Learning to Love Austin FC's Roster Through Their Native Cuisines

International players' kitchen

The Doughminican (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Prayers have been answered. Chants have been written, rewritten, and belted out in preparation for their official debut. At long last, after years of half-hearted jeers and jealous sneers toward Dallas and Houston’s shiny array of professional sports, Austin has a soccer team. The crown jewel in our city’s already-crowded diadem, Austin FC is something truly our own, and soon we will stand side by side in un mar de verde, bellowing out “Bella Ciao” with 20,000-odd (and odd) fanatics ready to show our players and our city exactly what they mean to us.

With excitement for the Austin FC’s inaugural home game approaching fever pitch, it’s not too late to spark a romance with the club or get that edge up over your friends as to who really knows the most about the team – and one of the most efficient ways to get to know someone is through food. Both the profound cultural heritage passed through food and the physical practice of sharing a meal are powerfully human acts. To live is to eat. To eat is to live. Food is a conduit for a sort of intimacy that is rare in the modern world (even before the cloistering effects of the past year took hold). Though we can’t offer that sort of direct line to the players, we can perhaps gain some insight into our new neighbors by exploring and celebrating the cuisines of their home countries.

Costa Rica & the Caribbean

Defender Julio Cascante (Puerto Limón) and midfielder Ulises Segura (San José Province) hail from Costa Rica, roughly 2,300 miles from Austin. Though their country’s cuisine shares features with several other Central and South American countries with the basic staples of rice, beans, and proteins, Costa Rica is lacking a coherent presence in Austin’s restaurant scene. Thankfully, many traditional flavors are easily accessible from the kitchen. Their national dish gallo pinto is a concoction of rice and black beans made remarkable by the dearly beloved salsa lizano, a warm, tangy concoction that rings with Worcestershire-like umami. Salsa lizano can be ordered online and found presumably in any of the excellent hot sauce shops in town. The dish itself is ubiquitous and a point of pride, to the point of inciting a competition between Costa Rica and Nicaragua (which also claims gallo pinto as their innovation and birthright) for the largest serving of gallo pinto ever prepared. Costa Rica is the reigning champion, having whipped up thousands of pounds of the dish in 2009 to serve some 50,000 hungry mouths.

Cascante's birthplace of Puerto Limón invites us to delve into another type of cuisine, due to its role as the primary port city allowing access to trade with the Caribbeans. This saw the identity of the Limón Province develop separately and independently from the rest of Costa Rica, and their food profoundly reflects those influences. Those Caribbean flavors can be found throughout Austin: The Doughminican (2505 Webberville Rd., thedoughminican.com) in East Austin is a food trailer offering scratch-made empanadas and other Dominican specialties on-site and as a catering service. North Austin's Kreyòl Korner (805 Stark St., fb.com/caribbeancuisineatx) is the first Haitian food truck in Texas, boasting a diverse menu and specialties in stewed chicken, mayi moulin (a salty-savory Haitian grits), and stuffed plantain cups. Just down the road you can find Puerto Rican flavors at Chago’s (chagosatx.com, 7301 N. Lamar), including their award-winning mofongos (fried mashed green plantains), pernil asado (slow-cooked pork shoulder), and a refreshing aguacate melon salad. Bikkle Jamaican (3023 Guada­lupe, eatbikkle.com) offers a tantalizing menu with traditional dishes like ackee and saltfish (Jamaica's national dish) and oxtail alongside curried combination plates and jerk chicken eggrolls. It also sits a block down from Island Thyme (2915 Guadalupe St., islandthymegrill.com), where bright pastels and a vibrant Lucas Aoki mural invite hungry students to try Island Signature bowls and wraps, their fast-casual take on Caribbean flavors. East Austin's Mix’T Caribbean Blends (1122 Airport Blvd., mixtbytatiana.com) serves island fusion tacos, sammies, and rasta pastas, infusing Southern comfort foods with Caribbean vigor. Weekly specials tend to dive more boldly into the traditional cuisine of chef Tatiana French-Deejan's Haitian, Black, and Costa Rican heritage. Farther afield, Winston’s Kitchen (6218 Brodie Ln., winstons-kitchen-restaurant.business.site) and Iwayne’s Caribbean Kitchen in Manor (203 W. Parsons Rd., iwaynescaribbeankitchen.com) also offer Caribbean fare, while those up north benefit from the Jamaican treasure trove of Kings & Queens, Island Fork, and Tony’s Jamai­can all near downtown Pflugerville.

South America

Plaza Colombian Coffee Bar (Courtesy of Plaza Colombia Coffee Bar)

Defender Jhohan Romaña, born and raised 2,062 miles away in Apatardó, Colombia, should be pleased by the quality and quantity of Colombian food in his new city. His home country’s national dish of bandeja paisa (a medley of everything wonderful in the world: meat, beans, rice, egg, plantains, and avocado) is a specialty at Casa Colombia (2409 E. Seventh, casa-colombia.com), along with a cazuelas de mariscos seafood stew. Both pair perfectly with any of the tropical juices made on-site, with or without spirits added; if you’re feeling spirited, we recommend the Coco Loco (served out of a freshly cracked coconut) and the mule made with aguardiente (literally “fire­-water,” an anise-tinged tropical liqueur). Sabor Colombia (1318 Round Rock Ave., saborcolombia512.com) serves similarly traditional dishes in Round Rock, alongside fast(er) food options and a drive-through to boot. Also embracing the fast-casual model is Ninja Chicken (6901 Ranch Rd. 620 N., ninjachickenfood.com), which just opened its doors to serve Colombian rotisserie chicken and pork belly in Steiner Ranch. Mi Bambuco (5808 Burleson Rd., mibambucorestaurant.com) has a drastically divergent approach, established and designed as a place of community and home away from home. Named after a niche 1920s genre of Colombian music whose accompanying waltzlike dance tells “the process of peasant romance expressed through movement,” the restaurant/sports bar highlights dishes from the Andean region in Tolima. Those include tamal tolimense, wrapped in plantain leaves, and lechona tolimense, a delectable dish of crispy stuffed pork. The delightfully mellow Plaza Colombia Coffee Bar (3842 S. Congress, plazacolombiancoffee.com) bursts with color and bustles with conversation no matter the time of day. Regular live music from bolero to bachata elevates an already exceptional experience, and mouth-watering pataconzotes (fried smashed green plantains) are just hearty enough to let you keep pounding your caffeine or cocktail of choice.

Venezuelan street food at Budare's food truck (Photo by John Anderson)

Neighboring Venezuela and its capital Caracas, birthplace of midfielder Daniel Pereira, has a similarly strong street presence in Austin, with a squadron of food trucks – Budare’s (fb.com/budaresatx) in North Burnet, Four Brothers ATX (fourbrothersatx.com) in Barton Square Mall/Rain­ey Street/Lago Vista, Pepitos 512 (pepitos512.com) on East Sixth, Arepas Grill (fb.com/arepasgrillaustin) on North Lamar, Reina Pepiada (fb.com/reinapepiadaatx) on South First, and Aurora Vene­zuelan (auroravenezuelanfood.com) in the Domain – offering convenient excellence (or excellent convenience) in the form of arepas, cachapas (a thick fried maize pancake usually struggling to contain the delicacies within), tequeños (doughy fried fingers of cheese), and fresh-squeezed tropical juices. VSPOT ATX in the South Austin Trailer Park and Eatery (1311 S. First, vspotatx.com) bolsters similar choices with sweet pastelitos (puff pastries usually stuffed with guava and a creamy cheese), pabellon criollo (a pulled-beef bowl formally declared the national dish of Venezuela), and a pork belly/gouda arepa that plays a fundamental role in our plans for the summer ahead. McBurger58, a surreally located food truck in the parking lot of The Car Wash on Metric (12435 Met­ric Blvd., fb.com/mcburger58-118498462880126), serves Venezuelan street food with a splurge of excess. Their claim to fame is the eponymous McBurger, a powerful and potentially terrifying tower that supplements a healthy patty with chicken, pork, chorizo, bacon, and potato sticks. Arepa Dealers ATX (310 Colorado, arepadealers.com) also intrigues with their nontraditional spin on Venezuelan soul food, served via meal kits, catering service, and an exciting partnership with Cuatro Gato Cafe. Those further from Austin's central mass can check out high-end fusion at Pflugerville's Fogonero (800 W. Pecan St., fogonerorestaurant.com), Venezuelan BBQ joint Madera & Grill near the Oasis (6811 Ranch Rd. 620, maderaandgrill.com), or the brand-new Arepitas restaurant in Round Rock (3200 Greenlawn Blvd., arepitasusa.com).

Arepa Dealers ATX offers Venezuelan soul food (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

A trip toward the vortex of South America finds us in Paraguay, homeland of forwards Cecilio Domínguez (Asunción) and Rodney Redes (La Colmena). Their history and heritage flows through East Riverside's Cafe Nena’i (1700 Montopolis Dr., cafenenai.com), a delightful cafe and restaurant founded in 2017 by UT graduate Gladys Benitez and her Paraguay-born mother Elena Sanguinetti. The cafe is christened with Elena's childhood nickname nena’i, an affectionate Guaraní term for "little girl." In the dynamic duo's own words, "Nena'i is the soul of our cafe. It represents the dreams in every little girl's heart. The love of our world and the vast possibilities of anyone from anywhere and in any walks of life." That message and motivation radiates throughout the restaurant and the food it serves, from sopa paraguaya (a deceptively named, protein-rich spongy cornbread) and chipa (baked buns of cheese) to bollos (fluffy donuts bursting with your preference of guava and dulce de leche) and alfajores (powder-soft dulce de leche confections bathed in coconut). The restaurant itself is cozy and unpretentiously cute. Exposed brick and antique chandeliers glow warmly in ample natural light, and the hand-drawn (by the mother/daughter powerhouse, no less!) decorations complement rather than overpower a beguilingly minimalist aesthetic.

Cafe Nena’i also derives some of its influences from set-piece specialist Tomás Pochettino’s home country of Argentina, the second-highest per-capita beef consuming country in the world and a noble competitor to Texas’ title as the barbecue capital of the world. Upscale-funky Buenos Aires Cafe (1201 E. Sixth, buenosairescafe.com/east-side) is a beautiful, vibrant destination for asado (beef grilled on open-fire parrillas), parrillada (a glorious mixed grill platter with five types of traditional meats), empanadas, and the legendary lomito, a steak sandwich and chimichurri vessel that reigns supreme in Argentina’s street food scene. The lomito also bears a striking similarity to the national dish in all-action midfielder Diego Fagúndez’s birthplace in Uruguay, where chivitos haphazardly heap ham, bacon, mozzarella, and a fried egg atop succulent slices of churrasco meat.

A meticulously curated selection of Malbecs live up to Argentina’s reputation as elite winemakers and wine drinkers. If your evening’s intentions revolve more heavily around spirits than sustenance (no judgment here), you can find a more relaxed and romantic vibe downstairs in The Milonga Room, a reservation-only art deco speakeasy with spectacular signature cocktails and the finest collection of amaro (herbal liqueur with versatile flavor profiles and cultural uses) in the state. A second location in The Galleria dilutes Buenos Aires Cafe’s traditional ethos into a casually upscale joint that promises the same divine food, if not the charming aesthetic and atmosphere, as its popular older sibling. Buenos Aires-born chef and baker Dan Barreto’s South Austin-based catering service Argentinian Taste (argentiniantaste.com) offers savory creations, sweet temptations, and cooking lessons. Owned by a couple who fell in love with and over Argentina’s Mendoza wine country, El Gaucho Winery (21301 Kathy Ln., elgauchowinerytx.hibuwebsites.com) delivers a serene slice of arid Argentina countryside to the Spicewood hills. With sublime wines vinified in the Uco Valley, El Gaucho is devoted to providing an intimate experience as authentically Argentinian as their grapes.

Off the Beaten Track in Europe & Africa

Cork & Barrel captures the craic of an Irish pub (Photo by Melissa Vinsik Photography)

A long haul through almost the entire vertical expanse of the Atlantic Ocean drops us to the coast of Dundalk, Ireland, from which winger Jon Gallagher hails. Selections for Irish cuisine have expanded dramatically recently; no longer is the locally owned, futbol-crazy BD Riley’s in Mueller (1905 Aldrich St., bdrileys.com) the only authentic Irish pub in town. BD Riley's top-dog status is unlikely to change anytime soon, due to the fiercely territorial loyalty shared by fans of Liverpool FC, Notre Dame football, and the Patriots – supporters' groups of all three teams headquarter at this gregarious hotspot with outstanding Irish nachos and a sturdy Irish brunch, complete with bangers and rashers. Pro tip: Establish credibility and make friends by ordering a Guinness at the bar as soon as you arrive. Foxy’s Proper Pub (201 Brazos St., foxysproperpub.com) has stepped up admirably to fill the absence of BD Riley's former second location Downtown, loudly and proudly proclaiming their identity with a gigantic chandelier of Jameson bottles and a super-sized Guinness harp. The meticulously designed concept is free to breathe in the open-air, two-story space, allowing patrons to choose between intimate conversation in quaint lounges and blaring banter in more public spaces. Further north, Cork & Barrel Craft Kitchen + Micro­brewery (4000 E. Palm Valley Blvd., corkandbarrelpub.com) near Dell Diamond in Round Rock captures the craic of an Irish pub and refines it with a shot of Austin chic. Founded by Sam Dar­ling­ton, a Belfast native turned Texan over the course of 30 years, Cork & Barrel gleams with professional excellence. Choose between cozy private "snugs," a huge outdoor beer garden, or two live music stages to match your mood for the night, and delve into a wide-ranging menu boasting chorizo mussels, fish and chips, and Irish stew served Texas style, in addition to signature cocktails and four house microbrews. Lakeway's LT Corner Pub (1310 Ranch Rd. 620 S., ltcornerpub.com) shakes away the frills with a fun and sociable approach to that trademark Irish atmosphere. Prepare yourself for sharp banter if you dare challenge any regulars in pool, darts, or shuffleboard.

Though Dutch delicacies are difficult to find in Austin, we can welcome striker Danny Hoesen with some scrumptious stroopwafel, courtesy of the Austin-based sweets superheroes at Stroop Club (stroopclub.com). Appalled by the absence of their homeland’s timeless treat in their new city, owners Tako Vermeulen and Chantal Piét set up shop in 2015 with one mission in mind: to ensure no one would ever suffer from insufficient access to stroopwafel again. Their devotion to the treat would sound silly if stroopwafel weren’t so damn addictive. Two brittle waferlike waffles are glued together by a generous layer of velvet­-smooth stroop, their almost­-chemical fusion into gooey glory catalyzed by the steam from your favorite hot drink. For those craving constant stroop, Stroop Club’s subscrip­tion­­-based service offers a stroopwafel coffee and cocktail syrup (very recently made available at all Central Markets) that promises an instant infusion of Dutch warmth whenever desired.

Ovenbird (6501 S. Congress, ovenbirdatx.com) makes their own stroopwafel fresh and accessible in their attractive neighborhood cafe located way south on Congress. Their motto of “simple food, simply done” is accomplished with satisfying clarity by a menu of brunch fare and baked goods inspired by the cuisines of Baltic European countries. Dark chocolate babka French toast and homemade hand pies complement a menu of caffeinated classics and concoctions, including the intriguing Nova, an orange juice elixir supercharged with a shot of espresso. Though Ovenbird doesn’t serve Finland’s poron­kär­istys (sautéed reindeer) or Slovenian buckwheat dumplings – or any other fare from captain Alex Ring or left-back Žan Kolmanič’s respective homelands – they provide a good starting place for your own culinary explorations into Eastern Euro­pean cuisine. Borderless European Market (2121 W. Parmer, bemaustin.com) will be a vital resource in that mission as a one-stop shop providing Austin’s growing Eastern European community with traditional and specialty groceries, wine, and beer.

Tastes of West Africa at Wasota Vegan Paradise (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Gambian winger Kekuta Manneh is the final international player on Austin FC’s inaugural roster. West Africa is distressingly underrepresented in Austin eaters’ dining choices, a sharp contrast to a wide and wonderful lineup of Ethiopian restaurants. North Loop’s Wasota Vegan Paradise (701 E. 53rd St., wasotaveganparadise.com) is working to rectify that imbalance with loving renditions of nourishing Nigerian dishes – try the Wasota Platter, a magnificent offering of jollof rice, stewed black-eyed peas, sautéed spinach, fried plantains, and black-eyed pea fritters. The aptly named African Market/Nigerian Market (10805 N. Lamar, african-market-nigerian-restaurant.business.site) and Lady T Kitchen in Pflugerville (15608 Spring Hill Ln., ladytkitchen.com) bring spicy meat dishes to life alongside pounded yams and traditional soups like ogbono, a robust and viscous dish made from ground African mango seeds and served with fufu. For domoda, the national dish of Manneh’s motherland, one can stop (almost perplexingly) into Austin Java’s sole remaining location (5404 Menchaca Rd., austinjava.com) for a cup of the spicy African peanut soup. Even better, check out the episode of “Kekuta in the Kitchen” from the winger’s time with FC Cincinnati to whip up your own authentic batch of the profoundly satisfying groundnut stew.

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