If you really love travel and culture, I’ve got a message for you this holiday season that I hope you will share with others.
It wasn’t because there was any particular pride in a culture that was behind our start. But, rather, the opposite.
We started in 2015 to give folks a platform to cultivate a sense of understanding, empathy, and love by experiencing them all—led by our local partners and HUNDREDS of member travel enthusiasts in Austin, NYC, DC and growing.
As we start the holiday season, in a time when our immigrants and their cultures have been alienated when they should be embraced for the perspective they have brought for over two hundred years, this message of LOVE is important.
Because in actuality, culture is a beautiful illusion.
Why? Because it is something that we perceive with our senses so that it’s only a reflection of people and places.
The smell and taste of food.
The sights of travel.
The sound of music.
Think about it. It’s all just a reflection of the person or people who created it and the place that adopted it.
There are nearly 200 nations but over 6,000 organized cultures worldwide. In the U.S., we are fortunate to get a “taste” for nearly all of them, I’m willing to bet.
How often do we really get to know the person or place intimately—in a way that’s beyond our own perception of it? I mean, how often do we perceive with our mind and heart what culture is trying to tell us about people and places through these reflections of food, drink, music and more.
When we read a book, a blog or watch a show about a country, its great, but we still absorb and translate it OUR way because it’s handed down through a secondary resource, whether that be a blogger or a friend.
But what if we learned from the source? From someone who is a first hand expert in the culture.
That’s why we see international restaurant owners, boutique curators, musicians, and other artisans in our backyards and their craft as the ultimate resource at MezzeCulture—immigrants and representatives of the world at our fingertips.
We are a community of travel enthusiasts who come together at our pop up events hosted by these local partners who share a unique cultural narrative through their craft—to encourage those half of Americans without passports to travel and those who have to do more of it.
If you choose to subscribe, I thank YOU from my heart for being a part of US.
If you identify with our message this holiday season, please do share us with your friends in Austin, Washington DC, New York, and even Miami, Houston, and San Francisco where we will grow soon.
And please don’t forget to subscribe your email for invites to our exclusive events and check out our upcoming list.
I believe there’s more for local travel enthusiasts to learn about international dishes just by stepping into their backyard than by reading a second-hand account in a book, blog or television program about a country first. That’s why this series of articles will be based on the advice of local business owners whose cultural influences have not simply intrigued- but shaped them, allowing the essence of a culture to become their very livelihood.
It’s because getting travel advice about international food that comes from the heart of someone that shares for a living forms an experience you can trust. It’s bound to feed more than your senses. A peer or friend’s opinion, or even a review on where the best international dishes are in your backyard might be a place to start, but read on in our series for the thoughts of true connoisseurs who’ve been influenced abroad and now share their learnings.
Our hope is that getting to know cultures through food favorites of local businesses will guide you to stumble upon something new that you didn’t know you’d love.
Read on as four Austin business owners share their favorite dishes, including why they enjoy the food, and where they remember it best prepared abroad.
From Colombia: Ajiaco con Pollo
Astrid is a local artist that owns Astrid’s Colombian Jewelry, a handmade shop in Austin featuring beautiful accessories from bracelets to earrings and necklaces made from natural materials like nuts and fruits, like in her native Colombia. Her favorite dish is a soup called Ajiaco con Pollo, from her state of Cundinamarca. Ajiaco is made with chicken, green peas and carrots, and different kinds of potatoes, including yellow or Andes potatoes, whichever can be found locally in Austin.
The soup is made with guascas, a plant from the daisy family used for seasoning, which can be found in the Altiplano Cundiboyacense in the eastern Colombian Andes Mountains. “Colombia has a [rich] variety of food depending on where you are located… and everything is pretty yummy,” Astrid shared. She’s enjoyed this dish in her home state, and for the travel enthusiast recommends the small Colombian town of Machetá in the state of Cundinamarca because of it’s good food, but also amazing views, friendly people and outstanding landscapes.
From Cuba: Sandwich Cubano
When we asked Iska, the owner of south Austin’s genuine Cuban eatery Cuba512, formerly Guantanamera, what his favorite Cuban dish was, he said it was most definitely the Sandwich Cubano—the quintessential Cuban Sandwich because it’s so simple and delicious. “The ingredients inside a Cuban sandwich are simple: ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and every Cuban sandwich needs Cuban bread,” he shared. He also explained that although comparable to French or Italian bread, Cuban bread has a different baking method and ingredient list which makes the difference.
A native of Cuba, he recalled having the best Cuban sandwich in the city of Bayamo. He said that there the sandwich he had was made with pork, lechon in Spanish, roasted with firewood from the local hills. When considered, it’s understandable why the version of the sandwich served at Cuba512—coupled with a thoughtful ambiance and signature drinks like a crisp mojito—the restaurant maintains an esteemed level of authenticity to get you as close to Cuba as you can get in Austin.
From Jordan: Maamoul (also known as Kombe)
Ali, the owner of food truck Austin’s Habibitucked below a towering skyscraper downtown, turned his childhood passion and family legacy into a local eatery. He serves the type of fresh, healthy and flavorful food that the eastern Mediterranean is known for, from Greece to the Middle East. While he features a number of savory dishes for locals to try, he also recalls his favorite dessert—a small, shortbread cookie called Kombe, in Turkey, but also known as Maa’moul in Jordan, where he had the best version of the treat because of its tasty and plentiful when served.
A native of the eastern Mediterranean, he especially enjoys Greece, a reason for the Greek influence in the dishes he serves. When he came to Austin, he decided to open the same type of eateries he grew with abroad while working with his father. Offering a taste of home, he also seems to remind us that no meal is ever complete without dessert. Curious cultural enthusiasts should stay tuned as Austin’s Habibi will be opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant soon.
Miguel owns and runs the downtown Austin food truck Llama’s Peruvian Creole. Although his favorite Peruvian dish varies, he’s a big fan of Lomo Saltado, which his eatery also serves up. The dish is “a beef tenderloin stir-fry over steak fries and garlic rice to soak it all up,” he shared. In the version served at Llama’s, Miguel includes homemade sauces on the side, such as Rocoto, Huancaina, and Anticuchera.
“I’ve tried Lomo Saltado all over Perú. Besides finding quality beef perfectly cooked and smoky, the Huacatay sauces I encounter in Perú are uniquely delicious,” he shared. In his book, Perú always wins when it comes to ingredients because there’s nothing like a well-prepared dish served in the coastal South American country. He invites curious cultural enthusiasts to stop by Llama’s on September 4th for a free sample during its first annual Lomo Saltado Day.
Ready to explore more about Colombia, Cuba, Jordan or Peru? Let these few favorites be your guide. In Austin, if you look closely there is a slice of so many countries that you can start to explore locally.
Stretching along the western Sicilian coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the ancient salt flats are reminders of Phoenician salt-making practices, explained Bernardo Nolfo, proprietor of Austin’s Numero 28 Pizzeria & Vineria. He was speaking of the distinct 2,700-year-old heritage etched in the history of Trapani, a coastal fishing village and his mother’s hometown. It’s this kind of attention to culture and character that you’ll find mirrored in the authentic Osteria he opened last November in Austin’s Second Street District, an eatery steeped in true, authentic Italian tradition.
Like salt, fresh, simple ingredients have stood the test of time in Italian regions like western Sicily, and in much the same way are attributed to the old world charm and authentic flavors guests find at Numero 28. “At an Osteria, you’ll find genuine, original flavors delivered simply across 15 or 20 dishes, but with same attentive service that you would expect at the finest places offering more,” Nolfo said. “Our approach is to deliver the kind of Italian quality characteristic of eateries in small towns, whether set in Sicily or larger regions like Bari or Florence,” he explained. The warm and pleasant atmosphere of Numero 28 is apparent the moment you walk through it’s inviting front patio and into its doors.
For Nolfo, who was born to a Sicilian mother and southern Italian father, the cuisines of Italy carry their own regional specialties, but the quality of preparation comes down to demeanor not just intention. “When someone cooks with love, with joy, and is attentive to preparation you can taste it in the food,” he explained, remembering his own childhood meals. “When my mother’s food was rushed, I tasted it and I would say, ‘mom, what’s wrong today?’,” he laughed.
Characteristic of Italian culture, when you’ve been invited to someone’s home for pizza it means they’re going to roll out fresh dough, and use fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, which is the same attentive quality guests will find at Numero 28. “To successfully work in hospitality, to serve good food, you have to enjoy delighting your guests,” he explained, “Attention to the quality of your ingredients in making even the simplest things is half of the secret to making people happy.”
From the row of seats found under brightly colored umbrellas in a gorgeous patio, to the complements of Italian décor and Mediterranean music playing inside, it’s no doubt that guests to Numero 28 are treated to attentive, authentic Italian dining that brings smiles—one that the local Italian community in Austin comes often to enjoy, a kind of compliment that doesn’t even speak for the delicious food.
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“It’s the places that you know use fresh ingredients daily, that are known to be essential for good cooking, that’s where you’ll find the locals in Italy and Sicily go and eat,” Bernardo explained. Specializing in regional southern Italian and Sicilian dishes, as well as southern Italian-style pizza, the eatery uses a mix of flours and lets its dough rest for at least 36 hours to create its light consistency—the same delicate recipe used in the panino used for its Italian sandwiches. Even something as simple as espresso is served with care—servers are instructed to deliver only a couple at a time because the crema loses its consistency if it sits out too long.
Beginning his restaurant journey in New York City, Nolfo opened his first restaurant in his mid-20s before selling it, and soon after traveling to open Italian restaurants from Miami and Beirut for the Bice Group, a fine dining group from Milan. Over a decade of travel, his favorite part of it all was creating warm gathering places, an affability that eventually led him to want to open something meaningful on his own.
In November 2014, as both a veteran and connoisseur of fine Italian food culture, he and his business partner opened Numero 28 in Austin—a ‘cousin,’ as he described, of a family-owned establishment born in New York City. After having worked with so many people around the world over the years, Bernardo prefers to refer to the establishment of Numero 28 in Austin as a team effort, a family.
Having recently celebrated the first anniversary of Numero 28 in Austin, he smiles when he says, “Everyone here, from Marco to Rudy, Marchino, and Andres, for example, we’re a big family.” Open 7 days a week, walk in one day for lunch or dinner, and you’ll know it’s all true because happiness is at the heart of this little Italian Osteria that will know its way to yours.
Here are our picks for the best Austin restaurant destinations for authentic Italian food this side of Italy. These eight spots are on our list not just because of great reviews from the community or our personal opinion, but most importantly because of their authentic cultural attributes.
These eight Italian restaurants made our list because they are either owned and operated by Italian-Americans or by folks who value the history, culture and genuine preparation of Italian cuisine. Here you’ll find real-deal Italian food and drink for what can truly be the best Italian experience you can have in Austin.
It may have been fate that kept Daniela Marcone in Austin when she worked her way up from hostess to the owner of Andiamo Ristorante after contemplating whether to stay in Austin or return to her native city of Naples, Italy. Known for it’s fine authentic and classic Italian cuisine, the restaurant uses locally-sourced pasta in its plates and serves salads, fish and meat dishes that pair beautifully with Italian wines. Marcone’s restaurant is one that makes no compromise when it comes to authenticity—every dish is served as it would be in Italy, making the eatery a beacon of true Italian culture.
As both a veteran and connoisseur of fine Italian food culture, Bernardo Nolfo and his business partner opened Numero 28 in Austin in 2014—a ‘cousin,’ as he described of a family-owned establishment born in New York City. The restaurant offers a warm gathering place and specializes in southern Italian dishes and wood-fired southern-Italian style pizza, and especially prides itself on the use of fresh ingredients daily because it’s essential in authentic Italian cooking. The team that runs the eatery are more like an Italian family than coworkers. “Everyone here, from Marco to Rudy, Marchino, and Andres, for example, we’re a big family,” Nolfo said in our previous article about the eatery. The team also recently opened an Italian food market and cafe next door called Alimentari 28.
When Italian breadmaster Lucky Sibilla started his wood-fired Italian sandwich food trailer when he came to Austin in 2007, he brought with him the art of the puccia (pronounced poo-chah). He learned the art of making these rustic sandwiches which use old Italian recipes past down through the generations while in the city of Taranto in southern Italy. Recently, he opened a brick and mortar eatery offering his fresh sandwiches as well as wood-fired pizza all made to order. His deep passion for authentic Italian flavors and food is sure to bring you a true taste of these beloved Italian street foods in Austin.
Italian food and wine expert Al Fini is a native of the Piedmont region of Italy and grew up on a vineyard before coming to Austin and offering the city several ways to experience the culture of northern Italy over the last twenty plus years. We wrote about his authentic Florentine-style panino sandwiches in this article a few months back. It’s Italian Cucina is his newest restaurant which will open in early September to feature the northern Italian cuisine Fini has been known for over the years, plus a wine bar, and it will serve South Austin patrons lunch, brunch, and dinner.
If you want to dine somewhere reminiscent of a romantic Tuscan honeymoon destination then this is the place to go in Austin. Dubed “The most romantic restaurant in Austin,” Siena Ristorante is known for its upscale, seasonal and classic Tuscan cuisine from executive chef Harvey Harris, including Tuscan wild game plates like wild boar bruschetta. Before opening the restaurant over 10 years ago, he immersed himself in Italian culture while at a restaurant called Il Pino in the medieval Tuscan city of San Gimignano, six days a week and eleven hours a day perfecting the craft he studied in culinary school.
Address: 6203 N Capital of Texas Hwy, Austin, TX 78731
When you walk into Gino Reale’s Italian eatery, even the door that greets you into this Italian family-run neighborhood restaurant reads “Your Home Away from Rome!” The first-generation Italian-American owner of Reale’s Pizza & Cafe got his start in hospitality working in his father’s family-run Italian pizzeria in New York City over 30 years ago, and today with fond memories of working with his brothers, sister, mother, and uncle, he started his own NYC-style pizzeria and cafe serving classic dishes in north Austin. Typically Italian, his brother, mother and father still work with him. As he writes on the restaurant’s website, “My mom always says, we got a lot of love, and love is what we put into everything we do.” We believe you’ll be a part of the family at this local Trattoria.
For second-generation Italian-Americans Matt and Nic Patrizi, their family’s legacy in Italian cooking started in the 1940s when their grandfather and his brothers opened Patrizi’s Restaurant in Beaumont, Texas. His grandmothers made meatballs by hand, and other family members worked the line and bused tables back then. They write on the eatery’s website that they feel lucky to be born into this family—one of loud Italians and handmade pasta sauces. “Food is an expression of cultural and personal history,” they also share on the site. The food truck with the same name sake today stands outside the Vortex theatre in Austin, as a way to pay hommage to the old family restaurant, old-school family recipes, and housemade pasta.
Second generation Italian-American’s Andrew and his brother Matt Botticelli opened the south Austin Italian restaurant together with their longtime friend Timmy Brown as a way to bring the Italian comfort foods that Andrew remembers growing up with in Chicago between his mother and his grandmother’s home cooking. Featuring both indoor and airy outdoor dining, the restaurant serves fresh Italian food even featuring handmade pasta, combining old family recipes with new, innovative ones. With both an intimate Trattoria in the front of the house, and a large beer garden in the back that features live, local music some days, the eatery bring Austinites into the fold of Italian tradition.
Crazy desserts really catch my attention… well, honestly most desserts catch my attention. After scrolling through Yelp, like I sometimes do when bored, I get quite giddy when I see something new and exciting. This time, it was Halo Halo (pronounced Hahlo-Hahlo), a staple Filipino dessert.
In a small shopping strip hidden in south Austin, I found Filipino Asian Mart. Part Asian market; part catering, and part restaurant, this narrow little joint was filled with authenticity. After stumbling in on a random Tuesday evening, I was greeted by the friendly owner, Marlon Alalay and his General Manager Jeric Agpawa. Originally from Houston, Alalay came to Austin to attend UT, and like most people here, never left. After a friend of his opened up a shop, he offered to help out. When his friend ended up moving away, Alalay was left with what has now been Filipino Asian Mart for the past 7 years.
As a side note, there’s nothing more exciting for my little foodie soul than finding food I can neither pronounce nor identify. Therefore, looking at the daily menu of Filipino Asian Mart left me in blissful confusion and anticipation.
According to Alalay, they like to serve basic Filipino dishes during the week (they close at 7:00 pm), and save specialties for the weekends when a lot of the Filipino community is able to make their way over. Luckily, you can find what they’ll be serving most days through their Facebook page. For example, on June 3rd the daily special included Kare Kare and Lechon Kawali, while on the regular menu you could find dishes like Pancit Bihon, Adobo Chicken, Sinigang Na Baboy Fried Bangus and Lumpia. For dessert, you can find Leche Flan, Puto, Biko and Suman. I’ll explain some of those a bit further.
On the evening I was there, I tried their Adobo chicken, which was so tender it was falling off the bone, Pancit Bihon (the noodles), Fried Bangus (which is fried fish soaked in vinegar, very good), and some rice to accompany. With everything so full of flavor, I can’t wait to head back on a weekend to try some of their specialties. They also have a variety of desserts, like Halo Halo (the most popular), Biko (sweet rice, coconut, milk and brown sugar), Suman (banana leaves wrapped around coconut milk and rice), Leche Flan, and many other tasty treats.
Alalay hinted at a possible food truck he’d like to expand to one day, but until then, you can visit him and some pretty unique dishes at 615 W Slaughter Ln, Ste 110 Austin, Texas, TX 78748, the only Filipino food you’ll find in south Austin. With good smells, friendly faces and authentic flavors, places like these are what make the foodie journey so amazing.
Katie Bernal, Austin Contributor
Katie writes for Mezze Weekly in Austin. She has a lifelong relationship with travel after she began traveling with her grandmother and uncle at 8 years old. 25+ countries later, she’s grown a deep affection for immersing herself in anything multicultural, especially food. She believes her spirit animal is Andrew Zimmern, and will definitely try anything weird or exotic. She’s big into the Austin foodie scene, and enjoys tasting and rating the latest restaurants. You can follow her foodie journey through her food blog. Along with her love for food and travel, you’ll also find Katie taking local art classes, cooking, taking pictures, thrift shopping, working out, or hanging out with her cat, Pumpkin. Currently, she’s a sound engineer for a post production studio that works on TV, radio and film. Check out what she’s up to on herFacebookand Instagram.
When Chef Julio-Cesar Flórez set out to introduce Peruvian cuisine to Austin’s already popular food scene a few years ago, he had a couple things in his favor besides tremendous talent. First, he would become the city’s first Peruvian chef, and second, the capital of his native Peru and place of birth, Lima, was becoming not just the gastronomic capital of the America’s but known as the best food city in the world. It seemed to only be a matter of time before Peru’s cuisine, so rich in culinary history, would be ushered into Austin, the world’s live music capital.
Starting his professional career working in the banking industry, by 25 Chef Julio-Cesar felt something was missing in his pursuits. It wasn’t just his creative spirit, but a deep connection to his cultural background and family that stirred a desire to become a chef. “Food and cooking was a big part of my life and what made me who I am today,” he shared. “I remember that my grandma, whose from Cajamarca, cooked delicious food when we went and visited her, or traveling around Salaverry, outside the town of Trujillo where my dad is from. We’d also travel around Lima and the coast of Peru to eat different things. He’s been my biggest influence. It was [experiencing] the food of the people of Peru, and even though it had been in front of me all my life, I had just fallen in love with it.” The people of Cajamarca are known for their dairy and cheese-making craft, and Trujillo is Peru’s third largest city and where cebiche (ceviche) is first thought to have originated.
You’d need a history lesson to understand the rich complexity of Peru’s gastronomy—from indigenous Incan and Creole cuisine, to Spain’s colonial rule beginning in the fifteenth century, to even ingredients from the Italians. Peru embraces all of it; most especially, its Asian influences from the Chinese and Japanese who settled in the country during the 1800s and eventually married their own recipes with Peruvian ingredients. The result: Peru’s popular Chifa and Nikkei styles. It’s pinpoints like these of Peru’s intertwined cuisine that are alone telling of its deeply rooted history, and just one of the reasons why Austin could no longer miss a taste for it.
It was through working behind the scenes and as a cook and then chef at restaurants for several years that Chef Julio-Cesar became trained in the ways of the professional kitchen—including those that carried their influences into Peruvian food culture. From his time as executive chef of La Sombra Bar & Grill, a Latin-American restaurant where he first introduced Peruvian flavors and preparation, to downtown Austin’s Spanish tapas bar Malaga where he served as executive chef, followed by shaking up the menu at Austin’s Caribbean-inspired Isla to offer Peru’s popular and innovative dishes as chef de cuisine.
These days, you’ll find Chef Julio-Cesar’s menu still featured at Llama’s, a popular Peruvian food trailer downtown, and he now serves as Sous Chef and runs the kitchen at Lucky Robot, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, a food culture that has undeniably influenced the craft of Peruvian Nikkei.
When he crafted the menu at Isla, for example, he featured dishes and flavors that he grew up with as a kid, or that he experienced on trips back to Peru. “I am from Lima, so you would find a lot of more modern touches to some dishes; some Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese influences. My parents come from the northern city of Trujillo where the food is simpler but extremely delicious,” he explained. Chef’s cebiche, ceviche as it’s commonly known to Americans, for example, is prepared like it would be in his parent’s hometown, using longer cuts of the fish rather than cubed, and it isn’t made with a ton of cilantro as you might typically find in other regions or cultures.
In fact, on one of his recent trips to Peru going as an experienced chef, he found himself examining the food differently than from traveling back the first time, he said. Peruvian cuisine, he has found, is not only delicious because of its people’s cooking skills, but because the daily ingredients they use are of such high quality. He explained, “I noticed that things like rice taste more like rice there—the sweet potato tastes more like sweet potato in that its sweeter and earthier. Onions, limes, herbs, all taste more like themselves. Fruits and vegetables are picked ripe at their peak, so they taste amazing, and because Lima and Trujillo are coastal cities, you find the seafood is extremely fresh and high in quality.”
In whatever capacity he serves, Chef Julio-Cesar seems to carry the spirit of Peruvian cuisine with him in his own quest for quality. For example, while at Isla he would always search for that better ingredient, so that this important part of his culture was reflected on the plates he shared with his customers. The kitchen would stretch boundaries by taking a modern approach to cooking, but also always respected the tradition behind the food.
“When you ate something at Isla, whether it was a traditional dish or a modern interpretation of a dish or preparation, we wanted you to think, ‘This tastes like Peru,’” he told me.You could also feel Peru at Isla, where he said many times customers would comment to him that the décor and music playing made them feel like they were in an old district of Peru called Barranco, known for its Bohemian culture and lifestyle.
During Chef Julio-Cesar’s many visits to Peru, he’s traveled through the entire coast and even crossed its neighboring borders into Ecuador and Chile. While it would be obvious to say his favorite thing to do is eat while traveling, it’s actually watching how people live and go about their lives that tops his list. “You can see the culture and the heart of a community that way, and then you taste it in their food,” he said.
It’s this kind of warm, dedicated and inclusive way of life in Peru, that Chef Julio-Cesar likes to carry within him in every role as chef. Like Peru has seen the wondrous ways that other cultures have enhanced its own regional cultures, it’s become a signature of Chef Julio-Cesar to merge local Austin ingredients and flavors into his cooking while keeping the spirit of Peruvian cuisine. Having lived in Austin for over 17 years, it’s a trait that he feels not only shows respect for the city’s local tastes, but like Peru’s now world-renown food scene would make Austin’s even richer.
Growing up in his Moroccan neighborhood as a child, the aromatic scents of street foods lingered with Abderrahim Souktouri even into adulthood. In fact, the distinct street or souk food culture of Morocco is such a special memory of his youth that eventually it followed him to the United States after winning an immigration lottery in 1995, and became the inspiration behind his south Austin eatery, The Flying Carpet.
“When I was around 10, I remember we would go to the streets and see the barbecue at the market (souk) for sandwiches, and we would buy it and enjoy it for cheap. I wanted to share those same moments with the people [around me] when I moved here,” he shared. Together with his wife Maria, after finishing their day jobs both head over to their own little souk, a popular food trailer, to offer dinner service to locals five days a week.
“When we decided to start [the restaurant], he was missing home, and he was just calling and asking his mom, ‘how do you make this, and how do you make that.’ He is just a natural [cook], some people are just natural,” Maria told us, smiling at her husband. “My thing was that I loved him so much and I wanted to make that food for him. That is what got us in the kitchen together, and I was like, I need to learn to make these things because I want to keep this guy; I got into food because I loved him.”
It was his mother who was a huge influence on Abderrahim, Maria explained. “He came from a family that cooked, you know—they cook like maniacs over there and most of them are chefs. They have some women who could be [professional] chefs, and that was the birth of his passion.”
Since opening in 2010 to serve Moroccan souk food, what began as a fond connection to his Moroccan childhood for Abderrahim, ‘Abdu’ as his friends and customers call him, has now become a favorite for their neighborhood regulars. It’s with a genuine sense of generosity that Abdu and Maria open their food trailer to serve their guests, even after long work days for them both. In fact, it’s not uncommon that during your trip for dinner you may find yourself chatting with the couple and find friends lingering over a welcoming cup of customary Moroccan mint tea.
Several tables and benches are available outside for walk-up dinner service, but take a walk into the blue façade of the building next to the aromatic food trailer where Abdu and Maria prepare the food, and you’ll be delighted by all the sights of the Moroccan interior. Throughout, you’ll find tasteful and carefully chosen tributes to traditional Moroccan decor.
From beautiful wooden tables and sofas hand-built by Abdu, who was a carpenter back in his hometown and port city of Mohamedia, to a traditional feminine energy you can feel through soothing yellow walls that reminded Maria of the desserts, accents of Moroccan blue, delicate arches and lambs, colorful pillows, paintings of women in folk-ware—the source of Moroccan food culture—as well as lovely silver tea ware just waiting to be served.
And the menu. It would be a dare to challenge you to find something you won’t like. Flavorful Moroccan spices fill every innovative vegetable, meat, or salad dish you could order on the inspired menu at the eatery. Many times, Abdu tells me, patrons will try a vegetable they’ve tried before that they didn’t like and totally love it because of the marinades he whips up. “It’s how we mix the food, the meat with the eggs and tomatoes, and how we match things. You feel the flavor, and you love it. The way we cook it, it’s kind of like we give the food the time it needs. When we spice even, we’re careful to put exactly what it’s supposed to be,” he shared.
The Flying Carpet Hosts a Monthly Pop-up Event Series Introducing Travel Enthusiasts to Souk Food. Get Tickets»
Abdu explained to me that the flavorful cuisine is in many ways due to historical influences on Morocco from several different Mediterranean countries, including France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Although, it’s also important to know that each region and ancestral tribe in Morocco also features its own unique way of cooking which sets them each apart.
“It’s not just about the spices, but because of my family and how we cook. Every family is different. In fact, our [Bedouin] tribe is one of the biggest tribes; you’ll find many large tribes in Morocco, so in each region when you eat the food it’s totally different the way they cook it, and each has a specialty,” he explained.
For example, he tells me, when you go to Fez, they’re the best for Pastilla, a pie-shaped dish made with filo dough that all Moroccan’s can make, and that’s even customary for weddings, but in Fez they’re exceptionally good at it. He gives other examples, like the food of the mountain tribes who are well-known for a pea soup called Bissara because no one cooks it like them. For Bedouin’s, he says, it’s the couscous, and dishes like lemon-flavored djaj (chicken) and beef kafta with all kinds of spices—they’re known for their grilled meats and barbecue.
Come for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM, and you’ll find a unique spin in the presentation of the dishes and how they are inspired by traditional Moroccan food combinations. Meals translated from being served in terra cotta pots called tagines into fresh marinated meat and vegetarian-style wraps, for example, or deconstructed plates served with French-style fries and a savory green salad with a citrusy dressing, are some of the things that fill the menu. Although when it comes to preparation, ingredients, and flavor, it’s very Moroccan, Maria told me.
“We hand-cut [everything], like the cilantro and parsley, and hand-peel the garlic. In Morocco food is a meditation, so everything is handmade here, and you can taste it,” she shared. “Sometimes [Abdu] will go to three or even four different places in a day to get the food we need for that night, and we curate the food by picking it as we go.”
You’ll find the grilled chicken, for example—with its fresh parsley, cilantro, good olive oil, and lemon—is marinated all night and then put on the grill right when you order it. Sauces are also a big deal at the trailer Maria tells me because Morocco was a French colony, so you’ll find three flavorful aioli options to add to every dish. After dinner, you can order up a side of freshly brewed Moroccan mint tea or almond-butter stuffed Medjool dates to curve your sweet tooth.
When you come for a visit, you’ll see that Abdu and Maria carry in their little eatery the very nurturing spirit of Morocco’s people. “[In Morocco], you always love people, you love families, and you can see that in our restaurant,” he says. “You can see our hearts are speaking when you eat the food because we cook from our hearts … you want it to be done well. We grow up with our parents and grandparents, and they take care of the kids and cook, and as children we can taste that food and feel the love.” Ask me, and I believe that’s the kind of experience everyone will have when arriving for dinner at The Flying Carpet.
Growing up, Gary and Jessica were both raised on American Chinese food, but like many Americans of international heritage it was during gatherings with family that they were given a true taste of authentic Chinese cooking. Both ethnically Chinese, whether it was making dumpling wrappers from scratch, or frying whole chili fish, their Taiwanese heritage and tradition began to shape their palates. The duo’s tastes have merged both food styles, Chinese and American, into unexpected combinations at General Tso’Boy, which first began as their flea market pop up in NYC before becoming a casual Austin eatery.
“Authentic Chinese food isn’t easy to find in the states,” Jessica shared. Whether it’s authentic or American, [Chinese] food is crucial to our diet, and over the generations the American diet, as well,” she shared. “When we’re dining out, we’re typically enjoying America’s favorite Chinese dish—General Tso’s Chicken, with a side of egg rolls or wonton chips.” While restaurants in China carry through traditional influences of their provinces, at General Tso’Boy the menu is designed to reflect Gary and Jessica’s heritage in a modern, fun way.
“There is so much variety in Chinese cuisine ranging from Szechuan to Hunan to Guang Dong,” she explained. Patrons to General Tso’Boy will find a variety of dishes that Gary and Jessica loved to eat growing up presented with a twist. Located in the newly developed Rock Rose district of the Domain in North Austin, the restaurant does follow Chinese tradition in its name. “General Tso’s Chicken originated in Taiwan, and was created by Chef C.K. Peng as a tribute to General Tso, a military hero from Hunan,” Jessica told us. “But it evolved over time [in the U.S.] to adapt to the American palate. Our version is crispier and lighter, with a hint of sweet and savory spice.” In order words, the signature dish highlights some of the classic components of Hunan cooking, which she shared is spicy, aromatic, and deep in flavor.
“Our top seller, the General Tso’s Chicken sandwich is our way of eating our favorite American Chinese dish in a very American way as a sandwich. You won’t find anything like General Tso’Boy in China, that’s for sure!” Jessica laughs. You can try the popular sandwich for yourself for lunch or dinner, for just $8.50. It features a battered all-natural chicken thigh basted in General Tso’s sauce served on crunchy french bread.
Other items on the menu include Chinese-influenced dishes, such as Char Siu from Hong Kong, Black Pepper Beef from Fujian, Mapo Tofu and Chili Wontons from Szechuan, Jessica shared with us. Blending both Chinese-American and southern American culture, you’ll find several entrees and specialty sandwiches, as well as salads and starters. The eatery even serves soft drinks, coffee, and draft and can beers. Everything is available dine-in or takeout, sourced fresh from farmers as well as made from scratch in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Monday through Wednesday from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM, patrons can order the Lucky Lunch Box, which includes mixed grains of white and brown rice, and quinoa, as well as one protein entrée, and a chilled sesame ginger broccoli or sesame salad, and a drink for just $8.88. “A visit to our restaurant is supposed to remind you of a brighter, cheerful Chinese takeout that’s updated from what you would find across America,” Jessica explained.
While most of the restaurant’s dishes have some type of Chinese origin, everything offered at the eatery looks different from China, she continued. Although, walking into the restaurant you can’t miss popular cues to Chinese culture, from chop-sticks to décor like the maneki-neko of Japanese-origin, which literally means “beckoning cat” or sometimes the popular “Chinese lucky cat,” sitting above the order counter. One old Chinese proverb refers to a cat that raises its paw over the ears to wash its face as bringing rain, while another belief is said to bring in customers.
Besides the delicious food, what’s clear is that both Jessica and Gary carry a strong sense of their Taiwanese heritage with them. In fact, both have visited all parts of Taiwan and Gary has even traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, and western parts of China, including Xing Jiang. Those cultural influences coupled with American southern charm have shaped a playful atmosphere at their modern, American Chinese takeout restaurant.
The whole idea is ambitious and indicative of heart, but when Al Fini opened his It’s Italian market & cafe last year in east Austin his desire was for his customers to taste all of Italy when they stepped into his shop. Hallmarks of Italy you’ll find are Florentine style sandwiches like those from street markets in Tuscany, imported Italian coffees, specialty foods and cheeses, craft beers, and even hand-selected wine served and even bottled on the premises.
An entire wall of the market is covered in a large, curated collection of over 250 labels of hand-picked sparking, white and red wines from across Italy and Sicily. Everyone who walks in is greeted with café offerings such as draft beer on tap from Rome, a popular Italian espresso from Venice that makes up authentic coffee drinks, but it’s the sandwiches that really put the market experience over the top—authentic, intentionally-crafted Tuscan style panino Italiano.
“The whole idea of the menu is unique in that it’s something no one has done [in Austin]. Our panino is made in Italy by Italians, and we simply put it together,” Al explained, of his Antica style sandwiches that cities like Florence are known for. “You slice the tomatoes fresh, you slice your cheese fresh and don’t sacrifice the quality by pre-slicing. The handcrafting of the sandwich elements is very sensual, true to the Tuscan style of making panino.”
Like the panino makers of Florence which inspired Al when he opened his shop, a lot of time is taken to prepare each sandwich with precision—Florentine style panino is always sliced fresh, its ingredients layered methodically and hand-delivered with a sense of pride by its creator. At the cafe customers get cheese, vegetables and a spread of choice inside of fresh ciabatta in any of 7 sandwiches offered, using traditional Italian recipes and ingredients you won’t find at a regular shop, Al shared.
Panino sandwiches at It’s Italian include Prosciutto, Formaggi (3 Cheese), Salami, Caponata (Sicilian eggplant stew), choice Coppa, Tutti Carni (made with Prosciutto, Coppa, and Salami), and Bresaola, an Italian specialty air dried beef. Each sandwich is topped with real Italian extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, Sicilian herbs, and freshly ground sea salt.
Everything used in the market’s panino sandwiches can be found sold at the market. “We source the vegetables locally, but the prosciutto, for example, is sliced and packed in Parma, Italy where all prosciutto in Italy comes from, and we use a spicy calabresa [hot cherry pepper and oil] spread which is also imported and on the shelf. It’s quite amazing that people walk in and say ‘Oh wow, I haven’t seen this product anywhere.’”
On the menu at the market, customers can also find all kinds of appetizers and traditional Italian market salads served with fresh Italian bread, as well as aperitif and cocktails, wine by the glass, and authentic Italian coffee drinks like cappuccino and espresso. “It’s heaven to me. On the shelves, customers turn around and they find products from Sicily, and from every region of Italy. It’s very inviting and warm, not a huge place.”
In addition to a large selection of popular Italian coffees like Illy and Lavazza, on the shelves of the shop you’ll find a great selection of hand-picked Italian imports like olives, mushrooms, various cheeses and meats, pastas, soups, spices, as well as tomato, sauces and condiments, all essential ingredients to incorporating Italian cuisine at home as they are part of everyday life across Italy and Sicily.
Italian hospitality, whether it’s in Italy or Austin he says is about una passione grande—a great passion for food, wine, cooking, and coffee even at home. To Al, raised in Piedmont, a region in northwestern Italy bordering the Alps and known for its wine, food isn’t just a necessity but an art that wine beautifully complements, like it was for his family.
After growing up on a family farm and winery in Italy Al came to Austin in 1979, put himself through school and developed an acumen for the American way of business. After working in restaurants and opening his own (among them Austin’s former Café Roma and Uno 360 Trattoria before selling it in 2015), his Italian market and café is another labor of love.
“You’ll find just a few tables so you always feel welcome, like in Italy not just another store,” Al tells us of his hope for customers. “Everyone is valued, we take customer service to heart more than anything else. The staff, they call people by their first names, they know them and they’re always going to be a part of the family.”
It’s Italian hosts a free wine tasting every Friday at 6 pm. To learn more about the market visit its website.
If you were walking through the streets of Bombay, also known as Mumbai, the capital city of the Indian state of Maharashtra, you’ll encounter a symphony of spices, vegetables, and meats with scents so harmonious that the air is as melodic as India’s contagious music. Our senses were transported to the popular food carts and restaurants of Bombay when we stopped at Austin’s only Indo-Chinese eatery, Chicken Lollypop. The hidden gem, tucked inside a Braker Lane food mart just east of Interstate 35 was opened by owner and Chef Immie Shaikh a little over a year ago.
It was only after spending a year perfecting the recipe for his popular flagship appetizer, the Chicken Lollypop, that Immie felt fit to introduce the city to its first taste of famous Indian Chinese food. Tender and smoky, the Chicken Lollypop is shallow-fried together with its aromatic marinade, a signature Shezwan sauce reminiscent of Bombay. “In India, and Bombay especially, Indo-Chinese cuisine is very popular” he explained. A native of the cosmopolitan Indian state, it was during his studies in Bombay that his ambition for establishing good food in generous portions took root before setting out for the United States to settle in Austin.
He’s always loved to cook and incorporates one key Indo-Chinese restaurant difference—incorporating fresh ingredients and investing several hours in preparation time to make his dishes a model of the cuisine. “The food carts in Bombay serve the best Indo-Chinese food because it’s fresh,” he said, comparing the popular alternative to restaurants which tend to buy ingredients in bulk. Immie’s recipe for his chicken lollypop alone calls for 16 hours in a four-process marinade before it’s ready to be cooked and served, a noble effort that won’t be found anywhere else.
“The green chutney is house-made and prepared from scratch early every morning before we open, and the vegetables are all chopped to order,” he said of the difference in his staple ingredients. From poplar naan wraps that start at $4.99 to fried rice and plated entrees, the menu features more than a dozen sizzling chicken, shrimp and vegetarian Indo-Chinese dishes that range from savory to spicy. Created with a perfect balance of protein, carbohydrates and vegetables, the restaurant’s signature naan wraps were designed to satisfy his many lunch patrons through the work day.
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“The naan wraps were invented in-house and are most definitive of Indo-Chinese culture,” Immie explained. “In India they eat a lot of spicy food and the mixture of spices are found in a lot of dishes, along with the chicken and naan bread.” Customers can expect the flavors of chutney, garlic, julienne carrots and fresh green beans in the all-in-one taste of Bombay that he is proud to deliver. His chicken Manchurian and Chili chicken fried rice dishes are also popular creations.
“For many a restaurant is a business, but here I wanted to have a small kitchen to be able to focus on the quality of the food and my guests,” he said of the restaurants hospitality, which has brought with it long standing relationships and a loyal following of Austinites hungry for the unique, fresh and satisfying cuisine. Four tables sit inside the eatery’s kitchen to serve dine-in guests together with its to-go patrons, who can hear the simmering and clanking sounds of each dish being freshly prepared.
He explained that when Chinese immigrants traveled to India and started to cook their native foods, the ingredients became married with Indian spices and flavors along with the influences of Indian chefs, and that’s where the diversity of Indian-Chinese or Indo-Chinese cuisine started in the country.
“In Bombay the cuisine is the best and that’s part of its popularity with tourists because the food culture is completely different there given its infrastructure and diversity,” he said, speaking of the city’s culture of inclusion. From Hindus to Muslims and Christians, everyone supports and celebrates with one another across their cultural experiences in Bombay, from disasters to festivals and cooking, culminating in a culture that’s surely as warm and generous as the food and hospitality you’ll find at Austin’s Chicken Lollypop.