Tue May 19, 2015 7:52 pm By Pat Sharpe

The First Annual Texas Fried Chicken Throwdown will take place on Sunday, June 14, from 2 to 4:30 p.m., at Royers Round Top Café at 105 Main Street in the tiny Central Texas town of Round Top. Five chefs—two from Austin and two from Houston, plus Bud Royer, the founder Royers Cafe—will vie to cook the most irresistible fried chicken.

The purpose of the contest is, besides providing an excuse for attendees to take a drive out to the country and eat themselves silly, is to promote the tiny town of Round Top (population 93 as of 2013) and raise money for Meals on Wheels.

The participating out-of-town chefs are Jack Gilmore (Jack Allen’s Kitchen in Austin), Hoover Alexander (Hoover’s Cooking in Austin), Brandi Key (Punk’s Simple Southern Food in Houston), Ana Amaya (Max’s Wine Dive in Houston), and Ronnie Killen (Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland).

Royers Café has been an institution in Central Texas ever since Royer moved his family to Round Top in 1987 and took over the tiny 40-seat Round Top Café. He quickly built a following among travelers with a menu that was quite sophisticated for the setting, in contrast to the place, which was pure country.

Tickets for the throwdown are $20 and can be purchased here. The price of admission includes fried chicken and sides. Beverages, pie, and ice cream will be available for purchase. Music will be provided by the Black Cat Choir of Round Top.

All proceeds will be donated to the charity Meals on Wheels in Austin and Houston.

Thu May 14, 2015 3:22 pm By Layne Lynch

Last week, the enormously popular New York burger chain Shake Shack opened its first Texas location in Austin.

Cue the judgment! It’s no secret that Texans are serious about their bovine, especially when a newcomer waltzes into cow town. But Danny Meyer—the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, which owns Shake Shack—is nonetheless determined to win over the Lone Star state.  

Below, Meyer discusses his love for barbecue, Texas ingredients, and committing burger polygamy.

What inspired you to go into the burger business?

I grew up in St. Louis, and from the moment I got my driver’s license at sixteen, my friends and I spent every weekend night visiting roadside burger and shakes joints, mostly so we could hang out in the parking lots and be together.

When we had an opportunity to open a place like that in the middle of a beautiful New York park, we jumped at the opportunity. I should also mention that we’ve had a great burger on the menu of my first place, Union Square Cafe, since the restaurant first opened in 1985.

I have to ask: What makes Austin over any other Texas town the right location for a Shake Shack? 

We absolutely fell in love with Austin—and the entire Hill Country—beginning fifteen years ago when we started our research for Blue Smoke.

We’ve been back to participate in the Austin Food & Wine Festival and SXSW, and each time we came, we couldn’t help but want to come back again and again. The town loves to eat and have fun. If we continue to enjoy the rousing welcome Austin has given us, we’ll for sure want to explore other Texas towns.

Texans are very, very serious about their burgers. That being said, how did you approach deciding whether or not Texans would accept an out-of-town burger venture?

Each time we’ve introduced Shake Shack to a new town it is usually because someone on our team wants to live there and also because we have friends—sometimes chefs or restaurateurs—who have been asking us to come. We love going to places that love burgers. After all, New Yorkers can’t get enough of them.

Most true burger-lovers are polygamists when it comes to the category. So long as they’re good, they love their burgers in all different shapes and sizes and don’t pledge their loyalty to just one. We just hope Shake Shack will earn a spot on the rotation.

Will there be any incorporation of local vendors, meats, etc at the Austin location?

Shake Shack’s culinary director Mark Rosati is an expert in scouting out the most delicious bites in a given city and figuring out how to incorporate them into our menu so that each Shake Shack can feel like it belongs to its local community.

We’ll be serving a Lockhart Link Burger using a jalapeño cheese sausage from Kreuz Market. Our Uchi-konkrete features a miso hazelnut blondie from the excellent Uchi & Uchiko, and the Shack Attack concrete blends in dark chocolate chunks from Kiskadee. All of our beers will be local, too, like Hops & Grain, Independence Brewing Co., Karbach, Real Ale and Austin Eastciders.

Are there any burger joints or restaurants in Austin or Texas that you admire?

I love Uchiko. The general manager, Leo Barrera, was a colleague of mine back at Gramercy Tavern and Tabla. I’m also a huge fan of Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Taylor Cafe, Louie Mueller’s, South Side Market, Cooper’s, and of course, The Salt Lick. And I never have enough time to try all the tacos I want to sample or to dance at The Broken Spoke.

Out of pure curiosity, do you notice different food interests among your locations?

Some locations sell more beer and wine than others. We expect that to be the case in Austin. Other than that, our sales mix is pretty consistent. Even though we are called Shake Shack, it has taken some newer cities a little longer to understand how amazing our frozen custard is.

In all your years of business, what is the one thing you would say you’ve learned most about the burger business?

There’s a reason it’s the single biggest and most beloved food category in the United States. It’s satisfying, doesn’t ask for a special occasion, can be eaten with one hand, and provides all kinds of options for how to prepare.  

Let’s say you’re designing your perfect Shake Shack meal. Lay it all out for me.

Cheeseburger with a slice of raw onion, fries, and a Fair Shake - our awesome coffee shake. Often, I’ll throw in a hot dog – griddled until crispy and topped with fried shallots and sport peppers.

Mon April 27, 2015 3:09 pm By Layne Lynch

This past weekend, a lineup locally and nationally known chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, mixologists, cookbook authors and television personalities descended upon the Austin Food & Wine Festival, so we took the opportunity to speak with a handful of chefs participating in the festival.

Below, Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, and Caracol, in Houston discusses his love for traveling, his James Beard Foundation Award nomination, and his favorite Austin restaurants.  

Congratulations on your James Beard nomination. What was your reaction to find out that you were once again featured amongst some of the top chefs in the nation? 

Excitement, happiness, and relief. I had told my daughter that she has to come this year to share the experience with my wife Tracy and me if I was nominated.

I hate to ask this question, but I’m going to anyways: if not you, who should win Best Chef Southwest?

Justin Yu [of Oxheart]! Houston is on fire. He goes to the beat of his own drum and works very hard.

How do think you as a chef have changed since the start of your career?

I’m more disciplined and targeted about how I spend my time. I am less carefree but more knowledgeable. I’m less selfish and became a mentor. I’m more confident to meet new challenges.

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice as a young chef, what would you say?

Less partying and more learning. Travel, meet people, and try new things.

You’re from Houston, so where do you like to stop and dine when you come to Austin?

Clark’s Oyster Bar, El Naranjo, Lenoir, Qui, Barley Swine and Foreign & Domestic are all on my list. Some are old favorites; some will be a first-time visit.

What are some of your favorite spots to dine in Houston at the moment?

 Kata Robata, Himalaya, Pax Americana, and The Pass and Provisions.

What chefs are you most excited to see at the Festival? 

There are so many Texas chefs I have never met, and it’s a great place to meet folks in our profession. I’d say I’m most excited to broaden my group of chef friends.

The growing season in Texas is always sporadic, but humor me: what are some of the ingredients you’re looking forward to playing with this season? 

Squash blossoms and summer tomatoes.

What’s next for you? 

I’ll be traveling to Mexico this coming year and I’ll be bringing some key staff members so we can collaborate and bring new dishes to our menus.

Sun April 26, 2015 3:14 pm By Layne Lynch

This weekend, a lineup locally and nationally known chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, mixologists, cookbook authors and television personalities will descend upon the Austin Food & Wine Festival, so we spoke with a handful of chefs participating in the festival.  

Below, Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston discusses his recent James Beard Foundation Award nomination, his favorite Austin restaurants, the progression of Oxheart and a dreamy Taylor Swift-themed restaurant.

Congratulations on your second James Beard nomination. What was your reaction to find out that you were once again featured amongst some of the top chefs in the nation?

It’s always a huge rush of emotion. These types of awards are things you always dream about even before you’ve had a chance to start your career. I remember wanting to go eat at Quattro all during high school because Chef Tim Keating he was the only chef from Houston nominated for a James Beard and trying to save money so I could go eat there.

To even be considered one of the country’s top chefs is very humbling and it makes me very proud to be a part of a team that hopefully puts out great meals every night. 

I hate to ask this question, but I’m going to anyways: if not you, who should win Best Chef Southwest?

Well, except for this year when I didn’t have a moment to go out for my birthday, I would always go eat at Hugo’s. There is no restaurant that is more consistent and delicious, and there is no more gracious and deserving chef than Chef Hugo Ortega and his team. 

Looking back, how would you say Oxheart has evolved, progressed, or transformed in the years since its opening?

I think the restaurant as a whole is just more functional, as we’ve finally had the money to do things like buy more comfortable chairs and stools for the counter. Our service staff, Diana and Bridget, has been with us for almost two years and they’ve just really hit a groove and are amazing service people. They make it a lot of fun to eat with us.

The food is less plated and more focused on flavor. It’s more rustic, but still fun and I hope both thought provoking and tasty at the same time. This past year we switched to just two, six-course tasting menus to help us really dial in the type of food we really want to put out. In the three years of menus when I look back, I can’t believe the amount of personal growth our kitchen has had.

To be honest, there were times where I put stuff on the plate that I was just really excited about or put too many garnishes or flourishes that didn’t really add to the food. Those were things that I learned when I worked in California and staged in Europe that I thought were cool. But it makes sense there, not here. We don’t really get those really delicious flavorful small leaves and herbs. I hope nowadays our food seems more mature, but still pushes the boundaries of what people know about food. But the days of a cold thing on a plate with eight leaves sticking up in the same direction are probably done for us. 

How do you think you as a chef have changed?

I’d like to think I’m a little more relaxed. I used to be really uptight and controlling about every little thing. I’m probably still a little controlling, but I’ve learned that I have to really trust my staff. With my more senior kitchen members, our sous chefs Mark and Jason, and with Sam, who started with us way back when, I like to get a heavy dose of input from them on the function of the kitchen and how the food tastes.

 I think it shows in how the food tastes better, services run smoother, and everyone has a better time. The food still has one voice, but a lot of people help shape that voice.

Does the pressure to perform above and beyond ever alleviate, or is it a pressure you feel every day in the kitchen?

It’s a huge weight to have to represent the great press we’ve been lucky enough to receive. Some days it feels like a little too much. I’ve had plenty of people tell me “Well, we were really hoping this would be a lot like The French Laundry,” but many of those people also walked out after dinner loving us because we weren’t necessarily like The French Laundry.

I have no illusions that I’ll ever be a good enough chef to own a restaurant like that, but I do know I love making people happy by cooking food, and I’ll just continue doing that with what we have, the best way I know how.  

I love that you opened a bar with Justin Vann. What was the attraction to highlighting whisky in particular?

Funny you say that. Public Services originally at first was supposed to be a wine first, whisky bar second, hence why wine is first in the name. But people just really love whisky, and the space that we walked into really lends itself to having nice, quiet conversation with a nice glass of brown drink.

I’m exceptionally lucky to have Justin, who knows a good amount about whisky in addition to wine, and a great general manager, Sean [Jensen], who brought a lot to the table, too. Just like Oxheart, we just wanted to do something a little different.

There are plenty of cocktail bars on the block [in Houston] and Poison Girl and Reserve and Dipper have such great selections of bourbons already; we wanted to showcase a side of whisky that was less well represented in the city.

I had someone I didn’t know even come tell me we were going to fail if we didn’t expand our bourbon selection, but we’re doing well. Both Justin and I have a little bit of gamble in us because who would have thought a vegetable-focused tasting menu restaurant would do well in Houston either?  

You’re from Houston, so I have to ask where you like to stop and dine when you come to Austin?

I had a really friggin’ great meal at Olamaie about six months ago. Everything from the beautiful room to the great drinks and the food was great. It’s modern, but approachable in a fun way. I love Tatsu-ya [of Ramen Tatsu-ya] and want to check out his new space. Of course, Qui and Lenoir are always great.

I’ve been dying to get back to Bufalina though. I had a really rushed meal there because I had to get back to Houston, and I want to sit and enjoy myself because the pizza and wine list is really fantastic.  

What chefs are you most excited to see at the Festival?

It’s always fun to bullshit with Ned [Elliott] from Foreign & Domestic whenever I see him. Especially since the L.A. Lakers had such a great season this year.

I’m also just excited to meet new people and reconnect with old friends. Last year I meet Diego Galicia and Jesse Torres from Mixtli, and I’ve really admired from afar what they’re doing in San Antonio. 

The growing season in Texas is always sporadic, but humor me, what are some of the ingredients you’re looking forward to playing with this season?

I’m just ready for spring produce to actually get here. It’s been a really wet season and we’re in the middle of a huge gap between winter and spring produce because a lot of seeds rotted in the ground.

I’ll be excited when there are more bright leaves rather than just roots to work with. It’s been a tough last month. 

Tell me what you’ll be doing at the Festival.

I’ll be doing a simplified version of our sunchoke dish from Oxheart at the Taste of Texas Kickoff event. They’re sunchokes from Animal Farm in Cat Springs, roasted then fried and served with honey, cream, Meyer lemon, and tea. 

What’s next for you or for Oxheart?

Who knows. I’m happy where I am right now, but the possibility of new things popping up is always possible. I’ve been kicking around the idea of a Taylor Swift-themed, all meat restaurant and dance club with artisan soda sommeliers. Maybe then she’ll come and eat with us when she comes into town in September. She can leave Calvin Harris at the door though. 

Wed April 22, 2015 6:43 pm By Patricia Sharpe

fino closingJust like the housing market, the restaurant industry is all about location, location, location.

That merciless truth reared its ugly head last weekend when a sentimental favorite of mine, Austin’s Fino, closed its doors for the last time.

But restaurants go out of business every day. Why am I getting misty about this one? Because ten years ago I wrote a story headlined “How to Open a Restaurant.” It was a behind-the-scenes at what it takes to usher a new dining establishment into the world. For eight months I embedded with Fino’s owners, Lisa and Emmett Fox, their contractor, architect, and carpenters, watching it grow from an empty shell full of sawhorses and construction debris to a slick restaurant and bar with a great geometric wooden screen down the middle and a tall vase of flowers on the hostess stand.

fino austin closing

There were many anxious moments,  and some funny ones too, but only in retrospect. My most vivid memory was the night of the friends-and-family dinner, when Murphy’s Law kicked in with a vengeance: The air conditioning failed. In JULY. And right around the dessert course, some kitchen shelves holding hundreds of plates gave way and crashed to the floor with a sound like an atom bomb going off. (I found out later that somebody had used the wrong size screws.)

But Fino opened the next night and in the first heady years, Lisa and Emmett had every reason to think it would be a long-term success. After all, their Italian restaurant, Asti, in Austin’s Hyde Park, certainly was. And Fino had a lot going for it. It was a pioneer in the small-plate dining trend. It had one of the first community tables in the city. Its Middle Eastern–oriented menu was fairly novel for the time. It was one of the first to use Michael Hsu, who went on to become one of the most sought-after restaurant designers in the state. And one of its first cocktail specialists was Bill Norris, who had a cult following even then.

fino austin closing

But all those positives couldn’t counteract the bad-location mojo: Fino was upstairs, a block off a busy street, and not easy to find.

And so it closed. I had dinner there on a pretty Friday night two days before the official last day, April 19. When my friends and I walked in, every one of the little wooden tables on the wrap-around terrace was filled. Many people were craning their necks and taking pictures with their phones. We did the same. We didn’t want to forget. And I’m sure all of us were kicking ourselves, thinking, if I had just come here a little more often, maybe this wouldn’t be happening.

A few days earlier, to bring things full circle, I had met with Lisa and Emmett and asked them to reflect on the end of an era and talk about their next new restaurant, Cantine, which is supposed to open around May in Lamar Union, the hot new shopping complex on S. Lamar.

Texas Monthly: Will any of the “greatest hits” from Fino make the transition to Cantine?

Lisa Fox: The fried goat cheese with honey and red onion jam, for sure—it has been a classic since day one. The pork pinchitos on a skewer, and the flatbread we make in house.

Emmett Fox: The fried olives. And some of the dips, like the muhummara [red peppers and walnuts].  

EF: And we’ll have some popular dishes from Asti, like the white pizza, with three cheeses and truffle oil.

LF: But there will be original dishes too. One big thing is that we’ll have all fresh pasta, because we have a fantastic pasta machine. Our executive chef at Fino, Luke Hursey, will move to Cantine.

TM: Is Michael Hsu doing the design?

LF: Yes. The whole room will be very open, with lots of natural light. We’ll have a marble-topped bar.

EF: He wanted to keep it simple and organic. The walls will be covered in loblolly pine “tiles”—as he calls them—that come from trees that were scorched in the big forest fires in Bastrop a few years back. The trees belonged to a friend, who had to cut them down.

TM: What’s the size, compared to Fino?

EF: Similar, but not as big outside. Around a hundred seats, with maybe thirty outside.

TM: If you don’t mind me asking, how expensive was it to do Cantine and how are you financing it?

EF: With private investors, like we did with Fino. It’s at least three times more expensive to open a restaurant now. Shares in Fino were $25,000 each. For Cantine, they were $100,000. Even so, we raised the money in less than a month.

TM: What kind of crowd do you expect?

LF: Probably younger and hipper. We’ll have to keep up!

TM: Was it a hard decision to close Fino? Was it sudden or gradual?

LF: I’d say gradual. Fino was a good business at first. We employed thirty people consistently, but it never really grew like we wanted.

EF: We tried to keep our name in the public eye—we called it the dog and pony show. We were out in public, we did social media. We did some radio.  We had a marketing and PR person for years. We even considered renting space on that billboard right out there at Lamar and Twenty-ninth, but it was something like $10,000 a month! We decided against it [laughs].

LF: After the first few years, Fino just maintained. And this last year or two, with so many new restaurants opening in Austin, things started slowing noticeably.

EF: Closing Fino was a very, very hard decision. We loved the place and put a lot into it. And we loved our staff—they did amazing jobs.

LF: The crew took a lot of ownership in the place

EF: So it was really emotional to have to tell them that we were closing. They were crying; they came up and hugged us. But there’s a happy ending, too, because a lot of them are coming over to Cantine. We kept as many as we could.

LF: They’re family.

fino austin closing(Emmett and Lisa Fox, center. Photographs by Kenny Braun.)