I must admit that the name of this establishment turned me off from the get-go, creating an unfounded prejudice. I imagined a half-baked, hipster-driven place with no clear concept or aim. Later, I discovered it was chef Parind Vora's reinvention of the Bar Mirabeau space into a casual dining venue and realized there could be something worth checking out. Seeking something other than canned beer and food truck fare on a Friday during South by Southwest, we decided to give Tapasitas a shot and found exactly what we were looking for. All my preconceptions went out the window.
The ultra-modern glass and metal exterior may make the restaurant hard to spot from the street, but it hides a comfortable, casually classy space, with an ample seating area, an inviting bar, and a lovely patio. We were pleasantly surprised to find Jeff Boley, one of Austin's most talented barmen, behind the bar. He created Tapasitas' cocktail program, which includes classic and modern cocktails including the Revenge of the Redbud ($12, Tito's vodka, fresh orange, lime, grapefruit bitters, house-made grenadine, Cubano chile), a remake of his delicious entry (and my pick) in the Official Drink of Austin 2009. We were just in time for happy hour, when select tapas are just $5 and a few beers, wines, and cocktails are discounted. We shared the chicken albondigas ($8), served over a savory red pepper sauce, and the steak tartare ($12, no happy hour price), which turned out to be one of the best, most authentic versions of this classic I've had in years. We liked everything so much, we decided it would be worth a return visit for dinner.
Our dinner visit provided the opportunity to explore the menu more carefully. Executive chef Jessica Wagnon worked as sous chef at Braise (another one of Vora's projects) and later at Vora's Restaurant Jezebel before being picked to run Tapasitas. That's proven to be a wise choice. The young chef is creative, but respectful of ingredients' flavors and textures, letting them shine simply without too many fussy combinations. That said, her presentations are artistic, and each plate we saw was visually appealing and appetizing.
We wanted to sit on the patio, but it was such a nice day out that the tables were full, so we made ourselves comfortable at the bar again, starting with a couple of Boley's fantastic cocktails. We were delighted by the St. Josh's Loving Cup ($12), his homage to fellow barman Josh Loving, with expertly blended Rittenhouse bonded rye, Mathilde poire, honey syrup, and Bar Keep Chinese bitters.
For food we tried the salmon tartare ($10, $5 at happy hour): very fresh-tasting and well-seasoned, served with house-made potato chips, and washed down with a $5 glass of a very decent house sparkling wine. Next came the arancini ($7, $5 at happy hour), crispy fried risotto balls studded with bacon, bleu cheese, and Hatch chiles, with Romesco sauce for dipping, followed by pork belly ($10, $5 at happy hour), with accompaniments of creamy parsnip puree, candied fennel, baked apple chips, and fried sage. For a vegetable option, we chose the brussels sprouts in spicy vindaloo coconut curry ($8), which were cooked just al dente, giving them a very pleasant crunch. We also tried the daily pizza special ($10), which was labeled "shrimp scampi." The crispy, cracker-thin crust came topped with plump, juicy shrimp, fresh tomatoes, basil, and oregano. We devoured every bite without uttering a word.
Chef Wagnon doesn't shy away from interesting desserts, either. Although we were quite satisfied with everything we ate and drank, I was enticed by the mel i mató ($8), whipped cow's milk ricotta cheese, surrounded by crunchy candied almonds, berries, and drizzled with local honey. It was the perfect light ending to our meal. Tapasitas also offers excellent coffees and espresso, as well as cigars for those with that persuasion. The location may be a bit hard to spot, but I guarantee it will be worth seeking out. And keep an eye on young Wagnon. She's a very talented, up-and-coming Austin chef.
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