Tumble 22 Brings the Chickens and the Heat to Lake Austin Boulevard

Former Magnolia Cafe waiter noms his way through meat and memories

They’re tumbling chickens, now, in the place where I worked as a waiter for 12 years before staggering, a couple decades ago, into the offices of the Austin Chronicle and a career in journalism.

They’re tumbling chickens there, because the recently moved-in place is Tumble 22 – the Nashville-style hot chicken concept that took over the property lease from and now occupies the venue that was the all-day-and-all-night diner called Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Boulevard.

The Mag, as it was affectionately known by generations of Austinites, started in 1979; although the Magnolia Cafe on South Congress is still hanging on by a gingerbread pancake thread, the Lake Austin original shuttered forever this past spring – a sadness that was partly due to those damned ‘ronas.

And there has to be some story behind the place’s new name, right?

“It’s called Tumble 22 because we tumble the chickens in our mix of spices,” the Lake Austin store’s general manager Keri Black tells me, “and if we tumble them 21 times, that’s not enough. And if we tumble them 23 times, that’s too much.”

“So 22 is like the Goldilocks amount of tumbles?” I say.

Black nods. “It’s just right,” she says.

It certainly tastes just right, as I discover while sharing a late lunch at the place with Roy Janik of Austin’s Hideout Theatre. We tuck into an array of Tumble22 offerings, the better to discern just what this hot-chicken sensation is all about.

[Note: The menu reveals the five levels of pepper-heat that these fried yardbirds are available in: Wimpy. Hot. Mo’ Hot. Dang Hot. Cluckin Hot. Not quite Scoville-level precision there, but a helpful guide for the wary.]

We’re sitting on the outside patio, Janik and I, and this patio is totally outside, the new picnic tables safely distanced and shaded. Totally outside, as opposed to the adjacent covered patio that I remember being added to the original building way, way back in the day. We can see the sparse traffic rolling by on Lake Austin Boulevard. Deep Eddy Cabaret – a particularly iconic fixture of my Magnolia history – sits catty-corner across the street.

“Does this place look really different to you?” asks Janik, chewing a bite of one of the pieces of Cluckin’ Hot chicken steaming on the plate before him.

“Ah,” I say, easing another deviled egg down my margarita-lubed craw, “it’s not all that different, really. They’ve removed one of the registers and there’s no front counter to sit at, and there’s fewer booths – that’s probably due to the pandemic, anyway – but it’s pretty much the same. Just a bit lighter and brighter and, uh, cleaner overall, you know? Less funk, more efficiency.” I take a bite from my O.G. Chicken Sandwich. Oh, hey: yum.

“But, yeah,” I say, “it’s a bit of a mindfuck to walk through that dining room now. Twelve years, man. Back in the Nineties!”

Janik smiles indulgently: I have kind friends.

“Well, this is real good chicken,” he says. “Crispy skin, but still super juicy. Which is a weird thing to say, kinda – but it’s great.”

“Yeah,” I concur, “this is good stuff. Which makes sense, because – you know Salty Sow on Manor Road? Now that’s a hell of a great restaurant. And the guy who owns it? Harold Marmulstein? He’s the guy who started Tumble22.”

“Salty Sow,” says Janik around a mouthful of tasty bird, nodding.

“And how’s that Cluckin’ Hot stuff?” I ask, having, in an abundance of caution, ordered just the Mo’ Hot level for my own chicken. “It’s not too spicy?”

“It’s hot as hell,” says Janik, “but it’s not too much, not as much as I thought it might be – and the flavor of the chicken still comes through. Although the ghost pepper does have a … cumulative effect.” He takes a swig of his Paloma.

This is where I note that the coronavirus has a cumulative effect, too, the way the pandemic and society’s scattershot reactions to it have built up, month after month, and are sending more and more eateries everywhere to that ill-fated 86 board in the sky. Janik’s own Hideout Coffeehouse is struggling to stay afloat Downtown, selling coffee and pastries and so on to passersby, to whatever city-based office workers aren’t just telecommuting from their homes out in the suburbs these days. And …Tumble22?

“We’re doing okay,” says Keri Black. “It’s slow on the weekdays, a lot slower than the other stores were before the pandemic, and it’d be great to get more people in here. But the weekends are nice and busy. We get a good,” she pauses, “a good, socially distanced crowd.”

“And last Sunday,” adds our waiter, Austin, who’s worked at all three Tumble 22 locations and has been with Marmulstein’s company from the start, “we had the highest sales we’ve ever had here. Things are picking up.”

I pick up my blood-orange margarita – yes, Tumble 22 has a liquor license, and drink specials from 4-6pm daily – and Janik hoists his Paloma, and we kind of salute the idea of things-in-general-continuing-to-improve. We didn’t know, at the time, how the country’s presidential election was going to turn out, of course. But if we had known, we would’ve been smiling even bigger.

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Tumble22, Magnolia Cafe, Nashville-style hot chicken, Roy Janik, Hideout Theatre, booze & nostalgia with a ghost-pepper crust

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