An Essay on Austin,Texas Food in 2009:From Sugar's to Justine's and Everything in Between
Lots of good eating out here in Austin this year.No,it was not the bumper crop of 2008 and while I had my best meals elsewhere[New Orleans]it was still a fine year.
Favorite Place for Steak and Potatoes:
Sugars.The businessman special kept me coming back and it's still first rate.Cute li'l fillies on the main stage[Destiny]& a good top sirloin and steak cut fries for under 4 bucks.
Runner up:Shoal Creek Saloons' one pound ribeye and fries for under 13 dollars.
From a previous post:
It's important to have rituals in your life.On the first cold day of Fall I enjoy bundling up and motoring my way to Sugars' to avail myself of a nice Businessman's Lunch Special whilst being surrounded by dancing naked ladies.
Sugars' is an underrated steakhouse.The meats are of good quality and properly cooked.The performers are well nourished and quite accomodating.This is a formula for success.
There have been some renovations at Sugars' lately.The doorway has shifted a good 20 feet to the left and the old Black and White Sanyo teevees have been replaced by modern color versions.A group of businessmen and a few women are scattered about the room enjoying the good food and camaraderie that've made this cabaret famous.
Upon entering I always ask myself "what would Tommy Lee do?".I'm seated and promptly approached by a comely,young waitress ready to take my drink order.It's Tuesday so that means 2$ draught beer and Well drinks.It's chilly outside so that means it's Bourbon drinking time.I order Wild Turkey and the young lady informs me that Jack Daniels is only two dollars.Jack Daniels being neither Bourbon nor drinkable I stick with my original option.The drink arrives properly mixed and I place my food order.
Ten bucks will get you a 1LB Black Angus Sirloin with two side items.I opt for a salad with Bleu Cheese and French Fries.The salad comes first and it is fine.Torn iceberg with Radishes,Carrots Tomatoes and a decent dressing.After 15 or so minutes my steak arrives.The Sirloin is perfectly cooked and heavily crusted with good salt and Cracked Black Pepper.The fries are medium thick cut ,warm and served with a souffle cup of ketchup.My tastebuds are still perfectly functional so I inquire as to whether the red colored corn syrup could be replaced with Ranch for dipping.It arrives and is homemade and good.
R.Kelly's Double Up,Snoop Dogg and Type O Negative are typically part of the soundtrack of the club.The clientele is a mix of business types,work boot clad nail pounders and the occasional secretary type.The room is dark,loud and cozy...the smell of sizzling meat and decent perfume abounds.
Service is prompt and efficient.My waitress checks on me frequently and is generally concerned with my weal.Non-cabaret eating establishments could take note of this and do quite well to emulate this service model.
Sugars' is old-school.It's been there forever and seen alot of would be competitors come and go during its' tenure.Its' formula is simple and effective;Good food,strong cocktails and a clean and welcoming environment in which to enjoy your repast.When I'm in the mood for a good steak and don't have the time to run out Little Thailand it's one of my favorite options.
The Pain Lingers:
Al John's departure after a 33 year run left a hole you could drive a Mack truck through in Austin's homemade sub category.
Runner up:Gene's New Orleans.Rarely have I seen a good restaurant crater as fast as Gene's.Considering there's a few dozen hot shot chefs rambling around Austin the new owner could've hired,what happened when Gene retired was almost unfathomable.Hero to zero overnight.
Best bowl of soup:
T&S Seafoods' aquarium-sized bowl of seafood soup[shrimp,squid,fish...]hits the table as bland as a parson's wardrobe.Once doctored up with all the condiments on the table it turns into a fiery pot of deliciousness.
Runner up:El Zunzal's chicken soup.Homemade stock carries this one past all the other little Mexican/Salvadoran joints.
Best loaf of bread:Baguette House's bahn mi kong'll set you back a $1.40 and it's the size of a Louisville slugger.Served fresh from a blazing oven by a lady in pancake thick white makeup.
Runner up:Chuy's Panaderia.No relation to the odious Chuys chain.This man Chuy is in there everyday patiently plying his craft.
Best queso:Janitzio's Tex-Mex queso[ask for extra chiles]is yellow silk-brightened with crunchy fresh jalapenos.It's my standard bearer.
Runner up:La Reyna http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/441442
Best bacon:I only make it to Madisonville Tn once a year to build my stock from Benton's.While I'm on my in-betweens I hit up Preservation Bacon.It's so good I expect the proprietor is churning butter and plucking a banjo on his back porch when he's not curing the finest hogs in town.From Chow.com:
"Preservation Bacon [ http://www.preservationbacon.com/ ] is a new bacon guy in Austin, Texas, who has already earned a recommendation from scrumptiouschef. “I’ve been eating it since spring of this year and each batch has improved,” says scrumptiouschef. “The pound I’ve got in my fridge right now is dynamite. It’s a subtle bacon if there is such a thing.” If you’re into small-batch, artisan goods, this is the bacon to choose.
Runner up: Fiesta's big cut it yourself 3.5 pound block.
Soul Food:Stephen Galloway,his mama and his wife are still wielding their cast iron pans with love.When it's time for a big plate of Mississippi-style meat and 3 this is where I head.Sure there's a stray hooker or two you have to navigate around to gain entry to their haven but the payoff is pure Deep South satifaction.From an earlier post:
With Birmingham [and Family Reunion Cafe] a good 800 miles from Austin we have to content ourselves with the Soul Food that's given us,not the soul food we dream of weekly.
With that in mind I wheel down 12th street towards Galloway Sandwich Shop and the delicious country cooking of the esteemed Galloway clan.Husband,wife and mother all team up to put out some seriously righteous comfort food.
There's parking right in front on the street which is a decided rarity with the popular White Swan and barbershop nearby.
The instant I park I'm descended upon by a group of young bucks all of whom proffering a variety of goods and services.
"What you need mayne?"
"Well I guess I could use a pocketful of goofballs to get me through the afternoon".
"What the Hell's goofballs?"
"Never mind.I'm going inside for a big plate of chow.Talk to y'all later"
Walking inside the cafe always makes me happy.I know I'm going to be well fed,treated good and the view out the big plate glass windows couldn't be better: The busy barbershop across the street...the tumult of folks at the quick mart...the busy foot traffic of the sidewalk right outside the front door...it's as prime people watching territory as you're likely to find in Austin,think of it as a slightly more urban Phil's Icehouse on Burnet or perhaps the patio of Shady Grove.
I queue up at the steam line and notice a big,new wet/dry erase board delineating the specials of each day of the week.Smart move.In honor of Lent there is now Fried Catfish on Friday which I note for next weeks visit.
Today's special is Roast Beef and Gravy,Black eye peas,Scalloped Potatoes,Greens,Corn Bread and a couple other offerings I ignore because I can't remember the last time I had a really good plate of Roast Beef.
At some point during my years of patronage I graduated to getting my food brought from the kitchen instead of being served off the steam line.I wear this degree with roughly the same honor as a freshly minted M.B.A from Yale.It just feels good to be served from the home skillet in the kitchen.
The Roast Beef is a meaty luxury,tender and smothered in rich brown gravy nicely balanced with salt and pepper.The Scalloped Potatoes are creamy with yellow cheese and cow's milk,the Black eyes sweetness suggests a bit of sugar in the recipe which I temper with Louisiana Hot Sauce and black pepper.The cornbread,always dry,comes to life once it's dunked in my requisite side of gravy.
Entertainment,far better than 95% of bands that pollute the restaurants around town,is provided by the steady stream of neighborhood folks coming in to dine.One odd fellow staggers in
"Does anybody know where I am?"
Mr Galloway"Yes sir you are in Austin Texas"
"Oh,I'm from East Texas.Y'all got a hog maw you can sell me for a dollar?I'm broke and hungry."
Mr Galloway takes out a sheet of paper and writes down directions to a local soup kitchen which the man gratefully takes and spins out the door.
Finishing up I make my way to the counter.
"Did you get enough"
"No I'm leaving here hungry again.I swear I'm going to have to quit coming to this place,I never can get fed here"
"Now,now we'll heap some more on your plate.We don't want anybody leaving out of here hungry"
We pass the time for a few minutes.Business has been good.The Chronicle's review didn't bump up the coffers too much but that's ok,the good people of the 12th and Chicon neighborhood know where to come to get to get a plate of homecooking so we'll have the Galloways around whether the cognoscenti dine here or not.
I take my leave and straddle my bike,just as I start the motor the young gentleman with whom I'd chatted before my meal comes dashing up with a huge smile"I got them goofballs mayne".
Where have you been eating your soul food of late?
Runner up: Queen Lola's.Got a couple hours for lunch? Lola's got your back.
$2 award:Popeye's two dark and a biscuit is perfectly fine.Throw some blackberry jelly on that biscuit and it's plenty good enough for this ol country hoss.
Runner up:None that I know of.Where else can you eat for two dollars?
Phoenix award:Cherrywood Cafe's rising from the ashes of Quacks.Hand patted burgers,housecut fries,muffalettas served on Gambino's bread,Live Oak on tap and a lovely shambles of a patio.Quacks we hardly knew ye.
Worst trend:Overcharging for Live Oak.Every joint in town pays a buck twenty five for a keg so if you're paying 6 or so dollars for a pint your billfold is being plundered.http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/564670
Best fish not American:Asia Cafe's crispy fish of the day.Napped in a bronzed sauce of fire,cumin and garlic Asia Cafe never missed a beat during or after the big rehab.Still the best Sichuan in town.
Runner up: Deep fried whole Tilapia from Fiesta's deli. Pour the red and green to it then hit it with some lime juice.I like to get there right at 11 am when the fish is sputtering hot fat from the fryer.
Best guacamole:This category is about to be retired.El Zunzal just houses the competition.No runner up cause nobody else is even close.http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/644384
Place I want to try:Fabi and Rosi.Quite the kerfuffle has arisen over this little bistro in the old Zoot space.Who's been?What did you eat? What did you drink? Report?
Runner up.East Side Showroom.Kept meaning to get by there but early reports of inflated prices and tiny portions steered me clear.How is it?
Sex sells:The love and hate of Justine's has been properly narrated here and elsewhere but the bordello atmosphere is what keeps me coming back.That and the drunken Frenchman holding boozy court on a nightly basis.
If the restaurant doesn't work out maybe the owners could just make movies.Love the student short on the website.2nd best fries in town behind Railroad Barbecue.
Best fish American: Love Perla's crispy snapper on the half shell. They will a la carte you to death and the beer's way overpriced but they pay through the nose for their fish and the best mongers in the region are at their door every single day.
Runner up: Two chains in one essay? Yep,McCormick and Schmick's ten under ten daily special[ten fishes under ten dollars] is fine. They back the seafood trucks to the dock down there twice a day and there aren't alot of places around town that can say that.
Barbecue:2009 found me spending most of my brisket cash at Sam's on East 12th. When Wanda passed away back in the Spring,Austin lost one of her great barbecue queens but Sam's soldiered on with Veronica picking up the workload. Not the most consistent in town but when their game face is on it's still the best.
Runner up:Willie's Barbecue:Smoked to perfection.An old report:
Whenever I get a pile of smoked meat and forget to say "sauce on the side"it nearly always ruins the barbecue experience.Most places that are good at smoking meats really lack in the saucier department.It's a Yankee affectation after all;this applying some sort of sauce to good meat that has done you no harm.
So when the counter guy at Willies Barbeque rounds on me with a big plate of Brisket and Pork Ribs I am apppalled.There is sauce all over my beloved meat.My meat my meat that I am so excited to be eating.There is sauce on my meat.
I reason to myself that it isn't Nam,it is a nice sunny day and I need to get a grip on myself.I begin plundering the brisket[I had asked for the fatty parts and the charred crispy bits]and it is good.The meat man has honored my request for the good fat but I sensed a bit of reluctance to come off the prized charred beef husk.He has given me a little but I would've given a king's ransom for more.
I find lightbread to make an excellent napkin when I've been sauced.Dabbing up the juice that trickles off your chin as you chow ,then toward the end of the meal eating the now soaked bread.Mmmm,a simple pleasure sure but fulfilling.
The ambience at Willies is fine.A beat up tv is on and an excited gentleman is elucidating on the football Longhorns.As you enter the small,looks closed,room a counter is on your left where you place your order.A corner of the room is tumbledown;a baby buggy turned on its side,a dusty old small steam table,some work lights are thrown on top of the pile for good measure.The panelled walls have the occasional photo tacked up and there's a small cross made of twigs with a ghostbuster slash through it.These are good people I inwardly reckon.Although Willies has only been open for 17 years it could just as easily be 70...it's good and beat up and the smells are spot on.
The Pork Ribs are big,fleshy bones,nicely caramelized on the outside and needing a bit of a tug to get the meat off.The Brisket as described above is good,slow cooked and smoky.I love the fat,always request it and Willies clearly starts with some well fed beef.This steer did not die in vain.His meat has gone to a greater cause;Texas Barbecue.
The menu offers all the standard barbecue options including Elgin Sausage,Mutton,Turkey legs and Chicken by the half.Pricing is very fair ranging from $4.60 for the chicken and topping out at Pork Ribs at $8.95.Standard sides offered:Potato Salad,Beans,Chips,Pickles,Jalapenos and Bread[light].
I'm intrigued by the Boudin which is shipped in from a Boudin joint in Alexandria Louisiana.Desserts include Banana Pudding,Cake and Peach Cobbler.I'll be trying all over the course of the next week or so.
The counter man is an interesting character.He has the appearance of being Mongolian.Thick set and bald with a long braided pony tail cascading off the middle of the back of his dome.He's friendly and fast with the order.As I set back and begin my feed an assortment of characters from the neighborhood stream in.An African man in a dashiki,a harried mom with toddlers in tow,a couple girls from the neighborhood out on the hoof and enjoying a sunny day.
I can't wait to get back to Willies and roll through the rest of the menu.I haven't seen any Chow postings on this humble and delicious joint so I hope a few of the hounds on the board roll in here soon.
4305 E MLK Blvd
512 926 934
Best Burger in town:Had many delicious burgers at Mike's Pub.It's still a bring your own mayo-joint but the ship has been righted after a couple precarious years.
Runner up:Four Seasons.It seems like they're skimping a little bit on the fat these days but sitting in a lounge chair on the banks of the Colorado with a perfectly mixed margarita and a plump Pure Luck cheeseburger is one of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday afternoon. Say chef's choice for your side and you might just get a tangle of wild mushrooms fried in butter with crispy shallots.
Best Japanese:Sushi Izagaya on Colorado sets out a great sushi feed for under 20 bucks at lunch[salmon,tuna,hamachi,white fish et al]. Ambience is pure Amsterdam post-modern with blue lighting and urban cougars afoot.
Runner up: The usual suspects.For cheap I hit Banzai for reliable lunch time Bento boxes.
No year end review is complete without a visit to the taco carts:Still haven't found anybody that can hang with El Tacos Rico and Candy's Tacos. Words from the past still hold true:
El Tacos Rico 810 Vargas Rd
Business is slow today for the discount funeral wreath man who sets up shop on a grassy knob alongside Montopolis on the weekends.I wonder if he sits there fretting "go ahead and die already, I gotta eat" ? Who knows?
El Tacos Rico is my favorite Mexican restaurant in Austin.I've referred to it as such inspite of the fact that it's a tiny,timeworn trailer with a folding table under the overhang of a grizzled laundry mat for seating.
I eat lots of tacos in Austin each week and this is my primary source of intense deliciousness.
Montopolis feels so good.The air smells flowery,the streets are all abustle and the Autumn light is starting to get that orange-y glow that makes Ray Bradbury reading this time of year essential.
Walking up to the window my timing is perfect as a beefy Mexican cat is being served a steaming bowl of Menudo.The aroma of this delicious dish combined with some very aromatic bar soap the man has used in the shower this morning makes for a powerful combination.
I stay focused by looking at the menu which I know by heart.Enchiladas,Flautas,Quesadillas,Tostadas,Sopes....all the Mexican you could ever dream of wanting and yet I almost always get the tacos.
Yolanda and Araceli flat bring their A-game when it comes to this simple dish.Barbacoa is the finest meat on the menu, on par with La Monita for finest in town.The Al Pastor is not from the Trompo but is juicely roasted and the Bistec is Yolanda's version of the classic.While it's not going to make you forget Habanero's it is solid.
The corn tortillas are as good as any you will ever put in your mouth.My guess is love is the main ingredient.These tiny Latin girls are putting their heart in their food[perhaps a topic for another post:"Who's cooking with their heart in this old town?"]
I ride all over town sampling tacos from as diverse a set as I can find.Tacos el Rico is the best I've found.
I'd love to hear about your favorite source.
More from the wayback machine:
Is it just me or when the executive chef is away at most restaurants does the quality not slip a bit?
A perfect example is Backstage Steakhouse where,when Raymond Tatum is not on the range the establishment is pedestrian at best.
So it's with a heavy heart I place my order at El Tacos Rico at midday today.I stick my head in the window to say hello to Yolanda but Araceli informs me she's off.I fight the temptation to drive off but figure with Yolanda's blood coursing through young Araceli[her daughter]I might just get something fit to eat.
Well after my meal all I can say is Araceli's a real comer.As a matter of fact Yolanda would do well to keep her A game as her only game or she might get run off.
I've vowed to branch out from the taco section of the menu today so I order a Sope' with Al Pastor and a Tostada with Barbacoa,walk over to Vargas Food Mart to procure some Spicy Peanuts,Fried Pork Skins and Topo Chico and return to the cart to have a seat and soak in some ambience.
The numbers parlor across the street has reformed itself into The Bridge Youth Center.I'm not sure what this is but the building has been almost completely covered with some decent graffiti extolling the virtues of peace over war and living your life Krunk[which I do nightly so verily unto these good folks].
The food arrives and I begin pondering a quickie marriage to Araceli so I can assure myself a lifetime of good eating.I briefly picture myself with an enchilada in one hand and a vacuum cleaner in the other as I tidy our humble cottage,hopefully not too far from Yolanda's.
I keep a poker face as I eat some of the best Mexican food I've had all week long[which given the fact that this is my 5th Mexican meal this week really says something].
My Tostada with Barbacoa is a nice fried corn disc topped with good refrieds,white cheese,onion,avocado,chiffonade of cabbage,thin sliced radish,crema and a toothsome Barbacoa;nice and fatty and soulful tasting.
My Sope' is virtually identical save the Al Pastor and the fact that the fried masa disc achieves the neat trick of being crispy and chewy at the same time.Plus it's about 5 times thicker than the tostada shell.The al pastor is so good I think Yolanda may be doing it on the trompo off site and trucking it in.
The hang is always good at El Taco Rico.The sweet sunshine filters down and around the laundry mat overhang where I'm perched,some crazy wild young Mexican kids are running at breakneck speed around the doorway,a shiny black Chevy truck rolls by blasting DJ Screw.
It's quite the pleasant scene.
And in this corner: Candy's Tacos.From a previous post:
I've been holding off any pronouncements on this,my new favorite cart 'cause I wanted to march through the chef's menu first.After having numerous and memorable tacos here during the fest,all featuring some of the hottest red salsa I've encountered in Austin, I can't hold out any more.This is one fine taco cart.Candy is the chef,counter girl and cashier so be patient.You'll wait while she presses out the tortilla and crafts the taco into being.Her chorizo is handmade and exists in the same rarefied air as Mi Ranchito on William Cannon.Her bacon is smoky tasting and comes from a well tended pig.I love the way she lightly scrambles her eggs instead of whipping them to hell and back.Candy's tortillas are stellar;plump,corny flats rich with manteca.Nothing can sway my love for Tacos el Rico but if I was going to do any slipping around on Yolanda it would be with Candy].
Well.It's bedtime so looks like I'll have to cut it short this year.
Tell me about your Austin dining experiences this year. The good,the bad and what have you.
Hope everybody got their belly full of some good chow this year.
hey chef, can I ask where you ate in new orleans, heading there in January, would love to here your recs.
Can't say enough good things about Parkside, great burgers, love the mac and cheese, oysters on Wednesday. We've eaten at Fabi & Rosi, cozy place the pork belly was perfect, the veal and spatzle was a mixed bag, veal was great, the spatzle was not traditional, as I know it, more like a sphaghetti than the little buttons of pasta and I did not detect that it had been fried in butter before serving. The bee hive cake was tasty but perhaps a bit dry. Go to spots has to be Hebenaros-carnitas and T&S seafood, salt&pepper shrimp
Here's a link to one of my NOLA reports: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/545888
Here's another link to a separate report: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/575766
If you can wade through all the purple prose there are some good joints in the posts.
I've posted a bit on their board after other jaunts as well.I'm sure they're available with the google.
Thanks for your year end report.Check out the seafood soup at T&S,once it's thoroughly doctored it's incredible
Mr./Ms. S-Chef, thanks for all the great posts this year. I just ate a couple of Candy's Tacos which were, as usual, transcendent. Her salsas are complex and fantastic. One day she had a roasted onion salsa with red chiles--have you had that one? She didn't have it today, but the molcajete was a great substitute.
The East Side Show Room food is good. The quail salad features the plumpest quail I've eaten, tender and tasty, atop butter lettuces. The lamb/goat burger is good. I want to like the shrimp & grits but they need to work out the staging of the grits and keep them more runny/less clumpy. Most fun is to order drinks and enjoy the charcuterie and roast pork belly.
My sleeper of the year has to be the Good Knight. Their fried green tomatoes with aioli are perfect every time. They make lovely cheese plates. I love a simple menu, great service, and an un-fancy vibe with my fantastic food and the Good Knight does that nearly perfectly. Servers can match your wine preferences (a rare feat!) and can also suggest cocktails to suit your taste. The chicken pot pie and meatloaf are consistently good, but a pork chop special one night in October really took the prize. Wish I could recall the prep--it was actually my SO's dish--but the meat was juicy and perfectly cooked. My lamb shoulder ragu was less good--they should have left out the pasta and just served the falling-apart lamb braise on top of some mashers or grits. I can walk to this place, which adds to my love.
The saddest loss of the year was Remember When Dairy disappearing. Which is saying a lot, since I never considered myself a milk enthusiast. Their milk was unlike any I've found in stores, and low-heat pasteurized. I loved drinking it and making fresh mozzarella in summer when tomatoes and basil abound. Sigh.
Hey Chef, would love to go check out the Steak at Sugar's. Is it a lunch time only thing?
I think most of my best of list has been posted on this board before but as cliche as it sounds, the best high end restaurant in Austin is Uchi.
A few weeks ago I had a pork cheek and veal tongue with cashew mustard dish there that was just out of this world. The thing is, I went to Uchi initially with the lowest of expectations, thinking it was a place for beautiful people to eat dressed up rolls but there is some serious cooking going on here with some really adventurous ingredients that don't aim to cater to typical Austin tastes.
My typical hangout restaurant has been Tomo Sushi up on Parmer where I tend to spend a little too much money during the week but I just can't turn down live scallop, whole giant orange clam, and monkfish liver with santa barbara uni in ponzu sauce.
Whenever I am at Asia Cafe, I tend to get the twice cooked pork if I'm not worried about my diet that week. Pork belly thats been lightly smoked then stir fried, hence the twice cooked, with black bean, garlic, chili, szechuan peppercorn, green onion, celery, ginger. I can eat a tub of rice with this dish.
Hey chef, as always a good summary--you mentions some places I want to try. A potential sad note, Yu Sushi Izagaya was locked last night (Wed.) and mail uncollected--could be heading for the RIP thread. Our few times there were always good but it was never crowded. We like the grilled items best.
For much of the year, we didn't have a go-to restaurant, but come fall Frank on Colorado has come on super strong. Yes, it's a trendy part of town, but the service has always been Austin's best version of friendly and casual. And oh my, the custom sausages they are producing. The daily specials always have 3 or 4 super tempting ones that don't get order and then are gone the next visit. If you like funky flavored sausages, you will not tire of Frank. Favorites have been fried catfish and bacon (yes that's a sausage), gene's memorial special (pork chop and turnip greens), and their currywurst (thankfully on the daily menu). About the only disappointing menu item has been the actual hot dogs--boiled and bland. The fries are waffled and you can order lots of dipping sauces (best is buffalo blue cheese). Desserts are limited but rotate (though bacon chocolate chip cookies seem to be a main item lately) and dabble in trendy comfort--pumpkin cupcake or whoopie pie. I hear the drinks are great to boot. In sum, this is a restaurant serving tasty, rotating, and innovative fare in a central part of downtown with friendly service and where your tab for two often runs just $30 + tip. Oh did I mention the pinball upstairs and the eclectic "furnishings" store in the back (soap, jelly, silly string, or the latest Thomas Keller cookbook)?
Frank is our favorite of the new restaurants, but as chef mentioned, Perla's probably served us our best meal at a new restaurant. But the budget has not yet allowed for a return visit, but it is a great new place and it is quite lovely inside. Other good new restaurants we have enjoyed are Fabi & Rosi--only one visit but it was tasty and I'm not sure why we haven't been back; the vietenmese/cajun place @ Mopac/Parmer whose name escapes me--I don't think they'll make it and most of the menu items are probably no good but the pho with crawfish and boudin is a great fusion dish; new Asia Cafe location should count and they are back into A-game territory and have increased the size of their menu; Somnio's Cafe on South first--healthy food for a change that reminds me of the food blogged at 101 cookbooks; Garrido's on 3rd--had little expectations but man the tacos are good, the specials are usually tasty and the setting pleasant.
In the highest-hopes-dashed category, La Condessa is a total miss for us. In 4 visits, I have't had a single memorable dish. Last night, we ended up the chainy Maria Maria and it was more tasty than La Condessa.
Current favorite high-end restaurant--either Parkside or Jeffrey's. Parkside is perhaps the most versatile place we go. Casual meals (burger and fries, egg sandwich), fancy items (lamb three ways), raw bar, tasty desserts--it has it all. Jeffrey's new chef is great--he's adding some Cajun flair to the menu and generally keeping it mixed up from the trendy (sous vide and pork belly buns) to the solid basics. Plus, with a great happy hour specials at the bar, it can be kept affordable.
In the trends spotted for the year, the biggest trend seems to be new restaurants with a less modern touch--more like homey European. Annie's, Justine's (haven't actually been), East Side Show Room, Fabi & Rosi and maybe even Waltons.
Downtown is going to Dallas (and Houston and San Antonio) trend. Just driving 5th street between Mopac and 35, you'll so many offshoots of other Texas city restaurants: Sushi Zuishi, soon-to-open Blue Mesa, Perry's, Maria Maria, Max's, and Piranha.
Strangest menu item trend. I've seen poutine on two different menus this year. Frank serves a version (haven't tried it) and somewhere else (Annie's maybe?).
As mentioned in another thread, best burger of the year still belongs to Mulberry. They slipped on the burger briefly but it is back to greatness.