Jesse Herman, though biased like the parent cheering section at a t-ball game, speaks the truth. “Austin has become the most exciting food city in the U.S.,” says the former New Yorker who moved to Texas to open restaurants. Very good restaurants, including scene-y Mexican cantina La Condesa and the recently opened Sway, a tribute to the fiery cuisine of Thailand that he conceived with chef-partner René Ortiz [see our video interview].
Herman is also one of the co-founders of the Austin Food & Wine Festival, which is going down April 26-28. In only its second year, ATX F&W brings together some of the region’s (and country’s) top chefs, bartenders and wine folks for three boozy days. We reached out to Herman for some intel.
How are you growing the festival since your debut last year?
There’s a lot of great new programming, including the Tasting Room Sessions (intimate panel discussions on Saturday and Sunday), the Chefs’ Showcase (featuring Texas chefs serving up signature dishes in the Grand Tasting Tents), and the Fire Pits, where René Ortiz, Jason Dady, Tim Byres and Bryce and Jack Gilmore will be cooking whole hogs, game birds.
Not at all an attempt to stoke rivalries, but how is Austin F&W different from other southern festivals — specifically Atlanta and Charleston?
Each city is unique and one of the best things about food festivals is that their geography dictates the overall experience, and each location has its own set of experiences that define not only the local food scene, but the overall atmosphere of the festival. Austin is such a great food destination these days, with some of the country’s most exciting restaurants and food trucks, as well as anticipated restaurant openings from some of our major food players. However, Austin also has a food history and legacy as a destination for Mexican, Tex-Mex and BBQ. And Austin, in particular, is the epicenter of Texas BBQ, which we all know is the best BBQ that there is.
How has Austin embraced your new restaurant Sway? Are people feeling the traditional Thai flavors? The heat!
It’s been crazy so far. We’re on a 1.5-2 hour wait every night. The best part of being a restaurateur in Austin is that we have the best customers in the country. People in Austin go out a lot and are very open minded. If you create a great product, they will be very loyal supporters and the people of Austin are an integral part of the rise of the Austin food scene.
OK, what are some of your favorite restaurants and bars in Austin right now?
Obviously our restaurants La Condesa & Sway, but besides that…
- Austin-style sushi and modern Japanese from local legend Tyson Cole at Uchi and Uchiko.
- The upcoming Qui from Top Chef winner Paul Qui and also his food trucks East Side King, which are scattered behind some of the bars on East 6th Street.
- Late night at Justine’s, an adorable French bistro on East Fifth Street.
- Ramen Tatsu-ya, which is further up north, but worth the trek if you have the time for authentic Japanese noodles
- Curra’s on Oltorf Street or Polvo’s on South 1st Street for classic Austin-style Tex-Mex (get the enchiladas chile colorado at Curra’s or the shrimp fajitas at Polvo’s).
- Lone Stars and dancing at the White Horse on East 6th Street.
- Bar Illegal for mezcal, which is located behind Clive Bar on Rainey Street.
- Live music at Mean Eyed Cat, which is a Johhny Cash-themed bar on West 5th Street.
And you should obviously make a barbecue pilgrimage? What is your move? Lockhart? Someplace else?
Smitty’s in Lockhart is it for me or Luling City Market a little further down the same road, but the more I go to Franklin BBQ here in Austin, the more I’m convinced you don’t need to leave town for the best Texas BBQ on the planet. Yeah, I said that.