Restaurant Review: Chi'Lantro

Chi'Lantro renews fast casual

Chi'Lantro BBQ

1509 S. Lamar, 512/428-5269,
Sun.-Thu., 10:30am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 10:30am-12mid

If Austin truly excels at one thing, it's at forming lines. If two people loiter outside a restaurant for more than a minute, a throng quickly forms. Maybe we are afraid of missing out or looking like we're not in the know. Maybe as our culinary options increase, we become all too quickly bored, treating dining out as an endless scavenger hunt. Check to check to check.


So it didn't particularly surprise me to hear that queues were forming outside of Chi'Lantro, Jae Kim's brick-and-mortar expansion of his fledgling food truck empire. The name recognition alone practically demanded that. But the composition of the crowds seemed a bit different. Sure, there was the usual smattering of sport diners, young couples on an endless date. But there was also a steady stream of high school or college spring breakers, paying a (slight) premium over national eateries. They are not exactly the usual suspects.

It's true that there's surprising distance between Austin's McDonald's and Subways, the chains separated by our much better homegrown versions. We take for granted that so many of our everyday options (everything from P. Terry's to VertsKebap to Pluckers Wing Bar) are local. And true, it's no secret that millennials have a much broader palate than the preceding generation that gave us Pearl Jam and Cool Ranch. But popular culture would have us believe that palate is just screaming for novelty, a squirt of sriracha on an otherwise bland base. But there's nothing dull about anything at Chi'Lantro. Industry types would be wise to take notice.

Photos by John Anderson

For one thing, the lively dining room is easily reproducible. There's not much to it: some lumber, white subway tile, paint, and shellac. A mural/word cloud in the entry pays homage to Chi'Lantro's mobile roots, a few scattered plants punctuate, and candied mesh chairs provide most of the color (the origami-inspired seats pictured on the website have already been replaced – perhaps victims of overuse). It all gives the tight space effortless identity. It's just the right energy for a place with high turnover, even if such smart design (witness how the boards subtly point the customer to the ordering counter) isn't absolutely necessary in a strip mall. But above-and-beyond turned out to be a theme.

Chi'Lantro is technically fast casual, but an evolution of that hollow industry term. There's a depth of flavor in most of the dishes that can only come from time. Even at peak times, one can get in and out with lightning speed, but that's where comparisons to places like Chipotle end. First, there's craft beer on tap and a decent wine selection. And the staff is inordinately friendly – Hare Krishnas in the airport friendly. One would be hard-pressed to find another restaurant in this category that offers you dessert or another Topo Chico as they clear your table.

One would also be hard-pressed to find another fast casual restaurant so devoted to prep. Case in point is the K-Pops (6 for $7.50), carefully frenched where a Buffalo-style wing would work. Chi'Lantro luxuriates theirs in Gangnam sauce or honey butter. Esquites ($5.25), served as a dip, subs a proprietary "magic sauce" for mayonnaise, adding yet one more step. Even the pickles ($2 as a side) are made in-house. This is not an operation that cuts corners.

That's even more evident in the meat choices. The spicy pork in the rice bowl ($6.99) had little resolve, breaking apart with a slight fork poke, but the big flavor offset the milder rice and fried egg. Rib eye bulgogi worked nicely in the simple tacos (2 for $7), although a house-made corn tortilla would have been nice. In the burger ($6.99), the beef is practically pugilistic, quickly cutting through Cheddar, onion, fried egg, and more of that magic sauce. None of those compare to the kimchi fries ($6.99), a stoner masterpiece with caramelized kimchi, sharp cheese, and sriracha (among other flavors). It's Kim's signature dish, and it is equally good with chicken, pork, beef, or marinated tofu.

The one dessert option, Bunchi' ($4), a doughnut-style bun filled with a generous scoop of green tea ice cream is one of the best things on the menu, using salt to take the ache off the glaze. We were less impressed by the kimchi fried rice balls ($6), endlessly poppable arancini that could have used another spoonful of gochujang. But that won't keep us from ordering them again; they were still light and greaseless. And everything else may be just what we have been waiting for.


1509 S. Lamar, 512/428-5269
Sun.-Thu., 10:30am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 10:30am-12mid

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