Growing Pains

Growing Pains

When my parents first pulled up to the Drag in the seventies to start school, Austin was a small town: you had your choice of Tex-Mex, hippie cuisine or more Tex-Mex. Those were the years of cheese enchiladas with chile con queso and sundaes from the neighborhood blacklit, psychedelic ice cream shop.

Fast-forward forty years and Austin has transformed. you can still find amazing Tex-Mex at Polvo’s or breakfast tacos at Tamale House, but you can also cruise to Lilly’s for a bánh mì or Karibu for Doro Wat stewed chicken. And recently, the city has cemented its place in the foodie scene. “Austin has been on fire the last year,” says Pat Sharpe, executive editor and food writer at Texas Monthly. “The national media has a lot to do with Austin’s present status as a food boomtown — they didn’t make it happen, but they have certainly trumpeted us all over the country.” Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and countless others have noticed us. As Kendall Antonelli, the coowner of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop (with husband John), says, “Everything is changing. As of three or four years ago, you couldn’t find a local charcuterie producer. Now you have Dai Due and Salt & Time.”

Beyond that, a recent survey by found that of all U.S. cities, Austin spends the most on dining out: $6,301 per year, almost twice the national average. Eating out — and eating good food — is important to us, which makes our city a destination for chefs and restaurateurs. That’s great for tourists and even better for residents, who get to enjoy the tasty rewards. But what does Austin need to do round out our food scene? What types of cuisine are we still missing — and where?

Asian and Southeast Asian

Every Austinite knows which direction to point for Asian food: north. The North Lamar area is a hot spot for Vietnamese, and there’s Chinese barbecue (Din Ho) and Thai (Titaya’s) thrown in too. “Ethnic food in Austin has come a long way in recent years with the addition of several noted Indian and Japanese restaurants such as Taj Mahal and Kome,” says Addie Broyles, food writer and blogger for the Austin American-Statesman.

But as Sharpe says, “Austin does not have great depth or variety in ethnic restaurants that spring from an indigenous community, other than Mexican food.”

I asked Paul Qui, the executive chef at Uchiko (and the beloved winner of the most recent season of Top Chef ), what he thinks Austin is still missing. His list was almost exclusively Asian: “great Chinese/ Cantonese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Filipino.” Qui is doing his part to bring Asian flavors to our city with Uchiko and his three East Side King trailers. But there’s still a scarcity of sesame chicken in South Austin and interesting fusion dishes everywhere.

Why? “Austin is not a port city and it is relatively small,” says Sharpe. “Both of those factors limit its ethnic population. Ultimately, you need deep roots for great food to happen.”

We may not have Sri Lankan cuisine yet, but fortunately for South Austinites, chefs like Larry McGuire and Rene Ortiz are bringing ethnic down south. McGuire’s Elizabeth Street Café has been serving up impressive Vietnamese food since December, and Ortiz will be opening a Thai restaurant across the street soon.

South and Central American

For a city with so many tortillas, there is a lack of authentic South and Central American cuisine. Sure, places like Casa Colombia offer hearty meat dishes and Buenos Aires Café’s flaky empanadas are close to the real thing. But if you travel away from the East Side to Hyde Park or near Zilker Park, you will be out of luck.

“In D.C.,” Antonelli says, “We would eat El Salvadorean food. But it’s not super prevalent here.” Other chefs and entrepreneurs I talked to missed South American food too. Qui mentioned he would like to see Bolivian and Peruvian food in particular.

Cameron Lockley, the managing partner of the soon-to-be-reopened La Sombra and Gusto Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar, is ready to jump on the Peruvian trend. “Peruvian food is becoming more familiar the world over,” he said. “Additionally, Peru has been named the top food tourism destination by several publications for this upcoming year.” Plenty of Austin restaurants offer ceviche, Peru’s national food, but it would be incredible to have a spot with different types of the pickled fish dish, as well as anticuchos (skewered meats) and other delicacies.

Homestyle Italian

Fortunately for us, Austin boasts several fine Italian dining restaurants: Vespaio and Enoteca have made South Congress their home for some time; Asti Trattoria’s polenta bowls are awesome; and Shawn Cirkiel’s upscale Olive & June recently opened on 35th Street (try their homemade pappardelle with short ribs and sunchoke purée).

But aside from Mandola’s, which pretty much has the mid-priced market cornered, we are lacking in Italian home cooking, as well as variety. Gusto Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar, which recently opened in the old La Sombra location, boasts a homey vibe and a fun happy hour, but its spaghetti carbonara needs to be creamier before it can stake its claim.

And if you want spaghetti and meatballs south of the river? Or Southern Italian sardines, cooked with lemon and capers? Austin is still waiting for its Little Italy to appear, especially in South and East Austin, where there is a paucity of panini.

After all, what’s more fun than slurping spaghetti at the neighborhood pasta spot? As Lockley says, “Italian food is comfort food for a lot of people."

The next step

In other words, Austin is still in its adolescence. “Austin is like fifth grade going into sixth,” says Louis Singh, co-owner of catering company Dishalicious. “you’ve reached the top of what you think is your mountain, but you have a lot more growing to do.”

And grow we are: Restaurants are opening faster than I can bring a fork to my face. “People are seeing a need and are filling the niches,” Antonelli says.

That’s great news for us gluttons. I can’t wait for Barrie Cullinan, for example, to open her bakery and give Central Austinites a taste of her crusty baguettes and paradoxically buttery light croissants. Antonelli is looking forward to a day when she can find raclette at a restaurant here (“you scrape the melted cheese off a wheel onto your meat and onto cornichons and pickles,” she sighed when we spoke). Qui is dying for some lechón de leche and Broyles longs for Spanish tapas, like “cheap, small plates of patatas bravas, albondigas and tortilla española.”

So what’s going to get us there? “Money, population, and time,” Sharpe says. “We are unfortunately short on resources. It costs money to hire top talent, to buy top ingredients (whether imported or locally sourced) and to pay overhead and develop locations that match the caliber of the food and kitchen.”

Sharpe has eaten her way through several generations of food in Texas, from the days when Dallas was literally a cow town to its current urban landscape, and she has seen Houston and now Austin make the transition too. “All that will happen,” she says, “but not overnight.”