Because covering the national foodservice industry requires plenty of national travel, I've found myself in some pretty far-flung food destinations across the country, from Idaho's potato fields to Iowa's amber waves of grain, and from Maine's lobster boats to the fishing docks of Alaska's Aleutian Islands (and seemingly every major city in between).
Somehow, though, my food travels had never taken me to Austin, Texas.
That changed earlier this month when I had the very fortunate opportunity to attend the Interactive portion of SXSW (shorthand for its original name, South By Southwest; pronounced simply "South By" among those in the know), a 10-day conference and music festival held each spring in downtown Austin.
The innovation-focused conference itself was an enlightening experience worthy of stories and blog posts; sessions covered everything from technology to journalism to, yes, food (with industry luminaries such as Tom Colicchio and Sam Fox on hand to discuss the pressing issues facing the foodservice world today). But it was the four days I spent eating my way around Austin that really opened my eyes to what the future might hold, particularly in the fast-casual restaurant industry.
Austin, of course, pulses with the same hipster-cool vibe as Brooklyn, Nashville, and Portland, Oregon. You might think you're walking past an abandoned junkyard, but it's actually a thriving food-trailer park with some of the city's best tacos or barbecue. That forlorn-looking house with boarded-up windows and a dusty patch for a back yard turns out to be the latest trendy cocktail enclave with a bocce ball court. The dive you duck into for a quick beer with a friend turns out to have long stretches of communal seating and a food truck from one of Austin's James Beard Award–winning chefs.
The city's independent streak extends to the mini fast-casual chains that call Austin home. With a unique combination of cultural flair and major corporate activity, Austin has become an incubator of sorts for exciting fast-casual concepts that avoid common chain pitfalls and yet have the infrastructure in place to scale into national brands.
With my first Austin trip under my (ready-to-burst) belt, here are 15 Austin-based concepts—many I visited, many others the subject of high praise from local food folks—that have the potential to take the rest of the country by storm.
What started as a food truck in February 2010 has turned into a burgeoning Korean barbecue chain with four brick-and-mortar locations in and around Austin. Founded by Jae Kim, a millennial entrepreneur who previously owned a coffee shop, Chi'Lantro is best known for its Original Kimchi Fries, which include french fries, a customer's choice of protein (spicy pork, spicy chicken, soy-glazed chicken, tofu, or ribeye beef), kimchi, cheddar and monterey jack cheeses, onions, cilantro, sesame seeds, sriracha, and "magic sauce."
Kim says the Original Kimchi Fries came about almost by accident; he was slinging his Korean-Mexican fusion dishes out of his food-truck window one night, and in a pinch decided to pile several ingredients atop french fries. Today, the Original Kimchi Fries are a cult favorite in Austin. (His secret to accessible Korean flavors for the American masses? Caramelize the kimchi.)
Chi'Lantro checks plenty of boxes on the list of millennial-friendly restaurant characteristics: It dishes creative fusion fare, it still has a food truck that hangs out downtown, it doesn't accept cash at any of its locations, and it's been featured in magazines like Food & Wine and GQ. Kim even appeared recently on the ABC show "Shark Tank," where he landed a $600,000 investment from investor Barbara Corcoran to help Chi'Lantro expand outside Austin.
The Chi'Lantro food truck had the best parking spot in town for SXSW: just outside the Convention Center's northwest entrance. A line of festival-goers stretched back many dozens deep, even when temperatures plunged into the 40s and it started to rain.
While many Indian concepts have tried to package the same kind of authentic experience into a fast-casual model like Chipotle, none have achieved the kind of success that turns a regional favorite into a national contender. Tarka Indian Kitchen might change that.
The brand, founded by Tinku Saini—a former reporter-turned-chef and restaurateur—serves curries, kabobs, biryanis (a rice dish), and freshly baked flatbreads in a relaxed counter-service setting. Tarka opened its first location in Austin in 2009 and now has five units in Austin, San Antonio, and Houston.
Tarka has aspirations to become the preeminent Indian fast casual in the U.S. According to its website, these goals will help it get there: "Create a restaurant with fresh and flavorful Indian food that is also fast and affordable. Serve it in a casual, modern space with stellar customer service. Make it as convenient as possible, whether you're enjoying a relaxing meal on our patio with a glass of wine or grabbing take out using our online ordering system. And run it as environmentally friendly as we can."
At PhoNatic, husband-and-wife founders Pat and Sara Lee aim to make pho—the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup made with rice noodles, broth, and add-ins— "Phun, Phast, and Phresh." The two opened the first location in October 2011 and have since expanded to five locations in the Austin area.
PhoNatic guests can order a traditional pho—the soup with a protein like brisket, beef meatballs, or tofu—or they can order a PhoNatic Original, which are the brand's modern takes on Vietnamese dishes (for example, there are Banh Mi Sliders, Filet Mignon Pho, and Phnom Penh Soup). There are also rice and salad bowls with the guest's choice of protein, and classic Vietnamese dishes like Spring Rolls, Beef Stew, and Chicken Cabbage Salad. PhoNatic also has a kids' menu, a range of hot and cold beverages, and desserts.
This one sentence might change your life forever: You can order a craft beer in a drive thru.
OK, maybe it won't change your life, but it might change your Friday afternoon plans if you're ever in the Austin area. Flyrite Chicken is pairing premium chicken—in the form of sandwiches, salads, wraps, and strips—with craft beer, wine, milkshakes, breakfast tacos, and other goodies in a sleek, modern space with a drive thru (and yes, it can legally serve beer out the window).
Flyrite founder Kevin Warden is a fast-casual veteran, having previously helped Which Wich scale across Texas as the CEO of franchisee Red Mark Development. Now Warden is out to disrupt the fast-casual chicken category, pairing a clean-label, high-quality menu with elements that harken back to traditional fast-food drive-ins (this includes an imposing wing-shaped awning that hangs over the restaurant, as designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects). Warden's business partners at County Line, a chain of full-service barbecue joints, have helped along the way; Quirino "Q" Silva and Dallas Miller, who helped Warden design the Flyrite menu and operations, came up through the County Line system.
Flyrite has two locations and a third planned for the Austin airport, and Warden is plotting "aggressive" growth in the next few years.
The West Coast has In-N-Out, the East Coast has Five Guys, and Austin has P.Terry's. This 14-unit local favorite was founded in 2005, but you'd be forgiven if you thought it had been around since 1955. Owner Patrick Terry was inspired by Mack Eplen's, a burger stand in his hometown of Abilene, Texas, and opened P.Terry's as a destination for affordable burgers, fries, and shakes. In P.Terry's, he even mimicked Mack Eplen's Googie architecture, with its 1950s-era space-age flair.
"Affordable" doesn't quite do P.Terry's justice. Hamburgers start at $2.35, and a slice of cheese is just a quarter more. A double with cheese or chicken or veggie burger will run you $3.95; a combo of cheeseburger, fries, and a drink sets you back just $6.10. P.Terry's also features a breakfast menu and milkshakes.
Chef-crafted sandwiches are the star of the menu at Noble Sandwich Co., which was founded by two chef buddies who wanted to bring their culinary sensibility and love for scratch cooking to the sandwich world. John Bates and Brandon Martinez met at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, and now operate two Noble Sandwich shops in Austin, which have earned both local and national acclaim.
Noble's menu features several ingredients more often seen on fine-dining menus. Options include the Noble Pig Sandwich with spicy ham, pulled pork, provolone, bacon, mayo, and spicy mustard; the Smoked Duck Pastrami with Russian dressing and rye pickles; and the Seared Beef Tongue with smoked green onions, red pepper relish, and aioli. There's also a breakfast menu, burgers, mac and cheese, and a wide range of sides.
There's a (widely debunked) famous quote from Benjamin Franklin that beer enthusiasts love to share, which goes like this: "Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy."
Whether or not Franklin actually said this, it's tragic to think he never had a chance to pair beer with some scratch-made burgers such as those you can get at Hopdoddy Burger Bar. He may have set the bar for God's love too low.
This 17-unit chain—which has three locations in Austin and 10 total in Texas, as well as restaurants in Arizona, California, and Colorado—features premium burgers as its main attraction, with all of the ingredients made right in front of the guests. There are over a dozen burger options, including beef, bison, chicken, lamb, tuna, and veggie burgers, ranging in price from $7 for the Classic Burger to $12.50 for the Ahi Tuna Burger. Guests can order chile con queso or Kennebec or truffle fries as a side, and there are also salads, milkshakes, and, of course, a full bar.
Here's a typical experience at the Hopdoddy on South Congress, which was the first location: Get in (a possibly very long) line; grab a drink from the bar as you file past; watch as employees in the kitchens bake buns, slice potatoes, and grind meat; order your burger (or salad!) at the counter; and take a seat, where your meal will be delivered to you.
Luckily for those outside Austin, the company is in the midst of national expansion plans.
Snap Kitchen is turning the healthy fast casual paradigm on its head, offering nutritious meals in prepackaged, grab-and-go containers. Here's how it works: Guests either order online or drop into a store; browse meals based on daypart, protein, diet, allergen, or size; and order either a single meal or in bulk for the week. A Snap Kitchen app makes the process easy from a smartphone, and customers can even have their meal delivered.
The Snap Kitchen menu features a wide range of culinary styles, with dishes ranging from the Brisket Hash and the Chicken Chile Enchiladas to the Grilled Kale Hoppin' John and the Spicy Dan Dan Noodles. Each meal comes with an ingredient list and a nutrition profile. Along with the entrées, there are also small bites, snacks, desserts, and juices available.
Snap Kitchen now has nearly 50 locations across the U.S., including shops in Chicago and Philadelphia.
Ramen is more or less a recent phenomenon in the U.S. restaurant world, with chefs all over the country interpreting the Japanese favorite and giving Americans a new appreciation for the noodle dish. But no brand has yet packaged ramen into an exciting limited-service concept.
Ramen Tatsu-Ya, though, might finally be that brand. Founded by Austin chefs Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto, Ramen Tatsu-Ya is out to educate consumers about quality ramen, which it emphasizes on its website with seven "Ramen Rules" (rule one: chopsticks only! Rule four: Never share your ramen!). The concept now has two units in Austin and one in Houston, and if local Austinites are to be believed, it regularly has lines out the door.
Tacos are kind of a big deal in Texas, especially in Austin. And while there are dozens of options for tacos in Austin, somehow a conversation with locals about the best tacos in town always comes back to Tacodeli.
Launched in 1999 by Mexico City native Roberto Espinosa, Tacodeli serves a wide range of tacos using top-shelf ingredients, such as local and organic produce when possible, non-GMO organic corn tortillas, HeartBrand Ranch akaushi ground beef, organic pork, and antibiotic-free and vegetarian-diet chicken. Along with breakfast and lunch tacos, Tacodeli also offers soups, salads, and sides like rice and beans, all of it complemented by salsas that have won local awards.
Tacodeli has locations in Austin, Dallas, and Houston, but you don't have to visit a restaurant to enjoy its tacos; the brand partners with coffee shops and gourmet grocery stores in Austin to offer its signature product.
Cofounders Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein originally launched VERTS Mediterranean Grill—then called VertsKebap—as a project for their graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin. But what started as single location on campus and a "food truck" in the form of a Smart Car has bloomed into a rapidly expanding fast-casual chain with locations across Texas and in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
The brand's menu was first designed around doner kebaps, a Turkish street food that is wildly popular in Heyne's and Stein's native Germany. The menu has since evolved to encompass more Mediterranean favorites and lets customers choose among four bases, five proteins, 11 toppings, and eight sauces to build their own dish.
While Heyne and Stein have relocated to New York to support the company's East Coast expansion, VERTS remains Austin-born and bred (and headquartered).
Along with VERTS, Torchy's is already a verifiable Austin success story, having taken its Texas-style tacos to Colorado and Oklahoma. Founder Michael Rypka started Torchy's out of a trailer in 2006, and has since grown the chain to dozens of brick-and-mortar locations, many of which feature large footprints, full bars, and pet-friendly patios.
Rypka is a trained chef, and launched Torchy's when he decided to open his own business that focused on interesting taco selections. And Torchy's tacos are indeed interesting; options range from the Green Chili Pork, with slow-roasted pork carnitas simmered with green chilies and topped with queso fresco, cilantro, onions, and a wedge of lime, to the Trailer Park, made with fried chicken, green chilies, lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese, and poblano sauce.
Rypka told QSR last year that most guests order one or two tacos—priced between $2.25 and $5.50—and share a side of queso and chips. With a drink, the per-person check average is around $13.
The Next Generation
These concepts may only have one unit, but the pieces are in place for something special.
Husband-and-wife duo Gary and Jessica Wu originally developed the idea of General Tso'Boy in New York City, where Gary worked in finance and Jessica served as marketing director for fast-casual darling Luke's Lobster. When they were ready to open a restaurant of their own, though, the two headed to Austin, a market they perceived to be better suited for what they hoped to accomplish in the fast-casual space.
The first General Tso'Boy is located in Austin's trendy Domain development, a sprawling shopping and entertainment district north of downtown. The restaurant offers some dishes you might expect from a Chinese restaurant—General Tso's Chicken, for example, as well as Black Pepper Beef and Honey Walnut Shrimp—but also several fusion dishes that pair traditional Chinese flavors with American staples. There are Specialty Sandwiches served on local Easy Tiger bread; options include the General Tso's Chicken sandwich and the Char Siu Pulled Pork sandwich. There are also fries, Sweet & Sour Wings, and a Cheeseburger Spring Roll as sides, and homemade soft serve for dessert.
General Tso'Boy opened last summer, and the Wus are still getting the restaurant off the ground. But with a unique brand and a creative menu pairing bold-yet-familiar flavors, it's got potential to be one of the next great fusion concepts.
Salad fast casuals may be all the rage these days, and salad fast casuals with drive thrus are suddenly in vogue (Salad and Go in Arizona exclusively dishes out of drive-thru windows, and MAD Greens is now exploring a drive-thru prototype). But Baby Greens can lay claim to being one of the salad drive-thru originators, having first opened its drive-thru lane in 2004.
Founder Sharon Mays grew the concept to three locations, but closed all three in 2009 when she struggled to find the right path forward for growth. After taking some time away from the business, she returned to the Baby Greens idea and opened a new location last year with a drive thru, a walk-up window, picnic tables, and an onsite herb garden. Mays' plan is to franchise the concept, and now that salads in the drive thru are more familiar to American consumers, that path forward shouldn't be so hard to find.
Any Texan worth his or her salt can name their favorite barbecue joint in a pinch, and woe to anyone who chooses tourist-friendly Franklin Barbecue or Salt Lick BBQ. On many occasions during my time in Austin, locals pointed to La Barbecue as being the best brisket in town. The food trailer off East Cesar Chavez Street just east of downtown is co-owned by LeAnn Mueller (daughter of famed barbecue personality Bobby Mueller) and her wife, Alison Clem. According to La Barbecue's website, a Los Angeles location is in the works.