Amid all the ups and downs of the pandemic, Austin’s restaurant and bar scene has endured, with chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, and hospitality industry workers confronting the immense challenges head-on in order to keep us all in the local food and drinks we crave.
That’s why, despite the continuously changing landscape of this new world and the hardships that come along with it, we know it’s paramount to highlight and celebrate the successes of our Austin restaurant and bar heroes.
We were overjoyed to honor the city’s top culinary talent at the annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. Held August 5 at Fair Market, we honored all of our Austin and San Antonio nominees and finally unveiled the 2021 Tastemaker winners with the help of our gallant emcee, Tim League.
Meet the 2021 Austin Tastemaker winners and read about what makes them so special below. And pay them a visit soon, to help ensure these pillars of our community triumph now and into the future.
Restaurant of the Year: Nixta
Nixta — the colorful non-traditional taqueria that opened in late 2019 on E. 12th St. — is taking Austin by storm. Co-owners chef Edgar Rico and Sara Mardanbigi are known for their corn tortillas, made through the meticulous and laborious process of nixtamalization. The result is, as they say at Nixta, “bomb-ass corn tortillas.” But the culinary creativity doesn’t stop with the tortillas. Rico artfully incorporates ingredients like beet “tartare,” yellowfin tuna, duck confit, and roasted cauliflower, and the restaurant offers a variety of seasonal specials that are simultaneously challenging and wowing Austin palates.
Chef of the Year: Fiore Tedesco, L’Oca d’Oro
As many Austin foodies know, the concept for L’Oca d’Oro began as a fairy tale in chef Fiore Tedesco’s imagination. And considering Austin’s love affair with the charming Mueller neighborhood Italian restaurant, that seems pretty spot on. His passion for food is deeply rooted in every dish, from his spectacular handmade pasta to his use of sustainably sourced ingredients. Each element of his cuisine is driven by his Italian family traditions, a sharp understanding of flavor, and his nurturing vision of what a restaurant should be, all culminating in a culinary crescendo unlike anything else in Austin.
Bar of the Year: Garage
Housed in — you guessed it — a parking garage in downtown Austin, this unassuming industrial-inspired cocktail bar walks the fine line of being approachable while also offering a slick array of cocktails that would impress even the pickiest sipper. The space is lounge-y and alluring, and the drinks are of the variety that make you want to linger for another, especially the Old Fashioned, which may be the best in town.
Rising Star Chef of the Year: Damien Brockway, Distant Relatives
Fans of East Austin barbecue food truck Distant Relatives, which specializes in “modern African American” fare — mostly in the form of barbecued meats, sandwiches, and sides — need no introduction to pitmaster and chef Damien Brockway, as he has gained a beefy following since opening. But just because he slings meat for a living, don’t be fooled into thinking Brockway lacks culinary cred. He’s a grad of the Culinary Institute of America and cut his teeth at fine-dining establishments across the country before moving to Austin.
Pastry Chef of the Year: Ariana Quant, Uchiko, Uchi
For executive pastry chef Ariana Quant, creating one-of-a-kind, mesmerizing desserts is a piece of cake. The Culinary Institute of America grad earned her chops at her family’s Chinese restaurant, and later traveled the country mastering her pastry craft under some of the most celebrated chefs around. Her Uchi and Uchiko desserts — like everything else at these meticulous fine-dining spots — are polished, perfectly decadent, and impeccable. Whenever possible, seek out Quant’s curated sweet boxes for ultimate dessert euphoria.
Bartender of the Year: Travis Tober, Old Pal, Nickel City
Travis Tober has a keen talent for crafting perfectly weird Austin cocktails. (Anyone else remember the spectacular yet laboriously made Tom Selleck’s Mustache cocktail from Tober’s stint at now shuttered VOX Table?) These days, the innovative barkeep is also a bar owner, calling the shots at lovable east side dive bar Nickel City and the newly opened Old Pal Texas Tavern in Lockhart.
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year: Bouldin Creek Cafe
This beloved bohemian café fits right in in South Austin as the place for vegan and vegetarian fare, serving up handcrafted coffees alongside made-from-scratch breakfast plates, salads, sandwiches, and entrées (do yourself a favor and try the massaman curry bowl). With a very Austin-centric vibe, Bouldin Creek Cafe also embodies the spirit of the Austin community by committing to paying its employees a living wage, fundraising for local causes, donating to those in need, and amplifying the voices of the marginalized.
Wine Program of the Year: LoLo
This East Sixth Street bottle shop uncorked in February 2020, just ahead of the pandemic. The hybrid retail shop and bar offers a large, rotating inventory of natural wines that can be enjoyed offsite or on — now that its patio is back in business. Nosh on savory and sweet bites alongside $8 house wines, or pop the cork on one of LoLo’s well-priced bottles, all from independent farmers, importers, and distributors.
Brewery of the Year: Blue Owl Brewing
One of Austin’s most unique brewing operations, Blue Owl has a patented sour-mashing brewing technique that results in a delightfully tongue-tingling sensation, one that’s just as tasty when employed in a light and crispy Mexican lager as it is in a thick and malty cherry stout. In February of 2021, Blue Owl did the unthinkable, brewing an assortment of respectable non-sour IPAs and pilsners. But to really experience Blue Owl’s specialty, opt for a mixed six-pack that showcases their sours.
Best New Restaurant: Plank Seafood Provisions
Newly opened at the Domain, Plank Seafood Provisions is a coastally inspired oyster bar and seafood grill. And while the décor includes wooden boat-shaped sculptures, nautical rope accents, and sea-style artwork, there’s nothing fishy about how this eatery approaches seafood. Plank is committed to sustainably and responsibly sourcing seafood, even going so far as to provide sourcing details about every fish, fish roe, shellfish, and meat product on its menu. From an impressive raw bar to sharable plates and wood-grilled selections, Austin’s seafood lovers are sure to get hooked.
Best Ghost Kitchen: Mother Klucker
This Thai ghost kitchen is a funky concept from chef Char Chongchitmate of Charoen Express and Bua Vanitsthian, co-owner of Nashville-style hot chicken concept Chicken as Cluck. Located at the Cloud Kitchens facility, Mother Klucker specializes in kao mun gai, the popular Southeast Asian poached chicken and rice dish, which is available in a variety of entrée set-ups over Mother Klucker’s flavor-packed “fat rice” and served with Mother’s Lucky Sauce. While the klucker gets the most attention here, the concept couldn’t have taken off without the mother, and Chongchitmate admits his mother taught him all her secrets for creating the best kao mun gai around. Chongchitmate calls her a “tiger mom,” but in this case, we might have to go with loving “mother hen.”
And, a toast to our 2021 San Antonio winners:
- Restaurant of the Year: Clementine
- Chef of the Year: Nicola Blaque, The Jerk Shack
- Bar of the Year: The Esquire Tavern
- Best New Restaurant: Southerleigh Haute South
- Best Ghost Kitchen: Curry Boys
Arden Ward and Trey Gutierrez contributed to this story.