Austin

Food Blogger Jane Ko on Austin's Top Asian Restaurants and the City's Culinary Evolution

The author and influencer on her culinary journey, Austin's growing Asian population, and the best places to eat for Lunar New Year and beyond.

Photo by Jane Ko
Photo by Jane Ko
Photo by Jane Ko

Anyone who lives in Austin has undoubtedly heard of Jane Ko, AKA A Taste of Koko. The social media darling has been blogging about Bat City’s amazing restaurant scene for well over a decade, charting a meteoric expansion that’s blasted through every obstacle thrown our way. With an Instagram account amassing 115,000 followers, a state-wide number one selling book in Koko’s Guide To Austin, and a speaker series that spans SXSW and Texas Conference for Women (all alongside her award-winning blog, mind you), it goes without saying that what Koko says, we eat.

Photo by Jane Ko
Photo by Jane Ko
Photo by Jane Ko

I joined boomtown’s millions in 2020, swapping a Brooklyn shoebox for a downtown Austin condo with mind-blowing washer and dryer perks. And while the transition was nothing short of glorious, I had my reservations, much like any other non-white, non-American individual packing their bags for a move to the South (even, perhaps especially, with a Texan husband in tow). But Austin ain’t like no other Lone Star city, and hasn’t been for a long time. In fact, the metro’s Asian population has doubled in the last decade, and we’re now the third-largest racial demographic in the area, hovering over just 7% of the total population.

I recently chatted with Jane, whom I’d been following for a while now, to discuss coming to Austin, her culinary journey, and her plans for celebrating the upcoming Lunar New Year.

Photo by Jane Ko
Photo by Jane Ko
Photo by Jane Ko

JW: I came from New York, via Tokyo, and haven’t been this excited to meet another AAPI as I am now. What was your experience like moving from Taiwan to Texas?

JK: Well, I was three years old, so I don’t remember much, and my experience was probably quite different. I grew up in a small town in South Texas called Port Lavaca, with a population of 10,000. I came to Austin in 2007 to go to school at UT Austin-Biology, PreMed, just like every other Asian [laughs]. That plan went out the window since I wasn’t very good at academics, and I switched to nutrition and bought a domain called atasteofkoko.com.

JW: What was your first impression of Asian food in Austin?

JK: Non-existent. The restaurant scene in Austin in 2007 was very barren-mostly chains, and I was also a college student on campus who didn’t grow up dining out. I received my first restaurant invite in 2012 and then started writing reviews.

JW: I remember when I first arrived, it was so depressing. I went to a sushi spot downtown and ate the worst ramen. Trying to find decent Chinese, or at least American Chinese, even with recommendations from long-time Austinites… let’s just say that took many months and a lot of mediocre Kung Pao. How did you navigate your culinary journey?

JK: Kyoto downtown (now closed) was one of my first Asian restaurants in Austin and the food was meh. Uchi opened in 2010, and that dramatically set the bar, but that was fine dining. I still remember when Ramen Tatsu-Ya opened in 2012, with their fancy Japanese ramen that was more than the 50 cent packs at the grocery store.

Photo by Jane Ko
Photo by Jane Ko
Photo by Jane Ko

JW: How has the Asian community changed since you came to Austin? And how has that affected the local cuisine?

JK: It’s definitely grown in the last decade, especially with all the tech companies that have opened offices here like Indeed, Dropbox, Apple, Samsung, and Facebook. With the growing Asian population, there has been an increase in Asian restaurants. I also think everyone moving here from California and New York with a palate for Asian food has helped with that.

Wu Chow Austin
Wu Chow Austin
Wu Chow Austin

JW: I agree. Our neighbor from San Francisco, Melissa, is always on the hunt for good Asian food with us. The demand is growing, and Lunar New Year is only getting bigger too. How do you typically celebrate?

JK: I usually book a group dinner at Qi or Wu Chow. This year, my friends and I plan on doing a potluck. How about you?

JW: I think we’re going to get takeout dumplings from Little Wu. Speaking of which, where do you go for Chinese? I love Chinatown North, but since we don’t have a car, my husband and I usually cycle to Old Thousand. They do a pretty stellar job with vegetarian dishes.

JK: Oooh, authentic Chinese is hard in Austin. I used to go to 101 By Teahaus all the time-their Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup reminded me of home, but sadly it closed. I like Din Ho, Rice Bowl Cafe, Chen Z Noodle House, First Chinese BBQ, and House of Three Gorges. And if I’m looking for an experience, I go to Qi or Wu Chow.

QI Austin
QI Austin
QI Austin

JW: I’ve been to Wu Chow, but I can’t get my head around trendy upscale Chinese like that. I like the casual joints best. How about Korean-Can we talk about how amazing the big H-Mart is up by Lakeline?

JK: I still can’t believe we have H-Mart in Austin! You can get everything from fancy noodle kits, sushi-grade seafood, and all the Korean snacks. My favorite is the frozen section.

JW: Japanese cuisine has gotten really exciting recently. Who would have thought fresh fish could hold so well in the desert. Any faves?

JK: Komé is my go-to for sushi, and I like Sazan’s Paitan Ramen. Fukumoto and Uroko are always favorites. Asahi Imports is also a hidden gem-it’s a Japanese market that makes Onigiri from scratch every day.

Asahi Imports
Asahi Imports
Asahi Imports

JW: Sazan is my absolute favorite for ramen, too, but everytime we go to Asahi they’re sold out, as I always get there after 2 pm. How do you think Sazan compares to the Tatsu-Ya-they seem to be everywhere right now?

JK: I personally think Tatsu-Ya is too heavy, and I prefer lighter broths like Sazan and the chicken broth at Komé. The original Paitan at Sazan is my favorite-the chicken and pork broth is delicate and I like how the arugula and diced onions break up the creaminess.

JW: Austin’s got a lot of food trucks, obviously, but it feels like they’re mostly taco trucks. Though there are some good Thai trucks like Coat and Thai and Thai Kun. Are there others you’d recommend?

JK: I recently tried Fil N Viet-Filipino and Vietnamese-and it was pretty good. You also have to try DEE DEE, it’s farm-to-table Northeastern Thai food. The Pad Kaprow and Laab Moo are incredible, but also incredibly spicy-like Thai-spicy.

Filipino Vietnamese Kitchen
Filipino Vietnamese Kitchen
Filipino Vietnamese Kitchen

JW: FIlipino and Vietnamese, that’s something you don’t hear much about here. Which Asian cuisines do you think are lacking in Austin? I personally don’t have a place for pho yet…

JK: Definitely Filipino. Sadly, Be More Pacific closed. Pho Dan is my go-to for pho, the bowls are huge with generous slices of meat. Sip Pho is more expensive, but the restaurant is beautifully designed by an architect.

JW: You, of all people, must know a good Taiwanese spot.

JK: I loved 101 By Teahaus, as I said earlier, but unfortunately, it closed due to the economic impacts of COVID-19. Now I recommend trying Coco’s Cafe, Sweet Chive, Julie’s Noodles, and Rice Bowl Cafe.

Julie's Noodles
Julie’s Noodles
Julie’s Noodles

JW: These are all brilliant recommendations, and we might just have to go together. Thank you, Jane. Finally, what have you got coming up for 2022?

JK: Koko’s Guide To Austin has been updated for 2022, and there’s a page on my favorite Asian spots. I’m also working on Koko’s Guide To Fredericksburg, recently named the “new Napa” with over 100 wineries. I’ve been remodeling a house in Austin and working on a couple of new projects. Stay tuned on my Instagram and, in the meantime, let’s definitely get dinner.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

James Wong is a contributor for Thrillist.

Austin

Get Lucky at These Irish Bars in Austin

Drink a green pint on St Patrick's Day at these Irish bars in Austin.

Photo by Melissa Vinsik, courtesy of Cork + Barrel
Photo by Melissa Vinsik, courtesy of Cork + Barrel
Photo by Melissa Vinsik, courtesy of Cork + Barrel

In the midst of all the SXSW chaos, it helps to remember that there’s a rainbow at the festival’s end-that is, the hangover-blessing we’ve been granted of having St. Patrick’s Day 2023 fall on a Friday. Whether you attribute this small win to the Gregorian calendar or the luck of the Irish, it’s sure to amp up the already liver-damaging activities associated with this cultural celebration. However, √Čire is more than just leprechauns and Colin Farrell-it’s a breathtaking land full of warm, welcoming, and good-hearted people. Fortunately, there’s a way you can get a taste of the Republic’s spirit, and a dark stout, at the same time by hitting up one of Austin’s various Irish pubs. From cozy, intimate spaces decked out like small taverns in Cobh, to modern dives with all the party energy of Temple Bar, our list has the best spots in the city to “erin go bragh” all out on March 17.

Photo by Jane Yun, courtesy of BD Rileys
Photo by Jane Yun, courtesy of BD Rileys
Photo by Jane Yun, courtesy of BD Rileys

B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub at Mueller

Mueller
With a giant model of a beer tap literally decorating their front door, you can’t miss B.D Riley’s, nor doubt that this East Austin hang is a spot to down some serious brewskis. And its name, and perfect pours of Guinness, aren’t the only aspects they draw from the Emerald Isle-the entire pub itself was actually designed and built in Dundalk, Ireland, and shipped over for assembly in Bat City. Such authentic decor calls for equally authentic sounds, therefore, on St. Patrick’s Day, B.D. Riley’s will feature an all-day, four-artist bill of live, trad-inspired music. So, while you may not start the day knowing all the words to “The Galway Girl,” you are bound to sing along by last call.

Kelly’s Irish Pub

Bouldin Creek
Having only opened this past December, Kelly’s is the new kid with a brogue on the block. Occupying the space which formerly housed tapas restaurant Winebelly, this pub had big shoes to fill for South Austin barflies, but quickly won them over with an impressive whiskey selection and friendly atmosphere. A big reason behind the real deal √Čire vibes can, most likely, be chalked up to the fact that one of Kelly’s owners was actually born and bred in Ireland-and the dedication to delivering a true-to-life experience is evident in everything from the shepherd’s pie to the witty bartenders. For St. Patrick’s Day, they are getting the party started early with live music and an opening time of 8 am.

Photo courtesy of Jack & Ginger's
Photo courtesy of Jack & Ginger’s
Photo courtesy of Jack & Ginger’s

Jack & Ginger’s

The Domain
While The Domain may boast more bars than you can shake a shamrock at, there’s only one spot in the North Austin entertainment behemoth that can be properly called an Irish pub: Jack & Ginger’s. Start off the night with selecting a tasting flight from their over 82 beers on tap, then, move onto shots poured straight from their Irish Whiskey Tours-after loosening up with a round or two, you might just find yourself with the gift of gab. And, before snapping a selfie over Jack & Ginger’s see-through glass floor, balance out that buzz with food offerings like a giant soft pretzel or a round of fried pickles.

Photo courtesy of Foxy's Proper Pub
Photo courtesy of Foxy’s Proper Pub
Photo courtesy of Foxy’s Proper Pub

Foxy’s Proper Pub

Downtown
Here’s a spot that visibly radiates with Irish pride-at Foxy’s, the glow of green beams out from the bar’s lighted panels, and across their chandelier made of Jameson bottles. When it comes to cups and chow, their commitment to the theme continues-the use of the word,”proper,” in the pub’s name alone indicates you’re in for a heavy pour of the standards. Consequently, the taps are abundant with essential Irish sips, including Guinness, Magners, and Smithwick’s. With Lone Star on draft, there’s also a nod to Texas tradition as well. But don’t fear if you’re bored of beer-Foxy’s variety of whiskey-based cocktails will let you switch it up (and still keep it Celtic). March 17 will find them celebrating with live music, whiskey tastings, and swag giveaways.

Photo by LEVY Architects, courtesy of Cork + Barrel
Photo by LEVY Architects, courtesy of Cork + Barrel
Photo by LEVY Architects, courtesy of Cork + Barrel

Cork & Barrel Craft Kitchen + Microbrewery

Round Rock
Compared to a flight to Dublin, the 30-minute drive to Round Rock’s Cork & Barrel is much more convenient-not to mention, won’t require waiting in a TSA line. A mix between a modern Austin beer garden and a historical Irish pub, this spot’s spacious interior and expansive outdoor patio guarantees there will be enough room for the whole crew to cheer “sl√°inte.” And, their microbrewery’s signature beers are the ideal drinks to do such a toast with. The menu of specially crafted drafts includes a blueberry wheat, an Irish red ale, and a vanilla stout. This St. Patrick’s Day also marks Cork & Barrel’s two-year anniversary, and they are throwing down for the double-celebration with live music, yard games, Irish food specials, and plentiful amounts of green beer and Irish Car Bombs.

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Molly Moltzen is a Thrillist contributor.

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