days of not making lunch. More importantly, it inspired me to worry less about hosting on a whim. I'm just waiting for my next friend's minor breakup, or a surprise family visit so I can show up with bags full of delicious, reasonably priced comfort food, and take all (or most of) the credit. — BC
My husband and I love our at-home date nights, but once in a while we love to venture out to try a new restaurant. The newly opened concept by Uchi Restaurant Group in downtown Austin (by way of Dallas) was one of the most special date nights we've had all year. Our favorite dishes included the spicy tuna makimono, Tasmanian ocean trout, and pho Wagyu beef dumplings. Of course, no dinner outing is complete without shishito peppers as a starter, or a chocolate crémeux as dessert. Uchibā's wide range of cocktails was delightful; I particularly enjoyed the apricot boulevardier, while my husband was drawn to a Japanese beer. — AH
Chef's Table: Pasta Bar
Pasta Bar — catnip for Austin reviewers who hate how pretentious the dining scene is getting — has had its fair share of mixed reviews. We loved it. We knew going in that despite the name, the courses were light on pasta. How much pasta does one really want to eat in one sitting? I appreciate what that restraint did for my memory of the meal. Instead of casting back through a long string of semi-arbitrary pasta shapes, I can easily remember the dishes I found inspiring: creative agnolotti and cavatelli, both with edible flowers and seeds, and beautiful smoked Parisian gnocchi with torched bone marrow. I was delighted to see a full loaf of bread to start the meal — something I've learned not to expect in Austin as I did in New York. We were invited to this meal, but I would happily pay my own way if a friend wanted to splurge. — BC
Pizza:DeSano Pizzeria Napoletana
Sometimes you just want a good slice of pizza straight from a wood-fired oven, and DeSano delivers just that. It's a great lunch spot, and the spread-out dining area is great for large groups. We've never been led astray by one of the specialty Neapolitan pizzas, such as the "Diavola" ("devil") or "Il Maiale" ("the pig"). During one visit, Bri struck up a conversation with a manager in Italian, and they were both surprised and excited to have someone to chat with. Ten minutes later, he brought us some leftover coffee that he had made for his employees. It was a wonderful complement to the cannolis we ordered alongside our lunch. It's little conversations like that which make for a really memorable meal. — AH
Fabrik is taking a risk as Austin's only fine dining restaurant completely committed to plant-based foods. Photo courtesy of Chris Praetzel
Austin is a good city for vegans, but things tend to be very casual — mostly leaning on food trucks and takeout. Fabrik created its own niche in the Texas Capital this year, as a locally groundbreaking, fully vegan fine dining restaurant. Although the concept may sound a little stuffy, it's a humble operation: All 16 seats at individual tables (rather than a chef's table) are served by the co-owner himself. It's priced accordingly, but relatively accessibly: $70 for five courses, or $85 for seven. Best of all, this menu circumnavigated vegan tropes to present thoughtful, unique dishes like focaccia with porcini butter, beet tartelettes, and delicate desserts. That means no meat substitutes, no overcompensating with spices, and apparently no self-conscious evangelizing. Bring an omnivore. — BC
On a rainy day: Soupleaf Hot Pot
Nothing beats getting soup on a cool, rainy day, and Soupleaf goes above and beyond to satisfy those "soup season" cravings. Their mala broth (made up of pork bone stock and a blend of Szechuan spices) has the perfect level of spice without being overwhelming, and the tomato broth had a unique, tasty flavor profile. The thinly-sliced cuts of beef were the main attraction at our table, but you can't go wrong with some tender pork jowl or fatty pork belly. The buffet provided virtually every ingredient imaginable to fortify your personal hot pot, including scallops, raw eggs, corn, and even small bundles of hand-cut fresh noodles. It was a fun game to see who made the best-tasting soup at the end of the meal. Mine won, so I'll be holding that over everyone's head for the next few weeks. – AH
Festival find: Blenders and Bowls
For at least a few moments at Austin City Limits Music Festival this year, I was deliriously happy; not just because Dave Grohl was nearby, but because I found something that wasn't fried or meat-filled to eat for "breakfast." My frozen and blended açai bowl was topped with fresh strawberries, granola, chocolate chips, and peanut butter; I chose the latter to make it filling and push back my next visit to the ACL Eats area. As a captive audience, I'm always grateful for something that feels at least a little healthy, and it happened to be delicious, too. Even if this is just a yearly snack for me, I'm thrilled. — BC
Chapulín Cantina's aguachile takes a simple dish and elevates it to a piece of acid-soaked art. Photo by Brianna Caleri
Tequila: Chapulín Cantina
Okay, you got me. Tequila isn't a meal. But every time I've stopped by Chapulín Cantina to sip on some, it's led to snacks and more. This is one of my favorite places to bring visitors to Austin, since it's on South Congress and serves Oaxacan treats that are even hard to find around town, let alone the rest of the U.S. The bartenders know their way around the extensive spirits selection, and most dishes are great for sharing, like the mole taster ("mole degustation") and tlayudas. The restaurant's predecessor, Enoteca Vespaio, was one of my favorites in town, and I expected to be bitter about the transition. At this point, though...change feels good. — BC