The Austin Playbook Is a Digital Guide to Eating Out and Having a Blast in Austin
Food blogger Alex Reichek talks about the city’s evolving dining scene and eating out as a lifestyle
By Aaron Parsley
Alex Reichek knows a lot about the Austin culinary scene. Driven by a passion for food and travel, the Houston native and UT grad started her hit food blog, Chekmark Eats, while living in New York City before returning to Austin and founding a PR and marketing firm. As food trucks popped up all over town and more restaurants opened and created new and creative dining experiences, Reichek’s blog and Instagram feed featured her favorite places to eat in Austin. Then the request started rolling in from friends wanting to get her recommendations and visitors eager to make the most of their time in the Texas capital. That eventually led to the idea of creating a digital guidebook for locals and tourists to keep handy whenever these inevitable questions pop up: Where should we eat? What should I order? The Austin Playbook, which launched this month and is available for download for $30, features her top choices for Austin restaurants – and what to try at each place. There’s also lists of live music venues, outdoor activities, bakeries, bars and hotels for the full Austin experience. And if you’re planning a bachelor or bachelorette party in town, she’s got you covered with 3-day itineraries to help plan the celebration. Reichek spoke with Tribeza about the guide, the evolving Austin food scene, eating out as a lifestyle and whether a sugar-loving blogger would ever cut sweet treats from her diet.
How and why did you end up back in Austin after living in New York City?
I went to UT, grew up in Houston, and after 8 years of living in NYC and working at a couple different restaurant-focused PR firms, I decided I really missed the accessibility to the outdoors and also wanted to take my career to another level and work in-house for a restaurant group. I heard about McGuire Moorman Hospitality and that they were growing in Austin, so I reached out to Larry McGuire through the website to see if he’d be interested in working together. Then we met in New York, and he hired me about a month later as the communications director! I now run my own company called Chekmark Consulting where I do PR, marketing and consulting for local restaurants, brands and lifestyle companies.
When did you notice the Austin food scene really take off? Was there a particular opening that made you realize Austin is officially a foodie town?
I moved back after Austin already had a lot of new and established restaurants. All the food trucks popping up definitely stood out. People were cooking really amazing flavors in these small mobile kitchens. When I was in college the food scene was mainly focused on Tex-Mex. Austin had a strong base several years ago but within the last three years, chefs and restauranteurs have really embraced design which is just as important as the food on your plate since it’s part of the entire experience and memory. It’s very competitive so they really have to shine whether it be something new on the menu we aren’t used to or a beautiful space that doesn’t look like everyone else’s. Kemuri Tatsu-Ya was a turning point for me because it was a concept that did not already exist and was super exciting.
When did you get the idea to do The Austin Playbook?
I’ve had my restaurant and travel blog Chekmark Eats for 8 years and my Instagram came later when the app launched, so I am always giving recommendations to people on where to eat in Austin, New York and where I travel. I started blogging and posting on Instagram because I was already eating out and exploring because it’s my passion and what really makes me smile. I get texts and emails every single day from Austinites and everyone visiting for bachelorette and bachelor parties. I always curate my suggestions based on who it’s for and where they live, knowing what kind of experience they are looking for. It is so much fun to hear from everyone, and it has become a lot of work in the middle of the day so I thought, what if I created an online downloadable book for people to access my recommendations so they could have them on demand at all times. At that point, I started putting ideas together and then spent time looking for a graphic designer and illustrator to make the it come to life.
Tell us more about what’s in the Playbook and how you curated it?
It’s divided by page into topics including: Best BBQ, Top Tacos, Live Music, Active and Outdoorsy, Bakeries, Drinks, Hotels, 3.5 pages of my Top 76 Restaurants (which outlines what the experience is like and what exactly to order), a 3-day weekend bachelorette itinerary and a 3-day bachelor itinerary which are also useful for locals or those visiting for the weekend. I am always asked specifically what to order at each restaurant so that is why I gave a lot of attention to the restaurant pages. In addition, the other pages have anecdotes, some history and really dive deep into the spaces so people can make a decision based on their needs and where they want to go. I do not include every BBQ spot but just my top picks so it is useful as opposed to overwhelming. I also have perks and discounts to several hotels, fitness studios, bakeries and restaurants, which add up to about a $1,000 value.
Between your blog, your other job, social life and being a food fan, how many nights per week do you eat out?
Yes, so my actual job is doing PR and consulting for restaurants and other lifestyle brands in Austin and some still in New York City. I was always eating out as a hobby so even when it’s not part of my job I’m doing it because I’m curious and I love it. I entertain media at my restaurant clients, and on other days, I go out to eat with my friends. Some people meet up for drinks, but people ask me to meet up for food! I love being social, so I probably eat out 3-4 nights a week. Now that I have a bigger kitchen, I also cook for friends at home when I can and try to host my Cookbook Club once a month.
What’s your favorite Austin cuisine?
I’m really digging the modern Mexican that Fermín Núñez at Suerte and Gabe Erales at Comedor are doing right now. I battle deciding which quesadilla I like more every time! They are unlike any I’ve ever had. You can really taste the love and hard work they put into each tortilla, but I really just love how fresh and light the seafood and meat dishes are compared to traditional Tex-Mex restaurants. You can actually go out and have a good time after!
What’s your favorite place to grab a drink and what are you usually drinking at a bar?
My favorite dive bar is Nickel City, and I always get their aperol spritz on tap served with their crushed ice. I also love the bar and outdoor courtyard at Ramen Tatsu-Ya called Domo Alley-Gato. It feels intimate yet social at the same time with cool Japanese lanterns and wooden booths. I just checked out the new east side brewery Central Machine Works this weekend, and that scene was rad!
How many bachelorette parties in Austin have you been a part of? Any funny stories about wild nights out with bachelorette parties?
I’ve really just planned a lot of bachelorette parties for my friend’s friends. Whenever someone from New York is coming in town for their sister or friend’s bachelorette, they call me. I always help with restaurant reservations, boat ideas and where to stay. Most of the ones I attend have been in Miami, New York, Vegas or Mexico and I helped with restaurants and entertainment there.
What makes a good stop on a bachelorette weekend? What about the bachelors?
I have one full page of three-day itineraries dedicated to bachelorette parties and one for bachelor parties. I always jam pack my personal travel with activities and the best food, and that is what I did for these two pages so they could have options but also not be overwhelmed. A good stop in Austin for bachelors is St. Elmo Brewery so they can get beer (or a keg to go) from a local brewer while also enjoying that outdoor lifestyle and my favorite food truck Soursop. For bachelorettes, I included taking the free two-step dancing lessons at The White Horse because I know the gals from out of town want to see a Texas honky-tonk, and it’s still fun and young. I also recommended the best shops on South Congress and on the East Side to visit.
What made you decide to make The Austin Playbook digital?
I thought it would be the best way to get people’s questions answered. Almost like an on-demand service. People text me all the time with questions like what should I eat at Odd Duck as they are walking in or where should I go tonight last minute with eight people. If they could just download this, they would have my answers right away and at all times!
Have you ever considered cutting sugar or desserts from your diet for any amount of time?
Ha! I love this question because everyone knows me as the cookie and sugar lover. I actually did cut sugar for three and a half weeks with my crossfit gym several years ago one January. After one week it was okay, and that was not even the hardest part. It was just so stressful to eat out and ask about every ingredient on the menu that it was causing stress I didn’t need and making it hard to have fun. I actually don’t feel bad when I eat sugar. It’s when I overdo it and eat a whole pint of ice cream and can’t breathe. Otherwise, I’m full of sugar daily! I don’t drink coffee and when I tell people that, their faces drop. I tell them I get my energy from my daily sweet treat.
If you could only eat at three Austin restaurants for the rest of your life, what would they be?
Wow! This is scary since I’m always trying new places. I love Asian and seafood most. I’d say Clark’s, Launderette, Thai Fresh (especially because they have a bakery so that’s a win win! I was eating there often and that’s how I ended up meeting Jam and she became a client).