Restaurant Review: Petite Portions and Not-So-Petite Prices at She’s Not Here
South Pacific-themed tiki bar-cum-restaurant evokes a sense of sleek playfulness
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., Oct. 11, 2019
Mon., 4-10pm; Tues. - Wed., 12am-10pm; Thurs.-Fri., Sun., 12am-12pm; Sat., 12pm - 2am
She's Not Here, the South Pacific-themed tiki bar-cum-restaurant on Second Street that opened in summer 2018, is truly gorgeous. From the tropical plants to the dining room's breathtaking west wall mural by local artist Mez Data to the living-room-style seating in the lounge, the brainchild of restaurateur Christian Romero evokes a sense of relaxation and ease. The restaurant's name, a gesture to the Japanese word for pretending you're not home when someone comes knocking ("the lights are on, but no one's home"), evokes a sense of sleek playfulness.
There are very few places in Austin – outside of the poke places popping up like mushrooms – where you can get a Hawaiian plate lunch, a hearty analog to the Southern meat-and-three with Japanese bento box influences that's meant to be cheap and filling fuel for the second half of the workday. Many of those Pacific Rim-inspired restaurants pop up in strip malls, but She's Not Here offers a higher-end lunch experience with this island staple at its center.
The portion sizes on the lunch plate ensured that it was a light lunch indeed, but I'm an office worker who doesn't need to carb-load midday, so I savored every bite of the green curry with tofu, studded with chunks of zucchini and eggplant and a nicely balanced, not-too-spicy broth. Excited about the trademark plate lunch macaroni salad, I was disappointed with the overly paprika'd and vinegary, rather than creamy-fatty, version on offer here. My coworker's tuna poke bowl popped with a lovely balance of acidity from the citrusy sauce and kiwi fruit chunks and richness from the tender chunks of fish. Before heading back to work, we split a slice of the coconut cake, a three-tiered beauty with cream cheese frosting. The menu claims a spiced rum soak, but I couldn't detect its presence in the flavor profile. The cake, however, was perfectly moist, with a good crumb, but I question the decision to price a medium-small slice of cake at $13, nearly the cost of an entrée.
When we returned for dinner on a Saturday night, our party of four was at a high-top cocktail table despite the fact that the dining room was not even half full. We assumed the empty tables were held for reservations, but over the course of the evening, they remained empty while we slouched in backless bar chairs, ensuring we wouldn't linger over drinks or dessert. That said, the bartender who waited on us was friendly, well-informed, and directed us to some of our favorite dishes of the night.
We started with an order of tempura shishitos, and tofu and Korean beef barbecue satays. The shishitos were quite possibly the largest iteration of these peppers I've ever seen, lightly dredged in batter and served alongside a nondescript radish dipping sauce. While they didn't deliver on the promise that one in 10 will "light you up," they served as a crispy mild kickoff to our meal. I really enjoyed the tofu satay – the firm rectangles lightly fragranced with ginger and bearing a subtle char – and greedily claimed two of the three skewers leaving my companions to split the beef satay with kimchi mayo.
As for the collection of rolls from the sushi menu, the Maki Balboa cut roll gestures cheekily to Sunday morning bagels-n-schmears with rolled salmon, capers, rice, and cucumber topped with everything-bagel seasoning and served atop a smear of cream cheese. Clever and delicious, it edged out the equally tasty soft-shell crab Tarantula roll in showmanship and fun. The hands-down favorite at our table – and among everyone who's ever visited this restaurant, if Instagram is to be believed – was the Krab Butter hand roll. What's not to love about a soy-wrapped handful of krab stick and veggies that you drizzle with a decadent slurry of brown butter before consuming? It's rich and delicious and easily my favorite menu item here. The four of us also split an order of seafood tom yum from the clay pot menu. If I'd been eating this on my own, I'd have been very grumpy indeed with the size of the portion: about four to five shrimp, some shredded fish, and a half-dozen mushrooms. Not because it was skimpy (it was), but because the broth was such a flavorful, kicky combo of acid and spice that I never wanted to stop eating it.
On the cocktail side, I found my Wildflower a bit too viscous and coconut-heavy to be wholly enjoyable, while my friend's Summer Sipper sangria was a bright and pert refresher. The beers indicated on the menu did not reflect what was actually available on tap, which was a disappointment to the beer drinkers at the table, but we all muddled through. There's a deep and knowledgeable selection of spirits here, particularly rums and whiskeys, which suggests that the concept leans more high-end bar than restaurant.
She's Not Here is eminently Instagrammable, genetically engineered down to the barware to evoke the sharpest sense of FOMO possible. And one would expect a sense of joy and merriment in a space that evokes the low (macaroni salad)-meets-high (that beautiful buildout by Litmus Industries) ethos of island time, but She's Not Here never quite gets there. While the food is excellent, the decor is aesthetically pleasing, and the service is friendly and generally good (if typical Austin slackadaisical), I came away feeling slightly ruffled, having missed out on all the fun inherent in the premise of She's Not Here. Perhaps I felt weighed down by what must be the immense costs of running a place like this, or maybe the titular "She" has long left the building.
She’s Not Herewww.snhaustin.com
440 W. Second; 512/888-1970
Lunch: Tue.-Fri., 11:30am-2pm; Dinner: Sun.- Thu., 4-10pm, Fri.-Sat., 4-11pm; Happy Hour: Daily, 4-6:30pm
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org