In the words of Addison, the list includes “singular steakhouses, barbecue standard-bearers, Tex-Mex strongholds, and cafes serving outstanding burgers, breakfast tacos, and kolaches: the foods that make Texas defy trendiness,” as well as restaurants that “reflect the rich multiculturalism of its metropolises.”
Austin had seven entrants make the cut. They are (with the parenthetical numbers showing the restaurant’s list in our annual Austin360 Dining Guide: Contigo (Critic’s Pick), Emmer & Rye (#5), Franklin Barbecue (#10), Kemuri Tatsu-Ya (#9), Odd Duck (#4), Tamale House East (n/a) and Veracruz All-Natural (Critic’s Pick). That list of Austin restaurants checks a lot of boxes: rustic, farm-to-table, Japanese, barbecue and tacos. The biggest surprises on omissions would probably be Olamaie (#1), Dai Due (#3), Lenoir (#2) and Barley Swine (#7, though sister restaurant Odd Duck did make it in).
Addison was joined in compiling the list by Eater Austin editor Nadia Chaudhury, Texas Monthly Barbecue Editor Daniel Vaughn, who tackled the barbecue restaurants around the state, and others. Houston, not surprisingly, had the most entrants on the list with 10.
OpenTable Most Romantic Cities Index was calculated using three variables: the percentage of restaurants rated “romantic” according to OpenTable diner reviews; the percentage of tables seated for two; and the percentage of people who dined out for Valentine’s Day in 2017.
I remember sunsets and monuments, evocative music and spectacular architecture. But what I most regularly recall from my travels are the meals. A great dish leaves its imprint on you. And it’s not just the components on the plate. It’s what the dish says about a place and about the people there. It’s a harmonic sense memory that blends smell, taste, sound and sight, lingering with you for months and sometimes years, always luring you back. These are some of the best dishes at some of the most memorable places I ate during my travels in 2017. (Follow me on Instagram for more tasty food photos and recs.)
The restaurant envy was real on the first day of 2017. Austin is in need of a Jewish deli, a home to kettle boiled bagels balanced with gloss and chew, along with smoked fish, like the velvety salmon that layered this open-faced sandwich dotted with avocado, grapefruit, cucumber and onion and layered with wisps of dill.
Baja California Sur, Mexico
Smoked marlin and torito tacos at Los Claros
Nothing beats a stop at a roadside taco stand after a hunger-building dip in the ocean. The salsa bar at this open-air spot marked by a sign of a cartoon shrimp and marlin shaking hands rivals any taqueria in Austin. I could have visited this small outpost located between San Cristóbal and Cerritos daily for its meaty smoked marlin, enlivened with brilliant salsas and escabeche, or for the torito, a yellow pepper stuffed with shrimp and cheese, the taco sweet and crunchy with a mellow vegetal tang.
Ma hor at Nahm
David Thompson’s Michelin-starred restaurant is not considered traditional Thai, but it still exhibits layers of depth and flavors that electrify and seduce your palate. Lunch here started with ma hor, a wedge of pineapple (the pineapple in Thailand fortunately lacks the fruit’s trademark acidic sting back home) carrying toasty and sticky balls of palm-sugar-sweetened minced pork, chicken and prawns studded with peanuts and brightened with coriander.
Whole chicken at Roister
A slightly contained pandemonium vibrates through both the kitchen and dining room at Alinea’s kid brother in Fulton Market. Live fire cooking and roasted birds have been all the rage at American restaurants over the past couple of years, and the unique preparation by executive chef Andrew Brochu has few equals. The whole bird is used in a trio of ways. The supple poached breast, brined in chamomile sweet tea, is seared on the grill for a dark, lacquered finish, the heat caramelizing the sugars from the tea, and the buttermilk fried thighs are so airy they almost rise from the plate.
Drunken noodles at Sandwich Me
Ask a server in Thailand what his favorite dish is and he’ll almost always just point you to the hottest option on the menu. But, more temperate palates like mine can ask for a milder kick, allowing the ability to savor the complex cornucopia of this dish that I loved so much I rented a scooter and went and picked up a to-go version on my final night in town. The stir-fried flat rice noodles wobbled with an elastic bounciness, twirling around medallions of rosy smoked duck breast. Tangled up in the mix, clustered baubles of fierce green peppercorns, fragrant hot basil, and, of course, the hallmark chilis.
Maitake hummus at Shaya
As of press time, the excellent chef Alon Shaya was suing the embattled Besh Restaurant Group, its former leader accused of running an operation poisoned by a culture of sexual harassment. While he had given up trying to buy back his namesake restaurant, Shaya still wants to wrest back the use of his name. I hope the Israeli-born chef prevails. That name was built on the strength of dishes like his incredibly smooth hummus; this variation sways from the earth of roasted maitake mushrooms to the piquant rise of spicy chilies, with sunflower seeds adding crunch to the creamy affair. I’m positive we still have much more to hear and taste from Mr. Alon Shaya.
New York City
Pike quenelle in lobster sauce at Le Coucou
Grand and intimate. Rich but lithe. Mannered yet fun. Sophisticated but not stuffy. The perfect dining experience. One of my groomsmen used my description of Le Coucou during a toast at my bachelor party in an attempt to shame me for my overwrought Instagram captioning. But I’ve got no shame when it comes to the best meal I ate in America all year. Chef Daniel Rose transforms pike, cream and eggs into a cloudlike delicacy surrounded by a rich but not oppressive lobster sauce Américaine. The dish epitomizes all of the reasons to love this throwback French gem.
Pastas at Il Corvo
Sometimes you fly halfway across the country to find yourself enjoying an experience that feels completely foreign and yet totally familiar. Such was the case as I stood on a hilly street in Seattle waiting and chatting with strangers almost an hour before Il Corvo opened. It was like the carb-friendly version of Franklin Barbecue. The shoebox-size restaurant’s tiny menu focuses on a trio of seasonal pastas, each priced around $10, with the stalwart being the pappardelle alla Bolognese. The star on my visit: bits of pattypan squash that clung to the ribbed lining of firm rigatoni sheened with lemon and butter, proving that summer can be both sunny and sumptuous, and worth the wait.
Scallops with pickled chili pepper sauce at Shinsen Hanten
Imagine the massive multifloored dim sum halls in New York City’s Chinatown wedded with the gilded dining rooms of a casino in Las Vegas and then set it on the high floor of a hotel overlooking Singapore and you’ve got an idea of what Singapore’s most revered Chinese restaurant is all about. The menu here is boundless in the best way possible, with entire sections dedicated to barbecued dishes, abalone and live seafood. The plump and lightly seared Hokkaido scallops hide beneath a colorful confetti of a pickled chili pepper sauce that lights up the plate and palate.
Spicy shrimp and pork wontons at Din Tai Fung
I don’t care if I just have an overnight layover in a city, I am going to get a taste of the place. I wrote a story about two years ago asking chefs and food professionals what Austin’s dining scene was missing. More than one person responded with Din Tai Fung, the xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings) specialists that opened their first restaurant in Taiwan in 1972. Peruse the lengthy menu while you wait and form a game plan at this casual restaurant that also feels part dumpling warehouse, a team of cooks and chefs in a windowed kitchen turning out dishes at an alarming pace. The dumplings may get top billing, but these were the best wontons I’ve ever eaten: the rippled and pinched folds glistening with a toasty chili sauce and just translucent enough to reveal the plump, pink shrimp inside. I now understand the craze that has extended to locations in California and Washington and remain hopeful maybe Texas will get its own someday.
What makes a great bánh mì? You need a baguette with a shattering crunch and soft, flossy interior. The mayonnaise should be tangy, homemade and cover the entire surface of the bread. You want creamy pâté with depth of flavor and fresh, crisp vegetables. I recently visited about 20 shops, restaurants and trailers in search of the best bánh mì in Austin. You can read the full results here, but below I give you a taste of the top three.
1. Saigon le Vendeur. 2404 E. Seventh St. 512-351-6916, saigon7th.com. Chef Tebi Nguyen grew up next to a bánh mì shop in Saigon before moving with his family to San Antonio, where he graduated high school and worked at a hibachi restaurant. While the charcoal-cooking will have to wait until Nguyen can move from a trailer to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, he applies the quick kiss of the torch to char pan-seared juicy grilled pork ($6.95) that’s marinated in fish sauce, garlic, red shallots and a touch of honey, to aid in the caramelization. The savory meat is contrasted by tangy housemade mayonnaise made daily and the crunch of hot jalapenos and cool cucumber and the snap of carrots and daikon.
Nguyen finishes the O.G. ($6.95) — layered with firm and fatty head cheese, thin-sliced pork belly, springy and mildly sweet steamed pork roll, and fragrant housemade pate — with a splash of Maggi sauce, the salty secret ingredient of many great bánh mì. The Daruma Ramen veteran may not make his own bread from scratch, but he does bake the imports twice daily, so whether you go at lunch or dinner, you will get a baguette with crunchy exterior and delicate pull inside.
2. Baguette et Chocolat. 12101 FM 2244, Building 6. 512-263-8388, baguetteetchocolat.com. Chef Chi Minh Pham Ding is the embodiment of the multiculturalism of the bánh mì ($7.99) he makes at his Bee Caves bakery, which recently celebrated its seventh birthday. He was raised in Versailles, and his sandwich pays tribute to the recipe of his Vietnamese grandfather, a journalist who fled Southeast Asia for the safety of France. I was shocked that there was no pâté on the sandwich, so rich was the razor-thin roasted pork that marinates for 24 hours in a bath of secret ingredients. Or maybe it was the housemade mayonnaise. There are some twists here — a grip of lettuce, sweet diced onions and no jalapenos — but the meat, a splash of Maggi, and the best baguette of this bunch combine for a stellar sandwich. Pro tip: Order an eclair (or anything) for dessert.
3. Pho Please. 1920 E. Riverside Drive. 512-354-9779, phopleaseaustin.com. This counter-service restaurant, opened in January 2016 by Tien Do and her husband, Anh Nguyen, is a slick, modern update on the many Austin Vietnamese cafes Nguyen has worked in over the years. Charcoal leaves its tasty marks on grilled beef ($7) served in a soy sauce dressing that turns this sandwich into something that reminds me of a Philly cheesesteak, sub minor swipes of pâté and mayonnaise for cheese. The grilled pork ($7) hums with a five spice buzz, and while they don’t make their own bread, the soft, flaky baguette overflowing with pickled vegetables and jalapeño slices has a satisfying crunch. This sandwich is a case of me having trouble pinpointing exactly what I love, but the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.
But there’s no need to argue about which is the best in Austin, or even Texas: The real question here is why barbecue joints from Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee were ranked higher on the list than Texas—those are fighting words.
When you want to know about Austin dining, where better to turn than USA Today, which named the best restaurants in Austin as part of its 10 Best series. It’s not clear when the list published, but it includes a restaurant that opened this year, so it is fairly recent.
The list was written by local freelancer Shelley Seale and includes some curious choices (and a few very defensible ones). Two hotel restaurants, at Goodall’s at Hotel Ella and the Stella SanJac at the downtown Westin, made the list, as did solid but not exceptional choices like Buenos Aires Cafe and Andiamo. Topping the list? Vox Table. Rounding out the list? Parkside, though the credit/caption reads Moonshine. Read the complete list here, and for my list of the Top 25 restaurants in Austin, as well as 50 other critic’s picks, visit austin360.com/eats.