These Are the Can't-Miss Restaurants for an Austin Insider
Where Tavel Bristol-Joseph dines on his rare days offLeah Koenig
February 11, 2019
Texas’s capital has evolved into a true dining destination, and JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Advocacy and Change alum Tavel Bristol-Joseph is right at the center of its culinary bustle. As the pastry chef and co-partner at the seasonally driven fine-dining restaurant, Emmer & Rye (and its sister restaurant Henbit), he conceptualizes and creates some of the city’s most stunning desserts. Bristol-Joseph got his culinary start baking cakes and cookies with his aunt in Guyana, and these days he turns out sweets like wild bay laurel ice cream with puffed sorghum and wildflower syrup, and sweet ricotta with pickled strawberry and persimmon.
But while Bristol-Joseph is a key player in Austin’s dining scene, his hectic work schedule rarely allows him to enjoy it. When he does go out to eat, he saves the fine dining (including at Emmer & Rye!) for truly special occasions, and instead prioritizes the city’s stellar landscape of barbecue joints, breweries, and food trucks. Here are some of his favorite spots.
Let’s be honest, as a restaurant chef I do not actually get out that much! Every few months or so when there is a birthday or guests visiting from out of town I will go celebrate at one of the city’s great restaurants. But on my days off, I am all about food trucks, barbecue, and comfort food. I like going to places where nobody knows me, and I don’t have to be chef Tavel. I can just be me.
I especially love Valentinas, which does Tex-Mex barbecue in South Austin. The owner [Miguel Vidal] puts so much love into the food—it’s fair to say that it’s my favorite barbecue ever. His brisket is so tender and perfectly marbled, and the tortillas are homemade. You get a slice of brisket on a perfect tortilla with salsa and guacamole—that’s it! It is fantastic. He also makes soups that use the brisket trims.
Another place I like to go when I want a beer and something delicious is Soursop, which is an Asian-inspired food truck connected to St. Elmo’s Brewing Co. They have a beautiful outdoor seating area where you can have a spicy fried chicken sandwich with chile oil and Thai basil, or sambal wings with fish sauce and mint. But the thing I go back for the most is this eggplant dish—it’s spicy, tangy, and just a bit sweet from coconut. The vegetables have the crunch I’m looking for, and it’s served with jasmine rice with peanuts sprinkled on the top. It reminds me of the food I loved at home. That and a cold seasonal beer from St. Elmo’s is all you need.
Every restaurant has its go-to late-night spot—the kind of place where the staff goes to unwind after service, and they take good care of you. About once a week we go to Whisler’s Bar, which is attached to a food truck called Thai-Kun. As a pastry chef I’m always thinking about layers and complexity and capturing flavors through my desserts, and I find it fascinating how they take the same approach with their cocktails.
On the food truck side, the owners do not compromise. Most Thai places will say, “people complain if I make the food too spicy, so I don’t make it like my grandma.” But if they need to add 20 chiles to get the flavor they want, they will. It’s like going through bees to get the honey—you’re going to get stung, but it’s worth it! They have a grilled pork shoulder dish that they toss with cilantro and green onions, and it hits all the notes that you want with Thai street food. They also have awesome fried chicken doused in a sweet-and-spicy sauce and served with chicken-fat rice.
This may sound like bragging, but when I do go out for special occasions, Emmer & Rye is truly my favorite. I have eaten at the restaurant as a customer about four times, and I was amazed by the level of our service and the quality of the food. And since the menu changes every day, when I walk in, the only thing I know anything about is the desserts. Everything else is a complete surprise.
My girl and I also recently had a fantastic meal at the Garrison, which is located inside the Fairmont Hotel. Everything exceeded my expectations, from a perfectly balanced simple salad, to a grilled pork dish with a nut and citrus sauce. The chefs made a whole-fried butterflied trout that was crispy throughout, and a raw preparation of red snapper with a beautiful vinaigrette. The meal was so good and we were having such a great time that we ended up deciding to stay the night at the hotel!
Dessert recommendations are tough for me because I am a dessert snob. I don’t care what kind of awards someone has won, it all boils down to whether the food tastes good. I do have a favorite patisserie, Bakery Lorraine. The owners used to work for Beard Award winner Thomas Keller at Bouchon Bakery, and then fell in love and opened up a spot in San Antonio. Now they have a bakery here that does sandwiches and breakfast and lunch foods. But they also make beautiful macarons, pop tarts, eclairs, and other pastries. It is a really fun environment and it always smells so good when you walk in.
And for ice cream, my favorite is Amy’s. They have a ton of interesting flavors, but their Mexican vanilla beats them all. It’s super creamy and unmatched in vanilla flavor. I get a straight cup or cone of that—I don’t want any toppings to disturb that perfect flavor profile.
Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s Austin Dining Guide
Amy’s Ice Creams (Ice Cream)
Multiple locations; 512-458-6149
Bakery Lorraine (Breakfast, Sandwiches & Pastries)
11600 Rock Rose, Ste. 100; 512-300-0300
Emmer & Rye (Seasonal Fine Dining)
51 Rainey Ste. 110; 512-366-5530
Henbit (Seasonal Fast Casual)
111 Congress Ave, Ste P300; 512-527-3054
440 E St. Elmo Rd, Ste. G2; 512-522-7710
St. Elmo’s Brewing Co. (Beer)
440 E St. Elmo Rd, Ste. G2; 737-300-1965
1816 E 6th St; 512-407-8166
Whisler’s Bar (Artisanal Cocktails)
1816 E 6th St; 512-480-0781
Valentinas (Tex-Mex Barbecue)
11500 Manchaca Rd; 512-221-4248
Leah Koenig is a food writer, author of several cookbooks including Modern Jewish Cooking (Chronicle Books), and cooking instructor living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Instagram at @leah.koenig.