Following a sudden closing in mid-January due to unpaid Travis County taxes, the Springdale neighborhood bar and casual eatery Kinda Tropical quietly reopened during SXSW, with a brand-new menu, management team, and mission.
First opened in April 2017, Kinda Tropical became an established cool-without-trying hangout with minimal PR and a kinda-refined, kinda-lacking food and drink menu. DJ sets cropped up somewhere along the way, showcasing employees and a wide swath of local and global talent, both amateur and veteran. As they became known more as a DIY, all-night garage party spot than a go-to restaurant, the business appears to have experienced some behind-the-scenes turbulence – what owner Amy Mullins now chalks up to "management issues." In advance of the reopening, the top leadership team was adjusted, though Mullins kept details to a minimum. She confirmed that she and Shannon LeBoeuf (both also co-own Yellow Jacket Social Club along with other unaffiliated partners) are still on board, and that they've added additional unnamed partners and an unnamed management group attached to the 13th Floor bar (on East 12th Street). Also new to the roster is chef/partner John Clark DiCicco, and the whole team is focused on a more stable future for the space.
Mullins said she doesn't wish to dredge up the past, instead emphasizing the excitement she has over the energy and vision that DiCicco brings to the business. They agree that their partnership feels especially promising. DiCicco was on the lookout for a new project, and the chance to take over the Kinda Tropical kitchen fell into his lap when mutual friend circles put the two in contact. "I used to play dominoes here all the time with my friend Mike Garrido of Figure 8 Coffee, and I'd think, 'Man, I wish I could have been on the opening part of this' – and now I'm on the reopening part!" said DiCicco.
Since reopening, Mullins and DiCicco have been pouring their joint efforts into, as Mullins describes it, "chipping away at a long list of to-dos" that they hope will cement the business as a "friendly and inclusive" spot. Laughing about landscaping around guests the day before, they pointed out that greenery should probably be in order for the backyard of a tropical-themed business. "Every day now, there is something happening that is bringing us a little closer to the Kinda Tropical we all want to see," explained Mullins. "We want to find a good consistency in our culture, our menu, and as an events space. Since the reopening, we've had old and new customers come in who have said, 'I can feel how good the vibe is now.'"
DiCicco's culinary career was forged over the last nine years between his native Philadelphia, New York City, and Austin, with his most recent position as line cook-turned-sous chef under chef Michael Fojtasek, two-time James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef Southwest. Four and a half years at Olamaie gave DiCicco management experience, exposure to local farmers' bounties, and the chance to work with refined and socially conscious talent.
"Though I've been trained most recently in Southern cuisine, I never had any eye toward specializing in a particular cuisine – I just kind of was interested in making food taste good, becoming a better chef," said DiCicco. "This first menu here is the food that I like to eat when I go out. It's accessible, you know? Nobody is going to look at it and not understand it."
DiCicco's menu retains a few staples from the previous iteration, such as avocado toast and a rice bowl with seasonally changing vegetables, but a major focus is on dishes for daily enjoyment – like a tender salad of gem lettuce, Brie, and tarragon vinaigrette and an unpretentious everyday burger (available with grilled pineapple for $2 extra). The menu also showcases his signature Cornbread and Company, which had its beginnings as an Olamaie staff family meal – red beans cooked in tom kha herbs and coconut milk, a grilled wedge of gluten-free cornbread, and a perfectly cooked egg with scallions. On the playful side of things, he features a snack board ("The kind of thing you have to get when you sit down with your friends and want to graze") with his favorite prosciutto from the Hamery in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and curly fries with a pick-your-own house sauce.
Next on DiCicco's agenda is formulating some "big deal gluten-free" options for guests – he has already recipe-tested one flour blend and optimized it for his Texas- (pick-your-own syrup) and hemp leaf-shaped CBD waffles. "I want to be as accommodating as possible to everyone – I really mean everyone – putting in the extra effort to make it taste good; then we don't have to turn people away. I don't have any ego about the menu, either. I always try to go talk to people when they finish their meal, just to get the feedback that you want as a chef," said DiCicco. "Creatively, your mind is always going, always absorbing and studying menus. I just want to make sure there are new dishes and specials, movement, and also that we utilize produce from Eden East [formerly Springdale Farm] down the street."
Kinda Tropical also now offers a full bar with scratch cocktails (mostly mezcal-, tequila-, and rum-based) and rotating draft and frozen cocktail options like a mezcal Paloma and a frozen jalapeño-and-pineapple margarita. Guests can still enjoy wines and draft beer, now including a gluten-free michelada made with a base of Fairweather Cider's Tejano Dreams. Sake is still on the table, with some new-to-town canned options including Kizakura's Bushido – a ginjo genshu (premium, undiluted) sake with moderate acidity and a spicy finish that DiCicco profiles as "strong and smooth, [and] which pairs well with our spicy soy chicken wings in lime buttermilk dip."
Wanting the spirit of inclusivity to touch the Kinda Tropical team, DiCicco intends to incentivize communication between staff by encouraging employees to add each other as friends on the Duolingo app to build their Spanish- or English-speaking skills while on the clock. This may be an unconscious nod to the staff culture of Olamaie, which includes a "PowerPoint club" that encourages employees to share their interests with other staffers in a sort of ongoing show-and-tell series. In a city full of made-for-Instagram offerings and corporate work environments devoid of expression, small traditions like these can set a restaurant apart by holding space for employees' desire to belong and contribute. No matter one's place in the service constellation, having a spot to bond with neighbors over a regular burger, beer, and dominoes is something we as Austinites value. Kinda Tropical appears to have a renewed sense of this neighborliness, thanks to the efforts of DiCicco and Mullins. "We're taking [Kinda Tropical] to a different place, a different feel," Mullins said. "We're the same, but we're new."
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