The Top 10 Austin Food & Drink Stories of 2021
Another up-and-down year in Austin food
Polar Vortex: The Community Comes Together
We thought we were just getting a cold snap in mid-February. We all know what happened next: The power grid was no match for the polar vortex, plunging millions of Texans into a frozen hellscape with no heat, no electricity, no way to procure or cook food. Restaurants, breweries, coffeehouses, and more filled bellies and watering cans; mutual aid groups got food to folks, and folks into warm beds; and neighbors who miraculously still had power pooled their resources and made pots of beans and rice to assemble and distribute burritos and other supplies to folks who were stranded by the weather and our failed power grid. Humanitarian restaurateur José Andres also brought his disaster-response culinary nonprofit World Central Kitchen to Austin, enlisting restaurants like Carpenters Hall and Ramen Tatsu-ya and more to cook hundreds of meals for people in warming centers and elsewhere who lacked access to food during that terrible week.– Melanie Haupt
The Labor Shortage Is a Lie
How nice has it been to return to in person dining after the sudden and catastrophic pandemic shutdowns? Now in Q4, most restaurants that survived have completely reopened, but not without earning a shock of gray hair. As the backbone of the hospitality industry – you know, the human beings working in restaurants and bars – suffered their fate, longstanding woes and scant labor rights came to a head. The resulting so-called labor shortage was, in fact, actually a mass exodus of service industry folks sick and tired of low wages, dangerous conditions, and unfair labor practices. We'll repeat it for the people in the back: It's not a labor shortage; it's a wage shortage. Pay them fairly and they will come.– Jessi Cape
Top Chef Bottoms Out
The rumors swirled for months, long before Gabe Erales appeared on season 18 of Top Chef. Erales was abruptly dismissed from his head chef position at the acclaimed Downtown restaurant Comedor in December 2020, right after filming in Portland wrapped. While Erales wowed judges and viewers alike with his saucework and knowledge of nixtamalization, the internet hummed with speculation about why he'd been fired from such a high-profile job. After Erales was crowned the winner of the reality TV cooking competition, news broke that he'd been fired from Comedor for sexual misconduct, having had an affair with a staff member and subsequently cutting her hours when the relationship soured. While Erales has been effectively scrubbed from the Top Chef website, plans continue apace for his new Rainey Street restaurant, Bacalar, slated for a fall 2022 opening.– M.H.
Ghost Kitchens Proliferate
Nothing supernatural going on here, people. It's just a trendy name for a commercial kitchen wherein food vendors, who can't (or would prefer not to) deal with venue upkeep and dine-in traffic, can ply their tasty trade in style. Already an economically smart gambit before COVID, these places really took off during the last two years, allowing eateries to thrive exclusively as pickup-and-delivery joints. Lately, the move is to run a congeries of such kitchens – the Kitchen United Mix on Burnet, the Cloud Kitchens alongside North I-35, that shiny new Prep ATX facility – that feature, as if surprisingly, food as good as you can find in many fancier, sit-down places. Because sometimes we want public ambience and intimacy, sure; but often we just wanna eat something delicious.– Wayne Alan Brenner
Waste Not, Want Less
The first two years of this decade have certainly been rife with hellstorms and heartache, but one positive takeaway is a dramatic increase in visibility and calls to action for mitigating food-related environmental and social disasters by focusing on low(er) waste foods. Not yet a buzzword, but the catchy phrase/lifestyle actually looks like a variety of tiny steps joining forces to make a big difference. Restaurants like Intero and Foreign & Domestic are revered for their creative use of otherwise scrap ingredients;pandemic-spawned takeaway takeover helped others see the light and switch to reusables and compostables; a huge crop of new plant-based options is blooming citywide. Find your "why" and be a force for good by making a little bitty step in your household's food consumption policies and maybe, just maybe, our kids won't need a spacesuit to walk to school. – J.C.
Drama at Johnson’s Backyard Garden
When Johnson's Backyard Garden, a local urban farm that had been supplying produce to restaurants and farmers' markets and CSA customers for almost 20 years, practically vaporized in late summer, people were confused and concerned. The familiar black-and-white graphic logo disappeared from the farmers' markets, and CSA deliveries were "paused" on July 1. The deliveries never resumed, and CSA members were out hundreds of dollars for their unfulfilled subscriptions. The rumor mill churned (Drugs! Guns! Salted fields!), but answers were slow in the offing. In late August, a collective of ex-employees released a statement that all JBG employees had been fired or quit due to "unsafe working conditions." As of this writing, JBG is officially closed, a sad ending for an operation that was at the forefront of the early Aughts Austin locavore movement.– M.H.
Q2 Tightens Its Brewery Belt
It's too early to tell if the team is worth a shit, but the whole Austin FC stadium in-game vibe and its circumforaneous pre-/post-game atmosphere surrounding the park is downright magnificent as the newest entertainment option for a famously entertainment-bare city. Seven breweries (Austin Beerworks, Adelbert's, Celis, 4th Tap, Oskar Blues, Hopsquad, and Circle), a cidery (Fairweather), and nearly 21,000 fans ring Q2 as Austin's Brewery Belt, a match made in serendipitous footy-culture heaven, where fans can revel in drunken anticipation of 97% possession in a 0-2 loss. – Eric Puga
Turn and face the strain, man. Here in draconian Texas, despite unprecedented constituent support, our cannabis reform bills continue to get dusty, shot down, or decimated. We've seen our border neighbors New Mexico and Oklahoma, and the entire country of Mexico, pass various stages of legalization while Texas incarcerates folks for personal THC usage and thwarts lucrative cannabusiness with endless rich old white dude discussions of "weed" nuance on the Lege floor. Sure, agricultural hemp and CBD are okay, but Delta-8's fate remains trapped in a back-and-forth precarity. Most importantly, the legality of THC, a data-driven salve to many, is still hanging on by a thread, only allowed medicinally for a miniscule (albeit critical) part of the state population. So 2021 stirred the pot (c'mon), but 2022 – with all of the upcoming elections – is the Year of Cannabis. Read up, speak up, and get thee to the ballot box, friends. And while we're at it, y'all, can we please retire the, um, issue-riddled moniker "marijuana," already?– J.C.
Much Easier to Catch a Buzz These Days
The booze industry's COVID-induced pivots have shined a new light on ways to get hammered in the most convenient of methods. Signed into law in May, booze to go (including cocktails, wine, beer, and malt bevs) is the new standard for Texas in our quest to catch up to the achievements of neighboring booze bags, Louisiana. We also witnessed the heroic comeback of QR codes, taped cleverly to the table to allow patrons to order more directly (and quickly!) without the annoyance of queuing behind some jerk still hemming and hawing about what to order ("Like, what would you recommend?"). Let's hope these never go away (they appear to be disappearing rapidly) because tabbing out with your phone is the only way to live in this germy new world. And as of September, Texans can now buy beer on Sundays before noon like regular human beings. WHY, BACK IN MY DAY WE HAD TO WAIT 'TIL THE COWBOYS KICKED OFF!– E.P.
Hurray for the Home team!
Despite the extremely difficult industry landscape, three hometown favorites, new and established, made national news this year. Born this summer, Birdie's, a 12th & Harvey neighborhood spot serving seasonal New American fare and thoughtful wines, made the prestigious New York Times Top 50 Restaurants in America list. Superstar sisters Reyna and Maritza Vazquez, owners of Austin's beloved Veracruz All Natural – a Tex-Mex mini-chain grown from humble food truck roots – were profiled in NYT in advance of their upcoming expansion to Los Angeles. And Downtown's fiery Hestia, part of the Emmer & Rye group and known for creative fine fare fired in a 20-foot hearth, made Esquire's "Best New Restaurants in America, 2021" list. We're so proud!– J.C.