Home Sweet Austin
Kristen Kish never thought she’d end up in Texas. The Michigan-raised chef cut her teeth working under Boston chef Barbara Lynch before finding the national spotlight when she won Top Chef in 2012. But when it came time to open her own restaurant, it turns out that Austin—the loveably weird city with a robust culinary and art scene (South by Southwest film and music festival touches down this month)—was just the spot she was looking for. She opened the doors to Arlo Grey inside the LINE Austin Hotel last June. Like the city, its plates are an eclectic fusion of cultures and experiences—in this case, Kish’s own. The restaurant is very much her baby (more on that below), and doesn’t always afford her time to explore her new city. But she’s quickly found some trusted favorites. We asked her to share them here.
“Austin is a standout city that’s very in-line with my beliefs and has that small, big-town feel.”
As a native Midwesterner who’s long called the East Coast home, why Austin?
Austin kind of chose me. [The LINE] had reached out to see if I wanted to come down and see the space. Everything about the project was really lovely and I ended up saying yes. If I had to pick a city out of thin air and someone asked, “Where would you put a restaurant?” Texas would not have been it. But Austin is a standout city that’s very in-line with my beliefs and has that small, big-town feel.
How’s it been joining the food community there?
Austin welcomed me wholeheartedly. It’s like, you’re an out-of-towner coming to open this hotel restaurant and you never really know how it’s going to go. But Austin really embraced me.
Any surprises about the city?
So much was surprising. [Starting with] the basics—getting used to the Texas seasons and the product here. When you live on the East Coast, you have distinct seasons and the product that comes with it. And when you live on the West Coast, you have everything all the time. But here you have two tomato seasons, including at a time when you’d never think you’d have tomatoes. And then strawberry season comes, and it’s the winter. Who would have thought?
Your food fuses seemingly disparate elements into cohesive dishes. How do you describe it?
“An autobiography of my life through food.” It marries my love of fine dining, my childhood, and my travels, funneling them all through an honest point of view. So our diners feel they’re getting a story, rather than food on a plate.
Is Austin becoming part of that story?
When people think of Austin, in general, they think of two things: barbecue and tacos. I don’t do either on my menu. Because there are so many people already doing those things, and they do them far better than I can. But that being said, I am always utilizing the ingredients around me from local farms and purveyors.
Tell us about the name Arlo Grey. You say it’s what you would have named your first child?
When you describe opening a restaurant, and look at all the things you use to describe a newborn child, it’s kind of the same thing. It’s full of love and hard work and babysitting and sleepless nights and really gratifying moments as well.
Modern-Southern Olamaie is one of Kish’s favorite—and most frequented—spots in town. And it’s not just for the food (though the chicken, she notes, is “always stunning”). “It’s the experience from when you first get out of the car—the environment, the people who work there, the food, the decor. Everything makes sense, which I really appreciate. You just feel taken care of.”
BETTER HALF COFFEE & COCKTAILS
Kish is all about the unexpectedly complex food at this coffee shop- cocktail bar hybrid with an all-day menu. The plates are inventive, often marrying Southern and Asian cooking, “but in a casual way,” she says. “And it makes perfect sense for Austin.” (Think steak and eggs with kimchi butter, cauliflower tots with beet ketchup.)
EMMER & RYE
Chef Kevin Fink landed in Austin by way of esteemed restaurants Noma and the French Laundry, but has earned a name for himself with Emmer & Rye’s in-house fermentation program and milling of heritage grains. Each trip to the Rainey Street restaurant is a source of inspiration for Kish. “The food is wildly creative,” she says. “It’s using ingredients I would use myself, but done in a way I would have never thought of.”
Set inside an Oxford Blue cottage just outside of town, Josephine House is the picture of coziness. “When you can’t sit outside it shrinks into this tiny dining room that sits maybe twenty people,” she says. “It’s charming. I’m a fan of tucking into a corner and feeling warm and welcome.” And then there’s the eclectic menu—everything from chicken tortilla soup to a rice bowl with roasted and pickled veggies crowned with sweet pepper chimichurri and a poached egg.
LIN ASIAN BAR + DIM SUM RESTAURANT
A relative newcomer to the Austin food scene—it opened around the same time as Arlo Grey—Lin Asian is Kish’s go-to for soup dumplings. It’s the first solo venture by Chinese-born chef Ling Qi Wu, who brings a healthy approach to the home cooking she was raised on in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province.
A longtime East Coast resident, sometimes Kish finds herself longing to have a drink in a dark, moody cocktail bar—the kind that’s ubiquitous in New York City and Boston. “I go to Roosevelt Room when I want to feel that again.”
From restaurant team Laura Sawicki, Margaret Vera, and Rene Ortiz—who Kish calls “the OG of Austin chefs”—Launderette is a stylish neighborhood cafe housed in a converted gas station. On the menu, a funky-yet-refined mix of Mediterranean-influenced fare. “I can show up in a hoodie and a hat, prop up at the bar, and have a crudo and a burger,” she says.
This counter-service ramen shop is the brainchild of Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto, Austin chefs (and DJs) who decided Japan and Los Angeles shouldn’t be the only places where you can get a taste of the good stuff. They’re now at the helm of a handful of locations around Austin and Houston, all serving piping hot bowls of ramen—“the soul food of Japan,” in their words.
GUS’S WORLD FAMOUS FRIED CHICKEN
“I have a soft spot for any fried chicken,” Kish says. “And Gus’s is an institution.” (It also happens to be a short walk around the corner from the LINE.) Her order: three- piece dark, plus whatever sides she’s feeling at the time.
Think French brasserie meets dive bar meets hip house party, and the quirky mashup that is Justine’s begins to come into view. The convivial space is considered the late-night venue in town, particularly among the after-hours F&B crowd (the kitchen is open until 1:30 am). Order the moules frites and steak tartare and enjoy the show.