Pollo Tropical closes all Austin, Dallas locations

Credit: Facebook.com/pollotropical

Pollo Tropical has closed 30 restaurants nationwide, including all of its locations in the Austin area.

The chicken chain said Monday that it is also pulling out of the Dallas/Fort Worth and Nashville, Tenn., markets.
There were three locations in Central Texas:
  • 211 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin
  • 20471 S. Interstate 35, Kyle
  • 1439 N. I-35, San Marcos
It had initially announced plans to also open restaurants in Cedar Park, Lakeway and near the Mueller redevelopment project in East Austin.
The closures are part of parent company Fiesta Restaurant Group’s “strategic renewal plan.” Fiesta also owns the Taco Cabana chain.
“Fiesta’s recent growth initiatives diverted resources from our core markets and some amount of renewal is required to restore momentum in these markets,” Fiesta president and CEO Richard Stockinger said in a written statement. “While the decision to close restaurants is never easy, we believe it is vital to focus the company’s resources and efforts on markets and locations that have proven successful for our brands.”
Some of the closed Pollo Tropicals may reopen at a later date as Taco Cabana locations, Fiesta said.

New Veggie Heaven will open in May

Mei Wang (left), with daughter Stacy Chen, closed Veggie Heaven in December, after 16 years in business. The new Veggie Heaven will reopen May 3.
Matthew Odam/American-Statesman

Veggie lovers, the wait is almost over. Stacy Chen says she plans to open the new Veggie Heaven on May 3, as long as she can be fully staffed by then.

The restaurant is the continuation of the legacy Mei Wang began on the Drag in 1998. In addition the the original menu, Veggie Heaven will also serve veggie ramen and add a veggie burger to the list of offerings. The restaurant will be open daily at 11 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

In addition to Veggie Heaven, Chen is also working to open Yoshi Kitchen, a meat-friendly restaurant. The Asian-fusion restaurant will be located at 3318 Harmon Ave. near I-35 and serve a variety of dishes, like teriyaki, ramen, Asian barbecue, Asian burgers and more. Chen hopes to have that restaurant open in the coming months.

John Mueller returning with new barbecue trailer and plans for restaurant

Like a phoenix rising from the barbecue ashes, John Mueller has another rebirth in store. The longtime Texas barbecue boss and grandson of Taylor barbecue scion Louie Mueller will soon be cooking again, this time at the Black Box Barbecue trailer in historic Georgetown. Owners Gary Brown and Justin Bohls will soft open the trailer at 201 E. Ninth St. next weekend during the town’s Red Poppy Festival.

The black trailer will serve Mueller’s famous brisket and beef rib, along with pork ribs, pulled pork, chicken and his various side dishes. The trailer is intended to be just the first step in Mueller’s reintroduction to the Central Texas market. His partners, with whom Mueller has been friends for decades, plan to open Black Box barbecue on the adjacent property, with construction to begin soon.

A tray full of meat and sides at John Mueller Meat Co. barbecue trailer on E. 6th Street at Pedernales. (Laura Skelding AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

“It feels frickin awesome,” Mueller said of his return to professional cooking.

John Mueller at his John Mueller Meat Co. barbecue trailer on E. 6th Street at Pedernales. (Laura Skelding AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Black Box Barbecue will be the third barbecue business the enigmatic pit masters has been associated with in the past six years in Central Texas. He opened J Mueller Barbecue on South First Street in 2011, but his involvement came to an end in 2012 following a fiscal dispute with his sister, LeAnn Mueller, who transformed the business into La Barbecue. Mueller then headed to East Austin, where he operated John Mueller Meat Co. at East Sixth and Pedernales streets from 2013 until last August, when the State of Texas closed that business, citing Mueller’s unpaid taxes.

Mueller says that those who may wonder about his business acumen and relationships this time around shouldn’t worry.

“I’m going to cook for people who’ve known me all my life, who’ve read everything there is to read about me and still want to work with me,” Mueller said. “We’re gonna have a really sound business and cook really good food.”

Mueller first came to recognition in Austin, almost as much for his surly attitude as his stunning brisket, while running John Mueller BBQ on Manor Road from 2001 to ’06, during which time a young Aaron Franklin cut onions and worked the register. Following that shutter, Mueller took a hiatus from Austin before returning for his tumultuous run of the last seven years.

As for any doubters or haters, Mueller laughs at the idea.

John Mueller at his restaurant on Manor Road in 2004. (Deborah Lykins AMERICAN STATESMAN)

“Are there still any out there?” asked Mueller. “I don’t think anyone remembers who I am.”




John Mueller in 1999 working at the restaurant started by his grandfather, Louie Mueller. (John Kelso AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

John Mueller timeline in Austin

  • 2001-2006: John Mueller Barbecue on Manor Road
  • 2011-2012: J. Mueller BBQ on South First Street
  • 2013-2016: John Mueller Meat Co. on East Sixth Street
  • 2017-?: John Muller Black Box Barbecue

GQ names an Austin restaurant one of 10 Best New Restaurants in America

GQ correspondent and restaurant critic Brett Martin debuted his 10 Best New Restaurants in America list today, his second for the magazine, and Austin izakaya-smokehouse hybrid Kemuri Tatsu-ya made the list. Martin loved the “surreal pastiche of Japanese-Texan kitsch, a saloon out of a Quentin Tarantino fever dream.” Among the food he praised, the chili-cheese takoyaki, which perfectly captures the spirit of the Texas-Japanese mash-up.

Brisket at Kemuri. (Ricardo B. Brazziell AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Martin’s piece isn’t just a rote list. It offers a narrative about the state of dining in America right now (as well as the state of America).  One of my favorite anecdotes from Martin is about the hive-mindedness of restaurants:

My brother, who is a doctor but also an expert backyard smoker, has long mused about leaving medicine behind to open a combination pastrami/ice cream stand. This year a pop-up serving exactly that opened. Two blocks from his house. In the back of a sex shop.

For the complete list, head to GQ.com.

For my recent review of Kemuri Tatsu-ya, head here. 

Poll: Austinites prefer queso over guacamole, Salt Lick over Franklin Barbecue

Pollster Peter Zandan has released a comprehensive survey about life in Austin. He polled 800 locals on everything from public transportation to barbecue. Austinites biggest concerns, not surprisingly, were transportation and affordability in the booming town.

But the findings that matter to us most in this space were about food.

(Credit: Kenny Braun)

Locals narrowly chose queso over guacamole, with the fake food stuff beating out the avocado-based dish 53 percent to 41 percent. Those who didn’t vote preferred neither and are probably horrible people to hang out with. Maybe the respondents in the poll that has a four-point margin of error were hungover when they answered, because I could say a knee-jerk hungover response being queso. I, too, love queso. But guacamole is fresher, tastier, more versatile and is actually, you know, food. About seven percent didn’t care for either. Stay away from those people.

Maybe the respondents were still drunk when asked about barbecue. Twenty percent said Salt Lick was the best barbecue in the area, with Franklin Barbecue coming in second with 16 percent of the vote. There was another eight percent who don’t eat barbecue. They are probably the same people mentioned above. Stay away from them, as well.

One thing most could agree on, breakfast tacos are good. Sixty-five percent said they eat them at least a few times per month, with 41 percent saying they ate them at least once a week. Of course, there were seven percent who just aren’t into them at all. We call them Yankees, and they hang out with the seven percent who don’t care for queso or guacamole.


Queso the Mondays: TacodeliCurra’s Grill, Magnolia Cafe, Guero’s, Fresa’s | Azul Tequila, Papalote, Sazon and Torchy’s Tacos

Austin360 Dining Guide: Best barbecue in Central Texas | Best Mexican restaurants | Taco All-Stars

Two Austin burgers make Tasting Table’s ‘most mouthwatering’ in America list

An earlier version of the Odd Duck burger. (Laura Skelding AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

TastingTable.com put together a list of 10 of the “most mouthwatering burgers in the country.” It’s not quite clear who voted or what the criteria were for these “Instagram-worthy” burgers, but two from Austin made the list.

It’s no surprise to see Odd Duck on there. My #4 restaurant from the Austin360 Dining Guide had the #1 burger in the city when I last compiled my list in 2015. Tasting Table praises the recent incarnation, which features American cheese, green chilies, refried bean mayo, pico de gallo, cabbage and a tostada, on a toasted sesame seed bun.

Local favorites Hopdoddy also make the list, thanks to their Terlingua Burger, which comes with chili con carne, Tillamook cheddar, Fritos, sassy sauce, red leaf lettuce, white onion and sliced beefsteak tomato.

See the whole list here.


September 2015: Best burgers in Austin

Lick Honest Ice Creams opens today in Mueller with free ice cream and Urban Roots benefit

Visitors of the Thinkery and residents of the Mueller development have a new spot for ice cream just in time for summer. Lick Honest Ice Creams opened today at 1905 Aldrich Street, Suite 150, across from the children’s museum and around the block from neighborhood Italian restaurant L’Oca d’Oro. It is the fourth location from the farm-to-table creamery that originally opened in South Austin in 2011. The shop is open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 pm on Friday and Saturday.

To celebrate its grand opening, the shop will give away free scoops (one per customer) from 7 to 10 p.m. this evening. In addition to the give away, all proceeds from the first day will go to Urban Roots, and Lick will accept donations for the non-profit throughout the week.

Dark chocolate. (Credit: Annie Ray)

“I wanted to have the proceeds benefit Urban Roots because it’s an organization that’s close to my heart and we’re all so impressed and inspired by the work they do. We’re also lucky enough to source produce from them each year and I hope we can only strengthen that commitment in the years to come,” co-owner Anthony Sobotik said.



Quack’s bakery opening a location in South Austin

South Austin will soon get a taste of the pies, pastries and other baked goods that have made Quack’s such a hit in Hyde Park. The bakery founded by Art Silver will open at 5326 Manchaca Road in the old Strange Brew space, which closed in January following financial difficulties. Captain Quackenbush’s first opened in 1983 on The Drag, and bills itself as “Austin’s first coffeshop.”

Quack’s in Hyde Park. (Alberto Martinez AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

It also looks like Quack’s has some live music plans in store for the spot that was a popular spot for singer-songwriters for several years.


Torchy’s Tacos takes on significant investment from New York equity firm

The green chili pork taco, Missionary Style, from Torchy’s secret menu. (Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Austin-based Torchy’s Tacos is taking on some serious investment backing, according to Statesman business reporter Gary Dinges. The restaurant chain, which started as a trailer in Austin more than a decade ago,  has partnered with General Atlantic, which has taken “a significant minority interest,” according to Dinges’ story.

“As part of the deal, General Atlantic’s Andrew Crawford and Shaw Joseph will join the Torchy’s board of directors. So will Todd Diener, former president of Chili’s, Dinges reports.

Read the full story on Statesman.com. 


Carmelo’s Italian Restaurant closing; land sold to Houston-based company

One of Austin’s longest-running fine dining restaurants will see its 32-year run come to a close in the coming months. Carmelo Mauro will shutter his namesake Italian restaurant in downtown on Father’s Day, June 18. Mauro sold the property at 504 E. Fifth St. in March, according to county records, and cites rising property tax prices for the closure.

Mauro said he believes the new owners, listed as AHC-Seazen ODH LLC, intend to build a high-rise condominium on the plot of land at Fifth and Red River streets. According to state records, AHC-Seazen is connected to Houston-based firm Allen Harrison Company, which develops multi-family apartment buildings. The Statesman has left a message with a representative for the buyer.

Mauro first opened Carmelo’s in Houston in 1981 after arriving from his native Sicily in 1978, and opened the Austin location in 1985. The restaurant is located in the 145-year-old building that once the housed Old Depot Hotel, recorded on the National Register as a Texas Landmark.

The painted courtyard of Carmelo’s Italian Restaurant on Fifth Street in Austin.

Mauro said he never intended to sell the land, which he purchased in 1992, but that property tax increases in recent years made staying impossible. According to the Travis County Appraisal District’s website, the property was appraised around $3 million in 2014 and rose to just over $5 million last year. Mauro said his restaurant would have to do $8 million-$10 million in sales annually, a number he says is unfathomable, in order to remain profitable.

“We are not here to become wealthy but because we love what we do,” Mauro said. “But at one point if you work just for the tax man then it is not fun anymore.”

Carmelo’s parking lot had helped Mauro generate extra revenue in recent years. The space played a major role during South by Southwest for 2012 to 2014, with Doritos building a massive stage on the lot. But an ordinance passed by the Austin City Council in 2014 to regulate public safety during SXSW kept Carmelo’s from being able to obtain a permit to host such shows in its parking lost, according to Mauro. Mauro said the change cost his business hundreds of thousands of dollars, which he would have used to defray the rising tax cost.

Mauro thinks local government is making financial concerns the primary factor in Austin’s growth, a move that puts the city’s unique culture at risk.

“They are on a mission and their mission is to get as much money from the business community. The tragedy is there is no cap on businesses, so they can increase as much as they please,” Mauro said. “They forgot who made this corner. Now they are looking for the top bananas with a lot of funds.”

Carmelo’s was once one of the hottest spots in Austin, home to special-occasion family dinners and a regular dining destinations for some of the city’s power players. When Anne Richards was elected governor in 1990, the Statesman’s Lee Kelly wrote that lunches at La Zona Rosa and dinners at Carmelo’s Italian Restaurant were “in.”

Mauro, who served as president of the Texas Restaurant Association from 2007-2008, was recognized in 2001 by the National Restaurant Association as the group’s Cornerstone Humanitarian of the Year, and he regularly participated in charity and community events, including last year’s “Austin Loves Amatrice” benefit following the devastation earthquake in Italy.

“The beauty of Austin through the years is we were able to get involved with a lot of charitable organizations and helped raise substantial amounts. So we were part of the community, and we will always be a part of the community,” Mauro said.

Mauro gave three months notice to his staff, in hopes they’d have time to find new jobs. Some of the employees at Carmelo’s are children of some of the restaurant’s original employees, according to the owner. 

The closure in Austin will not affect the original Houston location in that city’s energy corridor.

“Houston is more sensitive when they increase,” Mauro said. “Five or 10 percent.”

Carmelo will spend time in his restaurant in the weeks leading up to the closure, hoping to get a chance to say goodbye to many of his longtime customers and employees.

He closes the Austin chapter of his restaurant life with mixed feelings.

“It’s a shock to each one of us. So even though I cashed in, there is no celebration,” Mauro said. “The heart tells you one thing but the brain says it’s time.”

Austin360 Dining Guide: Top 25 restaurants in Austin

Top Italian restaurants in Austin: Juniper | Bufalina | L’Oca d’Oro | Enoteca