The restaurant scene in Austin is booming. As in gold rush. Like a tech start-up, talented chefs are invading this Texas oasis of cultural cool and bringing excitement, daring, and creative cuisine with an alternative spirit. You can find talent in food trucks, fine-dining temples, and suburban shopping centers alike—for $4 or $150 you can get a bite of food heaven. That’s why we chose the Austin-San Antonio food market for our first Rising Stars Awards of 2012, which we’ll host at the Driskill Hotel on February 21.
Austin may pride itself on keeping things weird, but the potluck of art, music, industry, and food that keeps this city exciting stems from a rich history. Central Texas has long been a cultural crossroads, that special blend of the American melting pot where Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Anglo settlers, Germans, Czechs, and African Americans all left a deep imprint—culinary and otherwise. Those populations came together to give us chili, barbecue, and pecan pie, and they’ve given the Central Texas restaurant community a rich heritage to build on.
And Austin’s current crop of chefs has taken that heritage and pushed it forward into a wholly modern (and delicious) context. Chef Bryce Gilmore started his Austin career by peddling Texas farm-to-table cuisine (think: quail, grits, and pork belly) out of a food truck. Chef James Holmes refines southern fare (with Texas flair) at hospitable Olivia. Chef Rene Ortiz has given this Tex-Mex town its first taste of upscale Mexican by dipping into the culinary diversity of Mexico City. And Chef Wolfgang Murber takes culinary history lessons from his native Germany, and with passion and devotion to craft, serves guests his version of elegant, updated European cuisine at Fabi & Rosi.
Not that everyone is looking to the region’s past for inspiration. Modern Austin has also become a gathering place for East Coasters looking to move South. There’s a Portland contingent making ripples here, too. And their urban (read: largely liberal, diversity-loving food snob) sensibilities are pampered by restaurants like Uchi, Carillon, and Congress. Hey, casual dining and $3 tacos are great for the belly and the wallet, but everyone needs a little omakase in their lives now and then. These spots also happen to house the city’s hottest pastry talent. Rising Star Pastry Chefs Philip Speer of Uchi and Plinio Sandalio of Carillon create pastry and desserts worthy of any major market.
While Austin has emerged as quite the media darling over the last five years, San Antonio—about an hour and a half south down the dreary I-35 corridor—largely gets ignored by the national press (at least until “Top Chef” came to town). But our instincts told us that this city of 1.3 million had to have culinary substance, which we readily found in a small but potent group of restaurants and bars. With the bar set high by market pioneer Chef Andrew Weissman (who’s at the helm of Osteria Il Sogno and Sandbar), Rising Star Restaurateur Jason Dady has embarked on a Danny Meyer-inspired quest to build a restaurant group that puts customers first. Sustainability Rising Star Chef Michael Sohocki is on his own quest to explore old Texas foodways and in the process reengineer San Antonio’s food system (by way of a strict pre-Industrial Revolution kitchen), and Rising Star Chef Quealy Watson is taking the town for a funky, flavorful joyride at bar-turned-destination-restaurant, The Monterey.
The city recently hosted its first annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference, bringing in mixolgists from across the country to experience a mini-Tales with a Texas twist. And even though Austin has a (deserved) reputation as a drinking town—they even have an official cocktail of the year from Mixologist Houston Eaves—our 2012 Rising Star Mixologist Jeret Peña hails from San Antonio’s Esquire Tavern. Opportunity is ripe for inquisitive diners and industrious chefs in San Antonio.
There may be an I-35 border war between Austin and San Antonio, but the cities unite on several fronts. The first is meat. They love it. On our last tasting trip, we ate four types of ribs in one day (thanks to John Mueller at JMueller BBQ, Sonya Coté at East Side Show Room, Aaron Franklin at Franklin Barbecue, and Patrick Newman at the Intercontinental) and 17 cured meats the next. We ate fried chicken, brisket, bacon (Chef Tyler Johnson’s restaurant is devoted to it), beef tongue, sausages, pâtés, bison, duck, quail, and venison.
The cities’ microbrewing communities also are banding together to fill local tankards and fight stringent Texas Alcohol Commission laws that hamper brewers’ ability to sell and distribute beer. With German brewing history in its blood, a penchant for innovation, and an exploding demand for frothy brew, the Texas brewing scene is a natural spot for the national spotlight, which is why we’ve decided to honor its community with a Rising Star Brewer Award. We’ll announce the winner, along with a Mentor Brewer award, at the gala. You can read more about the craft brewing scene and our nominees.
No doubt our time in Austin will keep us full—of calories and story ideas—for some time, but our teams are always on the move, exploring new markets and digging in for seconds in others. We just wrapped up travel to New Orleans, but we’re headed to Atlanta, Hawaii, and Vegas in the next few months. So reach out and give us your give us your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists. And as always, stay tuned to Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates, and we hope to see you all Tuesday, February 21 in Austin!