Restaurant Review: Sugar Pine Cafe Stands Out From Austin's Japanese Food Pack
Charming North Austin restaurant boasts onigiri and homemade ice cream
Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., Sept. 13, 2019
Every now and again, a new restaurant pops onto the Austin scene and just about everyone – from "influencers" to consumers spending their hard-earned dollars – is thrilled. The space is welcoming and lovely, with its design boasting a special attention to detail and nuances that separate it from the pack. The menu is streamlined and every dish is not only aesthetically pleasing, but impressively well-executed. The service is top-notch, whether full table or counter, from kitchen to front-of-house. And when all of those factors lump together at an approachable and reasonable price point, well, it's a slam-dunk review. If we gave star ratings, that would be a five out of five (what say you, reader?). Such is the case with Sugar Pine Cafe.
In June, the small North Austin eatery (off Research Boulevard, not far from the original Ramen Tatsu-ya) opened to much acclaim, with rave Instagram posts and local media coverage out the wazoo – even before the menu was wholly available online. (Sugar Pine's owners also own both locations of CoCo's Cafe, which specializes in pearl drinks, iced teas, and a large menu of Taiwanese fare.) Zip forward a few months to a steady stream of pleased customers spanning a wide berth of demographics. It's virtually impossible to dislike Sugar Pine.
The space itself is dreamy. Flying yellow canaries swoop down the adorable accent wallpaper, green plants (including many up-for-sale succulent arrangements) adorn linear spaces throughout, rope-wrapped support poles and sleek wood-grained tables and bright yellow chairs pair with glossy black accents, and the whole room is filled with windows ushering in natural light. A dog-friendly patio features a fountain, and a blue velvet sitting area is perfect for chatting over iced red tea, craft beer, wine, sake, mead(!), or a drink from the full espresso bar. The counter service staff, on each visit a welcoming experience, delivered each item to the table. And while nothing here is complicated – that's a big part of the charm – it's a way to introduce alternative (though still traditional) Japanese fare to those branching out from a standard-issue California sushi roll point of view.
That brings us to the onigiri.
About a third of the menu is Sugar Pine's dedicated section of made-to-order Japanese rice balls, currently featuring nine fillings, all cooked, many vegan/vegetarian, and all gluten-free (except the spicy tuna). Of two of the round versions, the ume (Japanese fruit similar to plum) and shiso (mint-family leaf) is pleasantly lip-pucker tart; the bright pickles tint the onigiri a friendly pink. The grilled chicken option, triangular like most of the others, is tender and gentle on the palate. Others are tuna, steak, avocado, and spicy tofu. Most could use a tiny bit more filling, but before you declare a need for a pinch of salt in the rice, note that sushi rice is seasoned while onigiri rice is plain and steamed. (Consider soy sauce if you're adamant.) Dine in, and the onigiri is artfully placed atop nori and served with pickles and garnish; to-go onigiri is standard, wrapped in nori and cellophane, making it even more portable.
The rest of the food menu is split between appetizers/small plates and bento sets. Oh, that shrimp tempura! Three large, plump, and perfectly tempura-ed shrimp with dipping sauce offer a twinge of sweetness and just the right amount of salty crisp. I adore this simple appetizer. The large cubes of salt-and-pepper tofu are similarly delightful in their blond fried exteriors and tender insides. The standout starter is certainly the cold soba (buckwheat) noodles, which arrive in two smallish portions – great as an app for two or light entrée for one – with sides of sauce, bonito flakes, and a trifecta of tiny flavor boosts: apple, wasabi, and ginger. (Note: It's not cereal – dip the noodles, don't pour on the sauce.) The bento sets arrive on a tray with a variety of small accoutrements like seaweed salad, steamed and/or pickled veggies drizzled with hot chile oil, miso soup, and seasoned rice; each set comes with a tiny, gluten-free almond cookie. I hate the word "craveworthy," but my favorite such dish here is the juicy chicken katsu (breaded cutlet) set with creamy, robust Japanese oyster mushroom and potato curry – a steal of a deal at lunch. The fry on the chicken karaage is surprisingly lighter than most. Other sure-bet options are the tempura-fried eggplant and kabocha squash, grilled salmon, and their twist on everybody's pub fare favorite, fish & chips with Atlantic cod and taro. (Real quick: It seems that ensuring passersby are aware this casual spot serves said Japanese fare would be a smart move.)
The headliner item is the homemade ice cream (and sorbet and sherbet) section, and even for this part-time lactose avoider, it does not disappoint. Sugar Pine offers fresh house-made waffle cones and a revolving list of flavors like mango sorbet, white chocolate Thai tea, taro root, watermelon Thai basil, and miso caramel, plus a refreshing sans-Fruity Pebbles toppings bar with toasted coconut, chocolate chips, candied orange, and puffed rice. It's highly recommended that you really double down on indulgence with an added scoop to create a craft beer float or affogato. The bakery team apparently never sleeps, churning out endless layered cakes, pretty fruit tarts, mochi (red bean FTW), and a variety of cookies. Suffice it to say, whether embarking on an afterschool treat, business bribery, or date night, if even one tooth is a sweet one, you're covered for dessert here.
At night, some tables play board games while sipping bevs; some dash in and out with a cone; and others really embrace the slow food, chew-every-bite-27-times ethos. Regardless, it's no secret Austin has a major penchant for Japanese food, and Sugar Pine is upping our collective game in a majorly sweet-cute way. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see handheld rice savories evolve into a walk-down-the-street on-the-go food like our city's beloved taco?
Sugar Pine Cafe8578 Research
Tue.-Thu., 11am-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-10pm; Sun., 11am-9pm; Mon., closed