Ever since 9/11, when the national craving for comfort foods made a dramatic comeback, foodies have been rediscovering all those simple yet memorable tastes from their childhoods. And restaurants have been alert to what might have been called a fad for a time but is now most certainly a trend. Restaurants serving simpler, people-pleasing chow is of the fastest-growing segments in the hospitality industry. And luckily, we have some great ones here in Austin. Here’s my top-ten list along with a few more just bubbling under the cut off. And trust me, this was NOT an easy task.
Since their opening in Oak Hill a couple of years ago (and on Oct. 1st of this year in Round Rock), Jack Gillmore (former exec chef at Z’Tejas) and partner Tom Hamm have turned what had been a repository for failed restaurants into a stunningly successful dining destination. Start with the smashed guacamole with pumpkin seeds, the delightful soups, the uber-good mac and cheese, the catfish, the deep fried beef ribs, the fish tacos, the burgers; well, I could go on. But there’s a reason this place is on a wait most nights.
When Chuck Smith and Larry Perdido left Saba Blue Water Cafe and opened Moonshine at the site of the former Emelia’s on Red River at 3rd, there were a lot of doubters. But not for long! I think the Shrimp Corn Dog was what got immediate attention. Then the Flat iron steak and the Meatloaf. And Perdido’s infamous Res Velvet Cake! Are you kidding me?This place is an homage to all the foods that make you you want to smile and say, “aahhh!” Their recent opening of Hopdoddy on S. Congress is a burger-driven extension of the Moonshine brand. And they follow the same MO.
Hoover Alexander is one of the nicest guys in the Austin restaurant industry. He’s also the dean of southern-style comfort food and an immensely talented chef. His Hoover’s cooking on Manor is a legendary comfort food spot. He has the best smothered pork chops in the area, serves up a killer muffaletta and his ribs and other “que” are oozing flavor. Not to mention his delightful and award-winning mac and cheese which draws, amazingly, from my Hungarian-born grandma’s (and a killer chef in her own right) recipe. You see it’s about a little sour cream. Hoover continues to wow me with his innovation and the love of his craft. Great breakfasts as well: the “hoe” cakes are to die for.
While the argument could be made that this spot should fall into our fine dining category, I don’t think talented young chef Bryce Gillmore would disagree that he dishes up some serious comfort foods. This guy makes Brussel Sprouts magical (now that’s a tall order) and his Pork Bellies and Pig’s feet are comforting wonders to behold. Great microbrews abound here as well and the place, while tiny, crackles with the sounds of happy diners.
Located in the Tech-Ridge center in restaurant starved north Austin, Zed’s used Moonshine and Jack Allen’s as their inspiration. They made a wise choice. The comfort food at this aesthetically pleasing spot off Yager Lane and IH-35 simply rocks. They have a signature chicken pot pie (amazingly creamy) that may be the best in the city, and the St. Louis Ribs are great. Great center cut pork chops as well and some scrumptious homemade desserts. It’s also got a lively bar scene and a management team that “gets” it.
Tex mex may be perhaps the ultimate comfort food. What could be more soothing than a cheese enchilada or a great order of nachos or chile con queso? Joe’s Bakery on E.7th has all of these plus the most astonishing Huevos Rancheras around. This is a breakfast built around wonderful homemade ranchera sauce and flour-coated grilled bacon and uber fresh corn tortillas. The result is simply to die for. Flavors that are absolutely amazing with layers of cascading goodness and a taste profile that’s off the charts. I don’t really get the bakery part of Joe’s (lots of multi-colored doughy confections that all pretty much taste alike) but the restaurant part simply blows me away.
Do you like wonderful waffles, incredibly mellow corned beef hash, and a boatload of palate pleasing and comforting dishes? Then the round-the-click 24 diner on. N. Lamar is for you. This place connects on so many levels that it makes the old fashioned notion of the greasy spoon diner seem like a distant memory. This is chef driven fare with a nod to simplicity: a killer egg sandwich, a luscious BLT, meatloaf that raises the bar on this American classic. And they may have the best home fries in the city. You can also sample a plethora of innovative and delicious milkshakes. And best of all, if the cravings or munchies hit you at 2:30am, well, the doors are always open.
If for no other reason, Max’s, at 3rd and San Jacinto, makes our list for their wonderful revival of that good, old southern classic, bone-in fried chicken. Amazingly, the dish that was once a staple at virtually every restaurant in the south, had all but disappeared from restaurant menus in Austin in favor of boneless chicken fried chicken breasts. I like chicken fried chicken but I LOVE real fried chicken. And Max’s figured out how to serve it in an upscale setting with great wines and champagnes. You must also try the 1942 Corn Dog, another comfort classic that chef J.P. Lacoste has recently added. And Max’s is now doing comfort-style blue plate daily lunch specials (shrimp and grits, for example). Hooray for them, and us!
Bick Brown and his great crew at both Hyde Park locations have been serving up generous helpings of comfort fare long before it came back into fashion. The legendary Hyde Park fries are the best in the city and the Pimento and Cheese sandwich is irresistible. And not to be outdone, Brown brought in fried-chicken master Tony Heller (late of Tony’s Southern Comfort) to add his take to the menu on Mondays and Tuesdays. And what about the fried artichoke hearts, the dumplings and the always wonderfully gooey fried egg sandwich? Hyde Park is comfort food with a capital C.
If, like me, you crave all things reminiscent of the Atchafalya swamp in Louisiana, i.e., Cajun fare, then you must visit the Evangeline Cafe on Brodie. Beginning with the mouth-watering Oysters Contraband and moving on to the Seafood gumbo, the Crawfish Etouffee, the Gold Band Creole, and the sumptuous Crawfish Macque Choux, Evangeline is a rollicking romp through one of the most comfort-driven cuisines ever created. Curtis Clarke is a genial host and the tiny little restaurant he has created pleases on many levels. Even the burgers are terrific here, not to mention the more traditional Po’ Boys.
Bubbling Under the Top Ten