20 meals our Austin restaurant critic is thankful for in 2022 – Austin American-Statesman

As someone who writes about restaurants for a living, I’m lucky enough to dine at the best restaurants in Central Texas. But food for me is much more than a job or just checking boxes on a food lover’s wish list. And special meals don’t just take place at fancy or exclusive restaurants. You can have one anywhere, at any price.
Meals provide comfort and camaraderie. A great meal can take hold of us, allow us to escape, indulge and connect with friends in the little worlds restaurants create. As regular readers of these pages likely know, I’ve had a helluva year. I lost both of my parents, and at the same time, my amazing wife and I have been navigating the first full year of parenthood.
My dining experiences with friends and family (and sometimes even solo) this year served as a salve and respite from trauma and connected me to an appreciation for my life’s abundance even in hard times. Meals meant more to me on a personal level more than ever this year. Not all of them had to do with healing, some just marked a damn good time with people I love.
This Thanksgiving I’m sharing 20 meals I’m thankful for from this past year. They were big and small, fancy and modest, personal and now public. Maybe they’ll make you take stock of the great times you’ve had around a table with those you love or draw your attention to a potential new dining destination. It’s a way of honoring and saying thank you to the people with whom I’ve dined and to those who have fed me.
I try to hit the reset button once every year or two with a juice cleanse from JuiceLand. Yes, I lose weight, but I also gain focus and belief in my own self-control. I break the solid-meal fast gently, but when that first big meal comes, the trumpets sound. The stinging Thai red curry and lush Parisienne gnocchi dishes at Foreign & Domestic in January were a robust welcome back to the world of composed plates. (306 E. 53rd St. 512-459-1010, fndaustin.com)
My wife was raised in the foothill hamlet of Mount Airy, North Carolina. We journeyed back this year to care for family, and nothing feels more like being home in Mount Airy than visiting one of its several diners for a cheeseburger. My wife’s late mother used to take her to the Dairy Center for banana splits or a burger to comfort her after a tough day, and every visit to the tiny, historic space feels like a tiny triumph and a warm hug welcoming us home. (407 W. Lebanon St. Mount Airy, N.C. 336-786-2349)
I spent a considerable amount of time in Houston in late 2021 and early 2022 caring for my parents and grounding myself in the town in which I was raised. During those stays I would occasionally dip out for a meal with a friend who was visiting town to check in on me, listen to my troubles, and make sure I was still laughing. The carbs, specifically a Dutch baby pancake centered with a whip of ricotta and preserved kumquat, as well as cocktails at Squabble were exactly what I needed on a cold, wet winter night with a friend. (632 W. 19th St. 832-834-7362, squabbletime.com)
My parents both spent their final weeks at their home in Wimberley. The town is growing, and I am happy to see the food and beverage options multiplying, but the Leaning Pear will always be my family’s favorite. We ordered takeout on multiple occasions during those days of pensiveness and complicated joy. The restaurant’s skillet-seared chicken breast and cheesy grits felt like the culinary version of the restaurant’s staff putting its arms around us when we needed it most. (111 River Road. Wimberley. 512-847-7327, leaningpear.com)
Just weeks after my mother’s death, we spent what we didn’t know at the time would be our final holiday with my father. My sister and her family brought my dad over to our house to join me, my wife and daughter. I don’t remember what we ate. I don’t know what we talked about. But I know we laughed and held each other close, remembered the Easters that had come before and tried not to imagine the hole that would exist in the ones to come.
I might be in the minority here, but I love a wedding. (Quiet down about the open bar, peanut gallery.) And that includes the attendant festivities like the rehearsal dinner. The wine garden at Lenoir was the perfect space for friends old and new to begin a weekend celebrating two big-hearted people destined to find each other. And those crab fingers. And, yes, the wine was quite nice as well, thank you. (1807 S. First St. 512-215-9778, lenoirrestaurant.com)
For subscribers: 2022 Dining Guide: The best restaurants in Austin
Shortly after my mother died, a close Austin friend flew me to Los Angeles for 24 hours to hear live music and enjoy a fantastic meal with an L.A.-based childhood friend and his fiancé, whom I was meeting for the first time. My buddy knew it was exactly the escape I needed. Blending old friends with even older friends while discovering a new out-of-town favorite — Bavel does Mediterranean as well as anywhere I’ve eaten in years — filled my heart with joy. (500 Mateo St. Los Angeles. 213-232-4966, baveldtla.com)
You know that feeling where you’re having a laugh-filled dinner with a group of old friends and a dish comes out that is just a needle scratch? The stories stop, the drinks are set down, and everyone looks at each other with the same wide-eyed awareness that, “Oh, man, food can be so damn good sometimes.” That was dinner at Emmer & Rye when the haloumi hit the table. We jostled for each seared jiggle; then we ordered another. And, I think, another. (51 Rainey St. 512-366-5530, emmerandrye.com)
My wife and I are grateful that our daughter has been a strong and adventurous eater from the time she could start safely consuming solids. She devoured blackberries and tinned fish, smashed avocado and soft carrots. But it’s another thing to see your kid discover the beauty of food in all of its flavorful and textural bounty at a restaurant. I have rarely seen someone light up the way she did after her first bites of the sourdough pancake with peach syrup and lime ricotta at Dai Due, and she attacked a beet-slicked rib at Hildee’s Dine-Inn in Wimberley with sloppy, giggly glee. (2406 Manor Road. 512-524-0688, daidue.com; 14111 Winters Mill Pkwy. Wimberley. 512-222-9904, hildeeswimberley)
I have to admit that I was disappointed in a lot of expensive and bespoke meals I ate this year. I know, ultimate first-world problem. I just hadn’t had a meal that brought me joy and got me excited in a few months, and then I started working my way through chef Charles Zhou’s tasting menu at this tiny wine bar. Personal, precise but not precious, and artfully plated, it reminded me why I fell in love with this job. (2025 E. Seventh St. 737-333-0780, apartmentonefifteen.com)
More restaurant news:Bufalina once again open in East Austin
I’m not a regular at many places. The job kinda requires that I don’t: I usually need to be trying a new place, and I don’t want to wind up being an awkward presence for staff if recognized. Casper Fermentables changed that. I find myself sitting down at least once a week over a toasty sourdough bagel — some days topped with egg salad, other days with kimchi and cream cheese — and an open laptop at this Sunset Valley spot that hums with the menschy, smart-alecky theater kid energy of co-owner Phoebe Raileanu. (4715 S. Lamar Blvd. #101A. 512-330-4935, casperfermentables.com)
I’ve had the amazing fortune of visiting Japan only once. God willing, I will return. In the meantime, I’ll gladly settle for the edo-style sushi served by chef Michael Che at his intimate Tsuke Edomae. When I do visit Japan, it likely won’t be with the two friends I last dined with at Tsuke Edomae, so eating aged fish on perfectly seasoned pearls of bulbous rice is about as close as we’ll get. The night was a vacation in miniature, minus the jet lag, and plus a lot more laughter than we could probably get away with in Japan without sticking out. (4600 Mueller Blvd. #1035. 512-825-3120, tsukeedo.com)
You and 10 close friends get done with a raucous golf outing at Morris Williams Golf Course. Whatta you do? Head for a — celebratory for some, consolatory for others — meal of big steaks and bold red wines at Austin Land & Cattle. And don’t forget the Buffalo-style lamb chops and escargot. And the perfect Manhattans and vodka martinis; they’ll help wash the BS down. When you can do it at a table catered to by legendary Austin hospitality ace Keith Smith, who’s been an endearing, effusive, sarcastic and self-effacing fixture at Austin’s most laidback steakhouse since the place opened almost 30 years ago. (1205 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-472-1813, alcsteaks.com)
Back around 2010, before I’d been named restaurant critic at the American-Statesman, I’d often walk from my condo in Zilker to Barley Swine for a late seating. I’d sit at the bar with a book and watch the chefs work their magic, as floor staff introduced me to exciting new wines and beers. Those were the days before smart phone addiction had strangled my mind, when nights seemed to unspool at a more leisurely pace. I returned to Barley Swine this summer, book in hand, and got back in touch with that feeling. It made me nostalgic for those days when I first fell in love with the Austin dining scene, when everything seemed a little simpler. (6555 Burnet Road. 512-394-8150, barleyswine.com)
When chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph first arrived in Austin almost a decade ago, he was disappointed to see that the Caribbean food he loved to eat at home was not well represented in the dining scene here. He apparently wasn’t the only one longing for those flavors. Canje, which he opened last year, bustles with high energy that reflects the bright flavors of the food, and I’ve been happy to see at each visit that the restaurant has drawn the most diverse dining crowd of any upmarket restaurant in town. Bristol-Joseph’s passion to tell his story has brought broader representation to a city in desperate need of it. (1914 E. Sixth St. 512-706-9119, canjeatx.com)
Being on TV is fun. Dining with quick-witted celebrities, also fun. But the reason I’m grateful for the dinner I had with Phil Rosenthal at Birdie’s for a taping of his Netflix show, “Somebody Feed Phil,” has nothing to do with 15 seconds of fame. In my role as dining critic at the American-Statesman, I’ve been given the opportunity to serve as something of an ambassador for the city in which I was born, and I’m thankful for and humbled by the chance to introduce outsiders to some of the places that make our dining scene so exciting. (2944 E. 12th St. birdiesaustin.com)
It’s an odd complaint, but Austin’s not a great city for lunch (or breakfast, for that matter). If you want to find a place where you can have a casual working lunch that might extend into happy hour or beyond, your options are limited. Even if you find a lunch spot you like, the idea of lingering might feel a bit uncomfortable. I feel relaxed posting up with my laptop at a picnic table in the sprawling outdoor space at Better Half, where I’m just as likely to order a salad as a burger, and where the cappuccinos are given as much consideration as the wine list. Every city needs a spot like this. (406 Walsh St. 512-645-0786, betterhalfbar.com)
For subscribers:3 restaurants named in our Austin360 Restaurant Hall of Fame 2022
One of the things I’m most thankful for in this job is the opportunity it affords me to meet smart, engaging writers from around the country. I’ve shared so many entertaining and provocative meals with folks whom I’d never have the chance to meet were it not for my profession. This entry isn’t meant to name drop, so I’ll just say that a recent dinner at Jeffrey’s with two of my favorite writers was exactly that kind of night. The stories flowed as easily as the red wine, jokes were batted back and forth over luxury ingredients like truffles and foie gras, and the cozy, club-like setting made me feel like I’d been transported to another city. It was, as the kids say, vibes. The kind of dinner where I was undoubtedly the least interesting or intelligent person at the table. The kind I dreamed about as a wanna-be 20-something writer. The kind I still do. (1204 W. Lynn St. 512-477-5584, jeffreysofaustin.com)
I’ve dined out with my wife more than any person I know. Nobody makes me happier. Nobody has a better palate. And nobody poses for cuter quasi-candid photos just before taking a bite. Raising our first child has greatly limited the frequency of our date nights. When I want to see her at dinner these days, it’s usually via a quick Facetime call from outside the restaurant. But we snuck away to Diner Bar earlier this year for one of our first date nights in forever, and I felt like we were back at the beginning of our courtship. I probably tried too hard to be funny; she probably had better tasting notes; and we definitely kissed on the street following an after-dinner drink at the bar. (500 San Jacinto Blvd. 737-257-3047, thedinerbar-austin.com)
My dad wasn’t super picky about what he ate or where we ate. It was one of the charming things about him. As long as we were together, he was happy. Though he did have a predilection for Tex-Mex. His instructions for us following his funeral service at the Texas State Cemetery included the direction that we gather for fajitas and margaritas at Cisco’s Restaurant & Bar. The cozy back dining room, long a haven for politicos and regular Joes, brims with the kind of history that made him a proud Texan. Photos of Willie Nelson, Darrell Royal and Lyndon Baines Johnson looked over the collection of friends and family who milled about, sipping frozens and dipping chips into endless bowls of queso. Dad woulda loved it. (1511 E. Sixth St. 512-478-2420, ciscosaustin.com)


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