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Austin Restaurant Critic’s Quarantine Quandary

Karen Spezia cooked at home but longed for breakfast tacos, dim sum and Austin's best burger

What now? I wondered. What does a restaurant critic write while dining rooms are closed? Where do I go when I can’t prowl the city’s restaurant scene? This was my quarantine quandary. So I did what most people did: I stayed home and cooked. And cooked. And washed dishes. And cooked again.

A delectable fried chicken sandwich from June’s All Day. Photo by Mica McCook.

Dusting off my old cookbooks and revisiting favorite recipes was fun for a while; I even attempted ambitious new ones. Some were winners (cassoulet), and some were not (mocha layer cake). My husband, the Italian, whipped up epic feasts of risotto Milanese, pasta Amatriciana and chicken Marsala. He made gallons of Bolognese, more than we could ever consume or freeze, so we shared it with friends and neighbors via doorstep drop-offs. At lunch, we took to enjoying a glass of wine—because, why not?

When cabinets got bare, I ordered grocery delivery, a novel experiment with mixed results. Growing weary of out-of-stock notices and oddball substitutes, I visited small markets like Fresh Plus and Con’ Olio to score great finds. And as my booze stash dwindled (see lunch above), The Austin Wine Merchant made deliveries to my doorstep like the cavalry to my rescue.

Dim sum from Lin Asian Bar.

Cooking fatigue eventually set in, and I longed for my favorite haunts. It was challenging in those early days of isolation. On my way to H-E-B curbside pickup, I’d detour past old hangouts, gazing wistfully at their boarded-up doors like some deranged stalker. Just being in their vacant parking lots somehow brought solace. Eventually, many began offering modified takeout options, but it wasn’t the same. I wanted to be inside, sitting down, sharing the experience with the staff and other diners.

I missed queuing up at Caffé Medici for my morning espresso, then waiting in anticipation for the barista to call my name with my perfect cup. Of course, being an Austinite, I craved migas breakfast tacos at Veracruz All Natural, but I also missed my occasional bagel at Nervous Charlie’s and ethereally flaky croissant at Word of Mouth Bakery.

A grapefruit paloma at Josephine House.

Later in the day, my thoughts would turn to the city’s best burger at Bartlett’s or the fried chicken sandwich at June’s All Day. I missed thin, light Neapolitan pizza at 40 North and Pieous, which is meant to be eaten hot out of a wood-fired oven—not hunched over a paper plate on my couch. Sunday brunches lost their meaning without my weekly dim sum fix at Lin Asian Bar. And on Cinco de Mayo, I lamented that I couldn’t devour a bowl of Bob Armstrong Dip and a frozen margarita on the patio of Matt’s El Rancho. Although happy hour started early at my house (see lunch above), come 5 o’clock I still longed for a martini at Eddie V’s bar, a paloma on the lawn of Josephine House or a gin and tonic slushy on Loro’s side porch.

Franklin BBQ favorites were made available for online ordering. Photo by Wyatt McSpadden.

But even with all the longing, there was also spectacular wonder and surprise. Out-of-reach restaurants miraculously became attainable, with takeout and delivery leveling the playing field. Placing several online orders from Franklin Barbecue, I marveled at the chance to circumvent the notorious three-hour line. Upscale, style-conscious Jeffery’s offered curbside takeout that could be picked up in your (Gucci) sweatpants. And Uchi, where snagging a reservation can be harder than winning the lottery, provided delivery and takeout to anyone who called. It was dizzying and decadent.

The pizza counter at 40 North.

Eventually, these extraordinary times will pass. Things will return to a new normal, although I’m sure they’ll look quite different. What won’t change is my deep appreciation and respect for Austin’s restaurants and the remarkable sense of joy and community they provide. I look forward to walking through their doors again and lingering at their tables. Who knows what I’ll write about next time? My hope is it will be news of triumph and resilience.

Read More From the Summer 2020 Issue