Check out the biggest restaurant openings, closings and major news stories from 2017

The past year saw the Austin restaurant world start to find its footing again after a shaky 2016. The flow of restaurant openings slowed a little, allowing the scene to settle momentarily. The closures of historic spots and short-lived ideas continued apace, which also helped recalibrate the ecosystem, and existing businesses used their momentum and capital to open new locations and concepts.

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Austin restaurants were not immune to the political and social rumblings in the country, with several restaurants speaking out against perceived injustice and inequality and others finding themselves embroiled in politically tinged controversy.

Hearts and beef tongue at Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, one of Austin’s best new restaurants. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

And, as in years past, the national media and restaurant industry organizations recognized some of the brightest stars in a city with a scene that is hopefully poised for a stronger 2018.

Here are some of the highlights from the year in Austin dining.

The inauguration of President Donald Trump coincided with groups taking a stand for women’s and immigrants’ rights and social justice at large. Members of the Austin restaurant world made their voices heard. Dai Due sold female-themed pastries to coincide with the Women’s March in Austin. Mueller favorite L’Oca d’Oro, a vocal proponent for a living wage and equal rights, opened its kitchen to a squad of female chefs for March on the Kitchen, a dinner that benefited SAFE Austin. Bouldin Creek Cafe, which donated proceeds on Jan. 20 to organizations that support civil rights, was one of of the Austin restaurants to protest Trump’s inauguration, and later in the winter, Weather Up hosted a benefit on Presidents Day weekend to support Planned Parenthood. A Day Without Immigrants in February saw more than a dozen restaurants close in a sign of solidarity with immigrant workers. The event also led to some uneasy tensions, with letters protesting the unofficial workers strike, posted in kitchens at a Maudie’s Tex-Mex and Chuy’s, stirring controversy.

Spoon made their voice heard this year, teaming with Veracruz All Natural to raise money for American Gateways, an organization that supports immigrants’ and refugees’ rights. Tom McCarthy Jr. FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The political climate also ensnared musicians. Austin-based band Spoon put a new spin on the history of musicians speaking out in support of social justice as the rockers teamed with Veracruz All Natural, makers of some of the best tacos in Austin, for the El Norteño taco. Proceeds from the sale of the taco benefited Austin-based American Gateways, a nonprofit dedicated to championing “the dignity and human rights of immigrants and refugees through legal services, education and advocacy.”

And, before he had unofficially become the Chef of the Resistance, Spanish chef José Andrés visited South by Southwest for some talks and dinners, at which he shared his thoughts on Trump and the need for a more distinguished manner of leadership in America.

Franklin Barbecue reopened after a fire gutted the building in late August. (Ralph Barrera/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Of course, not all the news in the restaurant world had a political angle. Aaron and Stacy Franklin lost their smokehouse to a fire at Franklin Barbecue in August, which led to a closure that lasted a few months. But the beloved barbecue institution in East Austin reopened in November.

Bonhomie (my review), the French bistro-meets-Waffle House restaurant from longtime Austin chef Philip Speer; Kemuri Tatsu-Ya (my review), the Japanese smokehouse from the owners of Ramen Tatsu-Ya; and Pitchfork Pretty (my review), an elegant and measured take on rusticity, led the brigade of new restaurants in 2017, and all received extremely positive reviews from me and landed in the Top 20 of my annual dining guide. Paul Qui also returned to the scene with Kuneho, though the restaurant that had a promising opening in January closed in November, with the chef saying he has plans for the future of the space

Other openings that were either notable to me or caught the attention of the public were the reincarnation of Veggie HeavenPizzeria Sorellina in Spicewood; J.T. Youngblood’s nostalgic fried chicken joint in Mueller; inventive barbecue truck LeRoy & Lewis; the Phoenix rising from the post oak ashes that is John Mueller Black Box BBQ in Georgetown; Kula Revolving Sushi Bar, which has a better gimmick than sushi; Spanish restaurant El Chipirón; from-scratch Middle Eastern fast-casual concept Mezze Me; the irreverent and hearty Holy Roller; family-friendly Tex-Mex spot Eldorado Cafe in North Austin; Peruvian restaurant Yuyo from the El Chile group; Italian deli La Matta in East Austin; and swanky downtown additions ATX Cocina and Le Politique.

The iconic El Gallo closed this summer after 60 years. Deborah Cannon/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

For almost every story of new beginnings, a final chapter was written, as restaurants old and new announced they were closing. Venerable Tex-Mex restaurants El Gallo, which opened in 1957, and Porfirio’s Tacos, which enjoyed a 32-year run, both closed. Manuel “Cowboy” Donley performed with his daughter, Sylvia Donley, to commemorate the closing of El Gallo, which was opened by Abraham and Maria Kennedy 60 years ago. Celebrated Hudson’s on the Bend reopened with great expectations following the sale by founder Jeff Blank to new owners but closed after just three months. Ebullient South Austin staple Maria Corbalan said she was closing her Taco Xpress after 20 years in business, then the deal for a sale fell through, she postponed the sale, and then she finally decided to hold onto the restaurant, which is still selling Tex-Mex and welcoming hippies for church on Sunday.

Lamar Union, the sleek mixed-use development that is home to the Alamo South, struggled with the closings of Cantine and Delicious. After 32 years, Carmelo’s closed downtown. Other staples in the scene — Nubian Queen Lola’s in East Austin, the original Austin Java off Lamar Boulevard, and the relocated Dog and Duck — all closed, as did neighborhood favorites and leaders in their respective genres House Pizzeria and Apothecary Wine Bar & Cafe.

While some struggled, several existing brands added to their portfolios. Poke PokeFlyrite ChickenOpal Divine’s, El ChilitoJack Allen’s KitchenPapalote Taco House and Veracruz All Natural all opened new locations; haute dog slingers Frank took over food-and-beverage operations at the 151 year-old Scholz Garten; barbecue wizards La Barbecue moved into the Quickie Pickie in East Austin.

Foodies gathered at events throughout the year. The Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce hosted its inaugural Taste of Black Austin event at the end of January. The fifth installment of Austin Food & Wine Festival was highlighted by Uchi chef-founder Tyson Cole’s third Rock Your Taco win in five years and appearances by nationally recognized chefs Ludo Lefebvre of Los Angeles and Alon Shaya of New Orleans. And Aaron Franklin’s Hot Luck welcomed Daniel Johnston, Roy Choi, Andy Ricker and Robert Ellis and many more for a wild and tasty weekend at the inaugural fest that will return in the spring.

The nation continued to set its adoring gaze on Austin. Barley Swine owner Bryce Gilmore earned his fifth consecutive finalist nod for James Beard Best Chef: Southwest award, and Launderette partner Laura Sawicki garnered a semifinalist nomination for best pastry chef. Otoko chef Yoshi Okai was named one of the Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine. GQ and Bon Appetit both declared Kemuri Tatsu-Ya one of the 10 Best New Restaurants in America, and McGuire Moorman’s June’s All Day landed on a similar list from Food & Wine magazine.

Fonda San Miguel co-founder Miguel Ravago died in June at the age of 72. (Shelley Wood AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Finally, the Austin restaurant scene said goodbye to two pioneers. One of the early leaders of the city’s culinary scene and a co-founder of seminal interior Mexican restaurant Fonda San Miguel, chef Miguel Ravago died in June at the age of 72. Ravago, who opened trailblazing Fonda San Miguel with Tom Gilliland in 1975, prided his restaurant on high quality ingredients sourced directly from Mexico. Equally well known for his personality as for his mastery of Mexican cuisine, Ravago spent most of his final years living in Spain and England.

Later in the summer, Austin lost another of its leading lights. An explorer and visionary with a passion for community and wellness, Casa de Luz co-founder Maryann Rose died in August at the age of 73. A native of Dallas, Rose moved to Austin during its bohemian heyday. She met Wayo Longoria at the East West Center in 1984, and together they opened the community center-restaurant Casa de Luz on Rose’s 47th birthday, Jan. 27, 1991.

Fast-casual concept Verts now known as Noon Mediterranean

If you’ve been confused as you look for a Mediterranean-inspired lunch from Verts and can’t seem to find the name in town anymore, don’t worry. The fast-casual artist originally known as VertsKebap still exists, but now goes by the name Noon Mediterranean. The business, which started in Austin in 2011, felt it had an identity and branding issue last year, according to industry publication QSR Magazine,  and axed the “kebap” from its name, choosing to go with the more direct Verts. But the new name for the restaurant that started as “the world’s smallest food truck,” operating out of a Smart Car off The Drag, still didn’t communicate the idea of the restaurant well enough, so now it’s Noon Mediterranean. Noon, which got its start as Verts selling spit-roasted doner kebabs, serves a variety of grain and greens bowls (though you can still get a pita-wrapped meal) topped with grilled proteins and a variety of sides and accoutrements.

Facebook.com/eatnoon

Founded by Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein, the company took on $20 million in private funding in 2015, and expanded to East Coast cities like Boston and New York. The concept, which had 26 stores in 2015, has since contracted, and now has 20 locations, including eight in Austin. The owners told QSR Magazine that they intend to expand nationally, with plans to open in New York City by the end of the year.

 

 

Aaron Franklin partners with Uchi chef Tyson Cole for Japanese smokehouse Loro

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What happens when you team two of the most distinguished and celebrated chefs in Austin’s history and put them under one roof? We’re about to find out.  

Aaron Franklin has partnered with Uchi founding chef Tyson Cole to become part of the team at Loro, a Japanese smokehouse from Uchi’s parent company, Hai Hospitality, that is slated to open late in the first quarter of next year at 2115 S. Lamar Blvd.

Aaron Franklin and Tyson Cole have partnered for Loro, a Japanese smokehouse in South Austin. (Credit: Logan Crable)

Longtime friends Cole and Franklin casually discussed the idea of the smokehouse about three years ago, but it was earlier this year that the idea of a partnership first arose, a light-bulb moment Cole credits to his partner and Hai Hospitality founder Daryl Kunik.

While the two chefs’ areas of expertise may seem disparate — Cole working with raw fish and Franklin mastering smoked meat — the Uchi founding chef sees obvious parallels.

“I had an epiphany years back. If you look at it, the meat thing, specifically barbecue, it’s kind of just like sushi,” Cole said. “When it’s the best barbecue and the best sushi, it’s cut a la minute. It’s sliced right then before you eat it.”

Franklin echoes the sentiment: “I think the way the two of us cook is pretty synonymous. We do almost the same thing, if you think about perfecting one thing over and over and over.”

Loro, which was announced at the beginning of the year, will center around grilled and smoked meats, with the culinary team applying the Uchi style and flavor profiles to meat dishes and inventive sides.

Franklin, who has long been a fan of Uchi and Uchiko, shares Cole’s enthusiasm for this unique new partnership that essentially amounts to a James Beard Voltron, with both chefs having taken home Best Chef Southwest honors from the esteemed organization, Franklin in 2015 and Cole in 2011.

“The first thing is that those guys are so hugely inspirational. The level of precision and the amount of integrity that those guys have is incredible,” Franklin said. “If I was ever going to do anything, those guys are the only people I’d ever go into cahoots with on something like this. I’d never open another barbecue place, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do something else that’s really exciting and fun.”

Cole first started toying with the idea of trying something new about seven years ago, with the smokehouse idea percolating about three years ago. The Uchi team kept a Green Egg smoker in the backyard at the South Lamar Boulevard restaurant and used it to experiment with dishes, some of which, like brisket nigiri, made their way onto the specials menu of the restaurant Cole opened in 2003.

“Some of our best specials came off of that. And we thought there’s a concept on its own,” Hai Hospitality president John Baydale said.

Franklin and Cole are spending time in the Uchiko and Franklin Barbecue kitchens tinkering with menu research and development. For Cole, the new restaurant offers a chance to do something that puts a different spin on something that is familiar.

“It’s going to be familiar but unique. Unique sides, unique selections of meat,” Cole said. “The game changer is going to be the way it’s served, the sauces we’re going to make and what we’re pairing it with and how it all fits together. Hopefully it’s an amazing experience and food that people have never had before.”

Franklin has long had a predilection for the light, acidic flavors found in the dishes at Uchi and Uchiko and taps into his trademark enthusiasm and humility when discussing the opportunity to work with the Uchi/Uchiko team.

“I’ve looked up to those guys for so long. I’m excited to learn. I think it’s going to be great. I’m super excited to get to know those guys a little bit better and actually learn how to cook,” Franklin said.

What can diners expect Franklin to bring to the table at Loro? Franklin says the restaurant, which will likely use all post oak, will taste like Central Texas. And the chef, who will spend time working in the kitchen at Loro once it opens, intends to apply the same simple seasoning and complex fire principles he’s crafted at his East Austin barbecue restaurant. 

“I think the biggest thing is going to be the clean flavors of the smoke. Not a whole bunch of over-smoked things. Just really tastefully done. The more delicate side of smoking,” Franklin said.

In addition to experimenting with a new format and cuisine, Loro will also offer a new challenge and opportunity for Cole, as Loro will be the only restaurant in the Hai Hospitality family that serves lunch. Preparing more food for more people at a lower price point are pieces of a puzzle that Cole and company will sort through during the R&D process. As the team continues to hone its vision for Loro, the one recurring theme is excitement.

“Putting two people at the strongest point in their discipline together is a rare thing,” Baydale said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun putting these two mad scientists together, and we’re just super excited.”

AUSTIN360 DINING GUIDE: The Top 25 restaurants in Austin | #26-#75

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New food truck raises eyebrows and anger with name Poke Me Long Time

Kevin Randolph and wife Sherilyn Milch named their food truck Poke Me Long Time with the hopes of turning people’s heads. Fishin’ accomplished.

The food truck at 1606 E. Sixth St. has received some negative reviews and mentions online for its name, which some seem to see as juvenile and crass at best and racist at worst, playing off the demeaning depiction of Vietnamese sex workers in “Full Metal Jacket.” But Randolph takes exception with at least part of that interpretation.

Randolph said the name is an intentional sexual innuendo but that he and his wife, whose grandmother was born in Vietnam, are not racist.

“My wife’s Asian. She owns this place, too. It’s not a racial thing. It’s more of a sexual thing, really,” Randolph said.

How did they come up with the name?

“Oh, man,” Randolph said with a laugh. “Honestly, we just got really stoned one night. I’m not gonna lie to you.”

The Missionary Bowl at Poke Me Long Time. (Credit: Facebook.com/pokemelongtime)

The 13-year resident of Austin said he opened the food truck with his wife as a healthy alternative to the bar business he’s worked in for almost a decade. It’s the first food operation for Randolph, a nine-year veteran of Sixth Street bars, who manages the Handle Bar and served as a promo guy for the Yassine brothers for a few years. Randolph opened the trailer 11 weeks ago after doing several pop-ups at bars and start-up companies.

“We wanted to help our community,” Randolph said.

And, while he’s heard the criticism, Randolph said those angry about the name have the wrong idea.

“Those are just closed-minded people,” Randolph said. “I’m not mad. But have an open mind; don’t have a close mind. If you ever met us or talked to us on the phone, you’d know that’s a complete (BS) story. People want to take it there; don’t take it there.”

Founding chef Ned Elliott sells Foreign & Domestic Austin to chefs Nathan Lemley and Sarah Heard

Former Parkside executive chef Nathan Lemley and his partner, chef Sarah Heard, have purchased Foreign & Domestic Austin from founding chef Ned Elliott. Both chefs are also alumni of the North Loop restaurant that Elliott opened in 2010, with Lemley, a three-year veteran of Foreign & Domestic, serving as Elliott’s original sous chef.

Chefs Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley are the new owners of Foreign & Domestic Austin. (Contributed)
“I’m really proud of them and very happy for them. They’re going to do awesome and breathe new life into the place,” Elliott said of Heard and Lemley.
The partners say they have small changes planned for the restaurant that will keep the same name and general look, but judging by their early Instagrams, it seems diners should expect thoughtful contemporary bistro fare.
“”It’s pretty much every chef‘s dream restaurant: Small, open kitchen, cool neighborhood, adventurous clientele,” Lemley and Heard said in a text message. “We love the concept, but we’ll put our own touches on the food and service.”
Pulled by his love of home and out of concern for the health of his mothers, Elliott will return to his native Cincinnati next summer to open a Foreign & Domestic there. He says the Cincinnati restaurant will be about twice the size of the Austin location and feature a raw bar and private dining space.
Elliott will also turn his attention to Houston, with plans to open a restaurant there late next year. He is in negotiations for a location in the Bellaire neighborhood and says those plans would include a restaurant four times the size of the Austin location. Elliott wants the Houston location to be “more of a hangout than fine dining” and says diners will be able to enjoy a range of options, from hamburgers during the week to a three-course dinners on the weekend.
Elliott intends to spend about half of his time in Cincinnati and then divide the other half between Houston and Austin, and says while he has a future possibility in Austin that he wants to “take a step back and do more big picture things and invest in young talent.”
When Elliott and his then-wife, Jodi Elliott, veterans of restaurants such as Per Se, Gramercy Tavern and Bouley in New York, opened the restaurant in a former skateboard shop and homebrew store in 2010, they were at the cutting edge of the food scene in Austin, bringing national trends like nose-to-tail dining to a city that was at the cusp of becoming one of the nation’s darling upstarts. The restaurant, which had an early menu featuring items like bone marrow croquettes, crispy pig ears, venison heart tartare and sublime popovers, earned Statesman restaurant critic Mike Sutter’s nod for best new restaurant in 2010. Foreign & Domestic was a staple in the Austin360 Dining Guide Top 25 for years, earning a Top 10 ranking four of the last five years.
In addition to elevating what Austinites could expect not just from restaurants but specifically from a neighborhood restaurant, Elliott also celebrated young talent from around the country, for several years hosting the annual Indie Chefs Week, a week of collective dinners from rising star chefs from across the world. Jodi Elliott currently operates Bribery Bakery in the Wells Branch neighborhood, and recently closed her shop at Mueller.

 

El Naranjo’s benefit dinner and other Austin restaurants contributing to Mexico earthquake-relief efforts

Chef Iliana de Vega, together with guest chef Gabriel Ibarra, executive chef from Cappy’s, Cappyccino and La Fonda on Maine, will host a dinner next Thursday night (9/28) at her restaurant, El Naranjo (85 Rainey St.), to raise money for relief efforts in her native Mexico following the devastating earthquake of last week.

The three-course dinner, along with mezcal, tequila and wine pairings, is $75 per person, and all proceeds will be donated to Citibanamex Compromiso Social which seeks to aid in Oaxaca and Mexico City earthquake relief. All funds raised will be matched dollar by dollar by Citibanamex Compromiso Social.

For more information or to RSVP call 512-474-2776 or through elnaranjorestaurant.com.

A woman holds her child as she stands next to wall turned to rubble when it collapsed during a massive earthquake in Mexico City on September 8.
(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

If you know of other restaurants, bars or food trucks raising or collecting money or goods for relief efforts in Mexico, please email modam@statesman.com.

Is Chipotle’s all-natural queso good? This Texan finds out.

One of the main gripes I used to hear from people about Chipotle was its lack of queso. (And, yes, Ecoli and norovirus.) You can serve all the humanely raised meat you want, but in Texas, if you’re going to serve Tex-Mex, you better have queso.

Of course, the inherent problem with Chipotle and queso is that the company has long made its name on sourcing conscientiously and serving products with no added colors, preservatives or flavors. And, if you’ve looked under the hood on many quesos, you’re going to find products like EZ Melt, Extra Melt and Velveeta. Not exactly paragons of naturalness.

Also,anyone who’s made queso at home using natural cheese also knows that it can be tricky to melt into the same flavor and consistency as dips made with the products mentioned above. Something had to give. And, Chipotle decided it wasn’t its all-natural ethos.

Last week the company rolled out its queso nationwide, earning a lot of cat calls on Twitter and clapbacks from other websites. Even Goldman Sachs got skittish about Chipotle stock following the release. This Texan decided he needed to try it.

Queso at Chipotle. (Credit: Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The verdict: It’s hard to make all-natural queso taste good. The large bowl ($5.40 with a bag of chips) had a slightly gloopy consistency with a bit of chalkiness. It is obviously a mixture of milk and sharp cheddar, and the predominant flavor from the cheese is an astringent bitterness that lingers after the initial wave of smoky chipotle pepper, cumin and jalapeno. It kind of tastes like I imagine biting into the hardened, dried edge of a block of cheddar would. Any bit of sweetness from tomato paste or yellow onion hid in the gloop.

So, kudos to Chipotle for trying to do things the right way, but there’s a reason some people will always want their queso to be a little fake. Also, take it from someone who ate queso at 10+ places earlier this year for an abandoned story: most queso isn’t that great anyway. If I am eating queso for pleasure, however, it is usually from Fresa’s or Torchy’s (the best thing on their menu).

TL;DR version: I give Chipotle’s queso a 5 out of 10.