Austin’s national reputation as a cutting edge food scene has been fueled by our locally grown talent, plus the national players we have attracted. This month, in Austin’s Best Bites, August ’16, we will take a look at both local and transplants.
The Peached Tortilla
How does the journey from practicing lawyer, to restaurateur start? According to Peached Tortilla’s owner, Eric Rubenstein, it started at his Chinese mother’s side. Born in Tokyo, he was regularly exposed to the bold flavors that are the hallmark of all Asian foods. His family then moved to Georgia, where the rich, complex flavor profiles of Southern food were the foundation of everyday eating. Frustrated in his legal career, not looking forward to the next twenty years, he quit to pursue his passion by opening a food truck in 2010. After establishing a position as one of the best in Austin, the 2014 opening of his restaurant was only natural.
The food here reflects those twin food traditions in Eric’s past. Southern Fun is a take-off on the Cantonese Beef Chow Fun noodle dish, replacing the stir fried beef with Texas smoked beef brisket. The marriage is a rousing success, with the same wide rice noodles and bean sprouts along with the beef, all held together by a rich soy based sauce. Okonomiyaki is a staple of Japanese late night street food, but not ordinarily found outside Japan. Binding shrimp and bacon in a wheat flour pancake, it is reminiscent of a frittata, less the egg presence. The sweet and savory sauce on the top elevates this to a new level. Charred Brussels Sprouts are in risky territory, given the number of similar dishes in Austin after Paul Qui popularized them as Uchiko’s chef de cuisine. Silverstein steps away from the crowd by reaching back into his heritage and dressing them with a rich bacon jam, in a combination subtle and unforgettable. But not bound by just the Asian-Southern fusion meme, he also successfully blends oh-so-Korean kimchi with arancini, the Italian fried rice balls. Served with wasabi and sriracha aioli dipping sauces is so perfect, one is tempted to make a meal from nothing else.
Peached Tortilla is in the rapidly trendy Burnet Road part of town at 5520 Burnet. It is open for dinner at 5 nightly (except Monday) and brunch on Sunday. Reservations are recommended, and usually easy to get.
Austin’s place in the hip food firmament was solidified when New York restauranteur Danny Meyer’s announced the opening of a first Texas location here in River City of his eponymous burger place, Shake Shack. Beginning as a Central Park hot dog cart, this worldwide empire attempts to set a new standard for all the burger spot givens, especially burgers and milk shakes.
As they do in all their locations, Shake Shack has “Austin-ified” their menu. Their standard burger can be topped with a sliced ring of Lockhart’s Kreuz Market smoked Texas barbecue sausage. Mixed ice cream selections feature a “Uchi-koncrete” made with a miso hazelnut blondie and huckleberry jam, in collaboration with Austin’s Uchi restaurant. The other local creation is a Cold Shot, named for a Stevie Ray Vaughn song, with vanilla and chocolate custard, blended with brown sugar caramel sauce, chocolate toffee and malt powder. Austin brewed beers and ciders also grace the menu.
All of these creations are unique, and the Shake Shack international hipness means our fair city has arrived. But in a town where burgers are arguably our fourth food group, we have outstanding local places here already, such as Hopdoddy. It will be tough for Shake Shack to displace any of the local standard bearers. Surely, homesick New Yorkers will keep it busy. But getting Austinites, who already view national chains, no matter their trendiness, with suspicion, Shake Shack has a tough road ahead of them here.
Shake Shack is in the Lamar Union development, just south of downtown at 1100 South Lamar. They open at 11 daily, and plenty of parking is available in the garage behind the restaurant.
Thai Kun is another star in the Paul Qui constellation. Part of his East Side King trailer food empire, their first bricks and mortar place recently opened in Nuevo Dallas, also known as The Domain shopping area. In 2014, it was named as one of America’s best restaurants while still in a truck behind an East Austin bar. A partnership between Chef Thai Changthong and Qui, who met in the kitchen at Uchiko, they are determined to make authentic Thai food. Their menu is devoid of overly sweet Americanized stuff.
After personally eating from one end of Thailand to the other, Thai Kun’s menu offered familiar stopping points. I started with the Issan sausage, a fermented pork sausage not commonly found outside its home in Northeast Thailand. This version was perfect, with the blend of fermented sourness and ground pepper spiciness that is so well executed in Thai cuisine. The main was Pad Kra Pow, ground pork, Thai basil, and onion, topped with a fried egg. The requisite nam pla prik (fish sauced, spiced up with thinly sliced Thai chilis) was on the side to round out the rich, tangy spicy flavors of this exquisite dish.
Thai Kun is at 11601 Rock Rose Avenue in the Domain shopping complex, and opens seven days a week at 11.