Few places do comfort food like Texas. And even fewer places do it like Austin, an oasis of food and drink in the heart of the Southern state, which puts a distinct stamp on comfort food through its envelope-pushing restaurants, bars and cafes. From a Texas riff on a Mai Tai to habit-forming pastries, here’s what to eat and drink in Austin this winter.
Just east of downtown, you’ll stumble upon Launderette, a charming addition to the city’s ever-funky dining scene. Housed in a former laundromat, the restaurant traffics in American dishes coupled with internationally inspired snacks. Fried olives with cumin sausage and anchovy aïoli are tempting little nuggets for salt- and spice-lovers, while wood-grilled chicken thighs get a welcome punch of heat from scotch bonnet peppers, sure to ward off any brisk winter breeze. The plancha burger is essential; one of the best in Austin, it’s a deceptively simple medley of pillow-soft challah bun, gooey American cheese, creamy “special sauce” and a patty as succulent and tender as tartare.
Hidden away inside the Hotel Van Zandt, Geraldine’s boasts inventive dishes like pig face candy bars (tender cheek meat topped with brûléed sugar), but be sure not to miss the drinks. The Far From the Tree is the “Official Drink of Austin,” basically a Texas riff on a Mai Tai. The tropical mix of rum, orange-pecan orgeat, apple juice and lime is a welcome warmer for the winter months. Willie’s Cup is another fun one. Named after whiskey-loving Willie Nelson (the cup even comes decorated with a bandana) it’s a rich, nutty blend of rye whiskey, sage and housemade hemp milk.
Old Thousand, chef James Dumapit and chef David Baek’s inventive ode to American-Chinese food, couldn’t have arrived at a better time, bringing the heat, the spice and the kung pao to East Austin with duck confit bao buns, brisket fried rice, honey prawns, kung pao cauliflower and lots more. Don’t sleep on the desserts either. Chinese donuts get a splash of pandan cream, sesame balls come with preserved blueberry and peanut miso and a selection of snow ices get jazzed up with the likes of wildflower honey, gin and brioche.
By day, Mañana and Picnik are good spots to caffeinate and nosh. The former is a sunny cafe in the South Congress Hotel, stocked with pastries like a sensational pumpkin-plum Basque cake. The tall, buttery cakes are served warm, with a rich filling that tastes like a mix of custard and caramel. Picnik, meanwhile, manages to make the notion of comfort food healthy with potable bone broths and butter coffees. The broths, available in beef or chicken flavors with dashes of ginger and sea salt, are hearty and nourishing, like the best part of a good soup. They’re particularly known for their coffee though, infused with grass-fed butter and optional add-ons like maple syrup, chai spice and whey protein. The butter serves as a more nutritious replacement for standard cream, and it really softens the coffee, making it sip nice and smooth.
The city’s newest (and biggest) opening comes courtesy of celebrity chef Paul Qui, who once again exhibits a talent for sushi and novel Asian cuisine at Kuneho. From rabbit hand pies and foie gras toast to hamachi bibimbap and fried chicken with banana ketchup, there’s much to savor at this sure-to-be hot spot.