1 / Odd Duck
Regarding his menu, chef-partner Bryce Gilmore likes to say: “Everything has the potential to change.” Yet, that’s a mighty big understatement from the James Beard Award nominee, whose culinary attention span is like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Because of his close working relationship with local farmers and purveyors, today’s charred eggplant baba ganoush might be tomorrow’s fried squash blossom with almond ricotta. This is “seasonal” on speed, as Gilmore forges wildly innovative dishes with a distinct Texas twang. And those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tendencies? They imbue the trailer-turned-restaurant with a sense of fleeting adventure that rewards repeat visits. Hey, you might not be able to get too attached to the fried whole quail with peaches and shishito peppers, but that’s not really the point at Odd Duck. Here, the menu is a constant source of surprise, and that next dish just might be its most impressive yet.
Photo by Richard Casteel/@dandeliongatherings.
2 / Suerte
Corn is king at a number of modern Mexican eateries today, but Suerte executive chef Fermín Núñez might be its most trusted courtier. Taking dried red kernels from Richardson Farms, as well as a white heirloom variety from Barton Springs Mill, the Torreón, Mexico, native nixtamalizes each ear and turns them into fragrant masa that becomes the base for a range of reputation-making tacos and tamales. Think confit brisket dappled with Suerte’s now-famous Black Magic Oil (an intoxicating amalgam of garlic, morita chile, fermented black beans, and more), chorizo verde quesadillas, even pastry chef Derrick Flynn’s interpretation of a Choco Taco, here stuffed with cinnamon semifreddo. Everything is exquisite and uniquely Austin, particularly Núñez’s smoked goat barbacoa that comes presented in a steaming banana leaf alongside a selection of fresh, spicy salsas, pickled veggies, and, of course, a basket of those addictive corn tortillas. All hail!
Photo by Andrew Reiner.
3 / Otoko
Kyoto-born Yoshi Okai made his way to Austin via San Francisco chasing the music scene, and you can still see that influence in the chef’s approach to sushi inside his futuristic 12-seat tasting counter at the South Congress Hotel. While he does serve a seasonal 20-course omakase menu that’s structured kaiseki-style, with fish flown in primarily from Japan, it’s not an ostentatious temple to sushi burdened by moody lighting and hushed tones. No, this place is ready to rock. With a playlist heavy on Bowie, Zappa, and Fugazi (you can actually find it on Spotify if you search “Yoshibori”), Okai goes to work putting on a show. Like George Harrison playing a reverse guitar solo on “I’m Only Sleeping,” the chef completely shakes up the genre. For instance, uni, which is treated with a kind of near-comical reverence at most other places, is dressed with fresh ground wasabi, smoked tamari, and white sturgeon caviar at Otoko. There’s even a slight Mexican influence to his vision, with ingredients like hoja santa, chapulines, and sal de gusano appearing on the menu. Yes, it’s nearly impossible to get into, and tickets are blisteringly expensive. But getting front seats to the Yoshi show is like catching Prince in Vegas or the Stones at Madison Square Garden. This is Austin’s version of a bucket-list concert.
Photo courtesy Otoko.
4 / Nixta Taqueria
Two years ago, before chef Edgar Rico opened Nixta Taqueria with partner Sara Mardanbigi, he’d tell people that the menu would be predominantly vegetarian and vegan. “You mean you’re not gonna have carnitas or carne asada?” they’d ask. “In Texas?” But, according to Rico, “If you can make a vegetable taste as good as a piece of meat, then you’re doing something right.” Case in point would be their vegan beet “tartare” tostada with salsa macha and avocado crema—a painterly dish awash in so many vibrant hues and textures, it’s almost too beautiful to eat. The corn they source from both Oaxaca and North Texas (via Barton Springs Mill) for freshly nixtamalized tortillas also matches the sun-drenched color palette in every toiled-over detail. At first glance, you might think this is tweezer food. That it’s almost too precious. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, with an unmatched environment that feels like a family gathering—one where you can geek out over excellent natural wines or just settle in over a cold Modelo.
Photo by Jessica Attie.
5 / Kemuri Tatsu-ya
Expertly melding the bones of a Texas barbecue joint with a Japanese izakaya, chef-owner Tatsu Aikawa (of Ramen Tatsu-ya fame) has somehow managed to wrangle the flavors of wood smoke, Tex-Mex, yakitori, sashimi, and a whiskey tumblers’ worth of stoner food into their honky-tonk-by-way-of-Tokyo. Instead of Frito pie, you get chili cheese takoyaki brimming with octopus fritters and beef cheek chili. The banana pudding skips the dollop of Cool Whip for matcha and miso caramel. And Aikawa’s sesame-pecan rubbed brisket gets the bento box treatment, meaning there isn’t butcher paper or a slice of white bread in sight. Nori, rice, pickles, fermented hot sauce, and other fixings are portioned out in a wooden box for DIY hand rolls, which feels like opening an elaborate birthday present. Or, in the spirit of Kemuri, a stash box. So, take those carrot-ginger glazed pork ribs and that “hippie bone marrow” (i.e. smoked eggplant) and get to work rolling one up.
Photo by Jane Yun.
6 / Cuantos Tacos
Consider Luis “Beto” Robledo the keeper of the comal—the convex stainless-steel pan seen so often at iconic taco stands in Mexico City. Because it was there, in what Robledo calls the “mecca of street tacos,” where his life changed forever. A classically trained chef from Austin who’d launched a short-lived Japanese-Mexican fusion project, Robledo quickly pivoted after that inspiration found south of the border. Since 2019, Cuantos Tacos has been serving his own version of those palm-sized tacos stuffed with confit meats like suadero, buche, carnitas, and lengua. Double wrapped in tortillas from San Antonio Colonial Tortilla Factory and sprinkled with an herbaceous pop of chopped cilantro, onion, and fiery salsa roja, they linger on your palate for hours. And your memory for much longer. “I’m just literally trying to pay my respects,” Robledo says, “because the blueprint, they have it for us down in Mexico City. It’s just about keeping the respect.”
Photo by Robert Gomez.
7 / Sammie’s
McGuire Moorman Lambert Hospitality has a history of taking over historic spots (see Swedish Hill and Jeffrey’s), but when co-founder Larry McGuire dared to adopt the former home of Hut’s Hamburgers, an 80-year-old institution, the cries of outrage reached a fever pitch. Knowing he could never replace the sentimental waft of Dagburgers and peppered onion rings, though, McGuire opted to follow his own direction. Looking to old-school Italian-American spots like Dan Tana’s in LA, MML created an over-the-top, decadent Disney theme park of a red-sauce joint. Staffed by doting waiters in red suits and ties, everything is executed at the highest level: a cocktail menu with several different top-shelf martinis; antipasti like house-made mozzarella sticks and broiled clams; and classic entrées such as bistecca alla Fiorentina and a bigger-than-your-head veal parmigiana that are the best iterations you’ve ever put in your mouth. McGuire him-self should know—as even with more than a dozen concepts at his disposal—he says unapologetically, “I ate there 20 days in a row when it opened.”
Photo by Bethany Ochs.
8 / Better Half Coffee & Cocktails
When Better Half’s trio of owners first moved into their Clarksville digs in 2018, Matthew Bolick says there was a bit of an intimidation factor to the neighborhood. Coming from the laid-back confines of their East Side coffee shop, Brew & Brew, the regular sight of Maseratis and a well-coiffed clientele had them hesitating on what they did best. Or, as Bolick explains: “We didn’t dare be too loud.” Three years later, they’ve not only ditched those informal rules (old guard wine, and “safer” crowd-pleasers like chicken-fried steak), they’ve completely rewritten the playbook for casual dining. Frozen drinks machines and draft ’tails have replaced a more traditional backbar, and chef Rich Reimbolt has been given carte blanche to explore the full breadth of his palate—evident in offerings like hiyashi chuka, the chilled ramen noodle dish, and a cheffed-up fried chicken sandwich tossed in Sichuan chili crunch and a slathering of curry-infused kewpie mayo.
9 / Franklin Barbecue
The incontrovertible truth is that Franklin Barbecue makes the best danged barbecue on the planet. It’s also very true that waiting in that epic line (especially during the summer months) is just an enormous pain in the a**. In fact, that four-plus hour rite of passage is so daunting, that camping out for Aaron Franklin’s peppery-crusted pork ribs, snappy beef-and-pork sausages, and genre-defining brisket has mainly become a pastime for tourists. Strangely, the onset of the pandemic has changed all that. After closing their dining room for more than a year (it recently reopened in late November), Franklin has become a bit more egalitarian as online ordering has made the cult ’cue more accessible. By planning ahead a little and ordering a minimum of three pounds, locals can finally bypass those out-of-towners and claim their stake in the sublime.
10 / Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ
Using mesquite over the more traditional post oak was never a conscious decision for pitmaster Miguel Vidal. Even though the former burns hotter and is notoriously difficult to tame, it’s what Vidal had grown up using in South San Antonio. So, there it crackles inside his smoker, imparting what he describes as a “sweet, burnt chocolate brownie aroma” to spicy Oaxacan sausage and Hartley Ranch–sourced grass-fed brisket. No pun intended, but Vidal built his menu by gut. By the flavors that coursed through his bloodstream. Now, that Mexican-American perspective he’s brought to the category is being emulated well beyond the Texas border and inspiring global nuance to what was once so staunchly regional. The fajitas and barbacoa and fideos on fluffy flour tortillas are all phenomenal at Valentina’s. But Vidal’s legacy? It’s even greater.
Photo by Drew Anthony Smith.
11 / Lutie’s
Good luck getting a reservation at Bradley Nicholson and Susana Querejazu’s new restaurant at the historic Commodore Perry Estate, where there’s even a waitlist for cancellations. But step inside its glamorous garden party atmosphere—with Oz-green walls, crystal chandeliers, and rows of hanging plants snaking through the rafters—and you can see why. Adding to the ambience is the work of two chefs with Michelin-starred credentials. Imaginative, yet understated, their menu can be seen as a little twee and intentionally Wes Anderson–ish (in the best possible way), like its signature grand aioli platter with Steelbow Farm crudité balancing atop a marble tower. It’s like a Cezanne still life reinterpreted by Margaret Keane. Yet, it’s Querejazu’s desserts, like her kouign amann ice cream and seasonal soft serve presented in a vintage Depression glass, that ultimately steal the show.
12 / Hestia
At the center of this sleek downtown restaurant is a 20-foot wood-fired hearth with wagyu steaks and halibut dripping juices into the fire below. The feature is so pronounced that chefs Kevin Fink and Tavel Bristol-Joseph even had to invest in an elaborate exhaust system so the dining room isn’t choked by smoke. But it’s that fire that brings exceptional char and wood smoke to everything from lion’s mane mushrooms to Red Ranger chickens to scallops seared in beef tallow. Aptly named after the Greek goddess of fire, the restaurant also excels on the non-grilled side of the menu, with crudos, carpaccios, and most importantly, Bristol-Joseph’s outstanding desserts, like the matcha-dusted kakigori that climbs to gravity-defying heights.
Photo by Jessica Attie.
13 / Qi
Caviar, lobster, and shaved truffles? These are not the type of bougie components one is accustomed to seeing utilized in a dim sum artist’s toolbox. But chef Ling Qi Wu’s downtown restaurant is anything but typical, what with luxurious trappings like birdcage light fixtures and dumplings presented with lace tuiles. Trained by the famed William Wong (New Fortune Chinese), Wu steps away from the more traditional (see her first concept, Lin Asian Bar) in favor of flights of fancy at Qi: salt and pepper lobster, scallop sui mai stippled with caviar, and the super-marbled Akaushi beef appearing in everything from potstickers to a luxe version of Chinese pepper steak.
14 / Justine’s Brasserie
It’s 10 o’clock on a Thursday, and Serge Gainsbourg is playing on the record player, string lights beam down on a couple spooning escargot into each other’s mouths, and the kitchen is still open. Good! Because you’ll want a moules frites buffer if you’re going to sample that bottle of Beaujolais that’s been calling your name. With its perfectly executed menu of brasserie greatest hits—steak frites, duck confit, and most importantly, an entrée-sized portion of steak tartare—there’s nothing else quite like Justine’s this side of the Left Bank. Add to that new executive chef Justin Huffman’s epic caviar service with accoutrements like smoked heirloom potato gaufrettes, and you can’t help but join the nightly celebration.
15 / Tsuke Edomae
After tasting Otto Phan’s oma-kase at Kyōten Sushiko in 2018, Michael Che not only forced his way into staging under the chef, he eventually took over the space itself. Che opened Tsuke Edomae in late 2020 with Phan’s blessing and has continued exploring the edomae style of sushi that wowed him so many years ago. Breaking down whole fish imported from Tokyo’s Toyosu Fish Market, he then treats and ages it with ingredients like akuzu vinegar. A true of-the-moment experience, diners are expected to eat each delicate piece of nigiri (11 courses in all) within 15 seconds of it hitting the Hermès plate set before them.
Photo by Jessica Attie.
16 / Dai Due
When it comes to the idea of “local,” there’s no one more dedicated than chef Jesse Griffiths. This goes beyond just Texas-sourced ingredients, of which there are plenty at Dai Due. At his 8-year-old restaurant/butcher shop, Griffiths considers how each element is both representative of and consequential to the local ecosystem. For example, the invasive wild boar, which he is passionate about both eradicating and making mouthwatering. The latter he achieves in a myriad of ways, including in boudin, lettuce wraps, and an outstanding wild boar confit.
Photo by Bethany Ochs.
17 / Joe’s Bakery
The culinary equivalent of Austin’s notorious “rain bubble,” Joe’s seems impervious to time and the whirlwind gentrification happening near its long-time home on East Seventh. Outside might be a storm of construction and change, but inside co-owner Regina Estrada’s restaurant (her grandfather was founder Joe Avila) the migas are still served on fluffy house-made flour tortillas, and the Tejano jams on the jukebox continue unabated. Because, like it or not, while the rest of Austin seems to be in the midst of a modern refresh, there’s simply no way to improve on those huevos rancheros and an incomparable carne guisada. Next year will be Joe’s 60th anniversary, and we can only hope for 60 more.
Photo by Bethany Ochs.
18 / Bufalina Due
Owner Steven Dilley’s original Bufalina location on Cesar Chavez closed in February, but thankfully, its second iteration on Burnet Road is still stoking the Stefano Ferrara wood-burning flames to create the best Neapolitan pizza in town. In addition to those chewy pies in flavors like vodka arrabiatta, there are expertly conceived details to elevate the whole experience: freshly pulled mozzarella with a rotating garnish, daily pasta specials such as rigatoni with tender braised rabbit, and, most importantly, sommelier Rania Zayyat’s thrilling wine list that spans the globe from new-school Cali to cult French producers.
Photo by Nicolai McCrary.
19 / Micklethwait Craft Meats
The term “scratch-made” is serious business for Tom Micklethwait. On top of the pitmaster’s consistently excellent barbecue—both of the traditional (pork ribs, turkey) and non-traditional variety (pulled lamb and house-cured pastrami)—the former Vespaio baker takes the more labor-intensive route on, well, everything. This includes silky jalapeño grits whipped with three kinds of cheese, a tart lemon poppy slaw that lifts fattier hunks of brisket, even the slice of white bread on the side. Typically an afterthought meant for mopping, Micklethwait’s house-baked upgrade over Mrs. Baird’s is good enough alone to make you a regular at his 1960s Comet trailer.
20 / Uchi
A legend that has since splintered off into so many sister concepts and faraway locales (hello, Miami and Denver!) it would be fair to wonder: Has it forgotten its roots? But almost two decades in, Tyson Cole’s sushi trailblazer still feels as fresh and contemporary as the day they first opened their doors. Mainstays like the hama chili and exquisite pork belly makimono are complemented by daily Japanese-inspired specials (think a New York strip draped with smoked apple and a shatter of candied garlic). Pro tip: Sit at the bar and avoid any indecision—just sit back and put yourself in the hands of Uchi’s super-knowledgeable sushi chefs.
21 / Distant Relatives
Serving “modern African American” cuisine out of a mobile smoke shack, chef Damien Brockway explores the culinary traditions of the African diaspora throughout the country. Taking a scholarly approach to the heritage and contributions of that history, particularly in regards to his own family lineage, he’s created some of the most dynamic and thought-provoking offerings in the city—dishes like pulled pork crowned with green mango slaw, salad nebbe, the Senegalese black-eyed pea salad, and smoked chicken mopped in chili vinegar dip. Some have tried to pigeonhole Brockway’s first solo spot as Texas barbecue, but it’s really a category unto itself.
Photo by Bethany Ochs.
22 / Juniper
Chef Nicholas Yanes describes his restaurant as contemporary Northern Italian, but he’s never been handcuffed by the definition. Instead of being beholden to some elusive concept of “authenticity,” he simply uses it as a springboard to bigger ideas: gnocchi that’s amped up with lobster and the spicy, spreadable nduja from Calabria; potato puffs that are really like the world’s best tater tots (caviar optional); and that Roman classic cacio e pepe, which here is made from Texas olive oil and twirled with Burgundian truffles.
Photo courtesy Consumable Content.
23 / Veracruz All Natural
The taco truck phenomenon that now has six Austin-area locations, a New York Times–touted outlet in LA, and visions of their strategically placed breakfast tacos always within arm’s reach—sisters Reyna and Maritza Vazquez’s growing empire is the ultimate success story. What started as an ill-equipped trailer hawking juices and snow cones in 2008 has evolved into a restaurant commanding national recognition. What Willie is to music and McConaughey is to the city’s celebrity, Veracruz’s migas taco has become to the flavor of Austin.
24 / Birdie’s
If you were playing restaurant Mad Libs, filling in the blanks with “natty wine” and “seasonal small plates” would be a pretty safe bet in 2021’s dining blueprint. But pieced together under the supervision of chef Tracy Malecheck-Ezekiel and her partner-wine director, Arjav Ezekiel, it not only makes sense—it feels serendipitous. How else to describe the utterly transportive experience of an oak-shaded patio, a razor-sharp grüner veltliner, and uni-studded cavatelli playing in perfect harmony? Also, word to the wise: Never skip the Sicilian chocolate chip cookie.
25 / Thai Kun
It’s now been seven years and one Paul Qui scandal since Thai Kun stunned the dining elite by landing on Bon Appetit’s revered “Best New Restaurants” list, but Thai Changthong (the remaining chef-owner) keeps impressing with dishes like his Crispy Coco. Consisting of rice toasted in a sizzling clay pot, and then topped with coconut cream, cucumber, silken tofu, and more, it’s a symphony of textures and temperatures. OG dishes like the spicy Waterfall Pork and the melt-your-face-off papaya salad still remain from that original East Side truck, but his brick-and-mortar has allowed him the necessary real estate to delve even further into his fiery repertoire.