Texas restaurants have been basking in the national spotlight recently. On September 15, Food & Wine named Birdie’s, in Austin, its restaurant of the year, calling the innovative two-year-old endeavor “the restaurant that everyone wants in their neighborhood.” The honor for Birdie’s came hot on the heels of two Texas chefs—Edgar Rico of Austin’s Nixta taqueria and Emmanuel Chavez of Houston’s tasting menu venue Tatemó—being featured on Food & Wine’s annual list of the best new chefs in the country. Texas was also lauded in Bon Appétit, which gave contemporary Mexican seafood spot Este, in Austin, a place on its best new restaurants list. Southern Living also got in on the action last week, including fifteen Texas barbecue joints on its annual list of the top fifty joints in the South.
The publications were generous with their praise for Texas. Food & Wine restaurant editor Khushbu Shah wrote of eating her way through 23 cities, finding a sense of purpose among the rising-star chefs she encountered. She wrote that a “new level of intentionality has emerged—restaurants are aiming to be not only places of celebration and joy for customers, but also sources of ongoing, sustainable education and growth for all who work in them.”
To cite only one example, she said, “Take a trip to Texas, and you will find not one but two chefs putting the story and flavors of heirloom corn at the center of their menus. Although Emmanuel Chavez and Edgar Rico have wildly different approaches, their respect and belief in the importance of maize are the same.”
In her separate piece on Birdie’s, Shah cited not only the food but also the business model devised by the young married couple—Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and husband Arjav Ezekiel—who developed the East Side restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 and 2021. (Tracy is the chef and Arjav is the wine director and front-of-house man.) At the bright, light-filled building, customers line up to order dishes like beef tartare, caper-studded chicken piccata, and vanilla soft serve with blood orange Agrumato, just to name a few of Shah’s personal favorites. To help make wages fair across the board, tips are pooled and shared with all employees.
In Bon Appétit’s best-restaurant roundup, restaurant editor Elazar Sontag praised Este’s “just-made tortillas” and contemporary dishes such as “Camarones ‘El Ricas’—juicy, butterflied shrimp . . . drenched in chile-garlic butter” and a trout filet that “comes sheathed in an earthy sesame-chile crema and dotted with beads of trout roe.” The write-up mentions chef-partner Fermín Núñez and includes a link to a YouTube video about a day with the executive chef at Este.
Este also grabbed the attention of the New York Times, which came out with its third annual restaurant list, described as “the 50 places in the United States that we’re most excited about right now.” In addition to lauding the Mexican restaurant, writers and researchers gave props to Wee’s Cozy Kitchen, which offers Malaysian food in a tiny gas station near the University of Texas campus. In Houston, they enjoyed El Hidalguense, featuring the cooking of the Mexican state of Hidalgo, and Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers, offering Southern specialties.
“The South’s Top 50 Barbecue Joints Of 2023,” published in Southern Living, was researched (meaning many road trips) and written by the magazine’s contributing barbecue editor, Robert F. Moss. Three of the top ten joints are in Texas, including the number one choice, Snow’s BBQ, in the Central Texas town of Lexington. (Snow’s has twice led Texas Monthly’s Top 50 lineup, and yes, pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz is still there, going strong at age 88.) Southern Living went on to tap Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor, for its number four choice and Goldee’s, in Fort Worth, for its number nine. Moss noted that even though brisket’s domination is waning, “many new barbecue restaurateurs, regardless of where in the South they are working, still look to Texas for inspiration, often unabashedly branding their operations ‘Texas style.’ ”
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