Food Blogger Jane Ko on Austin’s Top Asian Restaurants and the City's Culinary Evolution
The author and influencer on her culinary journey, Austin’s growing Asian population, and the best places to eat for Lunar New Year and beyond.
Anyone who lives in Austin has undoubtedly heard of Jane Ko, AKA A Taste of Koko. The social media darling has been blogging about Bat City’s amazing restaurant scene for well over a decade, charting a meteoric expansion that’s blasted through every obstacle thrown our way. With an Instagram account amassing 115,000 followers, a state-wide number one selling book in Koko’s Guide To Austin, and a speaker series that spans SXSW and Texas Conference for Women (all alongside her award-winning blog, mind you), it goes without saying that what Koko says, we eat.
I joined boomtown’s millions in 2020, swapping a Brooklyn shoebox for a downtown Austin condo with mind-blowing washer and dryer perks. And while the transition was nothing short of glorious, I had my reservations, much like any other non-white, non-American individual packing their bags for a move to the South (even, perhaps especially, with a Texan husband in tow). But Austin ain’t like no other Lone Star city, and hasn’t been for a long time. In fact, the metro’s Asian population has doubled in the last decade, and we’re now the third-largest racial demographic in the area, hovering over just 7% of the total population.
I recently chatted with Jane, whom I’d been following for a while now, to discuss coming to Austin, her culinary journey, and her plans for celebrating the upcoming Lunar New Year.
JW: I came from New York, via Tokyo, and haven’t been this excited to meet another AAPI as I am now. What was your experience like moving from Taiwan to Texas?
JK: Well, I was three years old, so I don't remember much, and my experience was probably quite different. I grew up in a small town in South Texas called Port Lavaca, with a population of 10,000. I came to Austin in 2007 to go to school at UT Austin—Biology, PreMed, just like every other Asian [laughs]. That plan went out the window since I wasn't very good at academics, and I switched to nutrition and bought a domain called atasteofkoko.com.
JW: What was your first impression of Asian food in Austin?
JK: Non-existent. The restaurant scene in Austin in 2007 was very barren—mostly chains, and I was also a college student on campus who didn't grow up dining out. I received my first restaurant invite in 2012 and then started writing reviews.
JW: I remember when I first arrived, it was so depressing. I went to a sushi spot downtown and ate the worst ramen. Trying to find decent Chinese, or at least American Chinese, even with recommendations from long-time Austinites… let’s just say that took many months and a lot of mediocre Kung Pao. How did you navigate your culinary journey?
JK: Kyoto downtown (now closed) was one of my first Asian restaurants in Austin and the food was meh. Uchi opened in 2010, and that dramatically set the bar, but that was fine dining. I still remember when Ramen Tatsu-Ya opened in 2012, with their fancy Japanese ramen that was more than the 50 cent packs at the grocery store.
JW: How has the Asian community changed since you came to Austin? And how has that affected the local cuisine?
JK: It's definitely grown in the last decade, especially with all the tech companies that have opened offices here like Indeed, Dropbox, Apple, Samsung, and Facebook. With the growing Asian population, there has been an increase in Asian restaurants. I also think everyone moving here from California and New York with a palate for Asian food has helped with that.
JW: I agree. Our neighbor from San Francisco, Melissa, is always on the hunt for good Asian food with us. The demand is growing, and Lunar New Year is only getting bigger too. How do you typically celebrate?
JK: I usually book a group dinner at Qi or Wu Chow. This year, my friends and I plan on doing a potluck. How about you?
JW: I think we’re going to get takeout dumplings from Little Wu. Speaking of which, where do you go for Chinese? I love Chinatown North, but since we don’t have a car, my husband and I usually cycle to Old Thousand. They do a pretty stellar job with vegetarian dishes.
JK: Oooh, authentic Chinese is hard in Austin. I used to go to 101 By Teahaus all the time—their Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup reminded me of home, but sadly it closed. I like Din Ho, Rice Bowl Cafe, Chen Z Noodle House, First Chinese BBQ, and House of Three Gorges. And if I'm looking for an experience, I go to Qi or Wu Chow.
JW: I’ve been to Wu Chow, but I can’t get my head around trendy upscale Chinese like that. I like the casual joints best. How about Korean—Can we talk about how amazing the big H-Mart is up by Lakeline?
JK: I still can't believe we have H-Mart in Austin! You can get everything from fancy noodle kits, sushi-grade seafood, and all the Korean snacks. My favorite is the frozen section.
JW: Japanese cuisine has gotten really exciting recently. Who would have thought fresh fish could hold so well in the desert. Any faves?
JK: Komé is my go-to for sushi, and I like Sazan's Paitan Ramen. Fukumoto and Uroko are always favorites. Asahi Imports is also a hidden gem—it's a Japanese market that makes Onigiri from scratch every day.
JW: Sazan is my absolute favorite for ramen, too, but everytime we go to Asahi they’re sold out, as I always get there after 2 pm. How do you think Sazan compares to the Tatsu-Ya—they seem to be everywhere right now?
JK: I personally think Tatsu-Ya is too heavy, and I prefer lighter broths like Sazan and the chicken broth at Komé. The original Paitan at Sazan is my favorite—the chicken and pork broth is delicate and I like how the arugula and diced onions break up the creaminess.
JW: Austin’s got a lot of food trucks, obviously, but it feels like they’re mostly taco trucks. Though there are some good Thai trucks like Coat and ThaiandThai Kun. Are there others you’d recommend?
JK: I recently tried Fil N Viet—Filipino and Vietnamese—and it was pretty good. You also have to try DEE DEE, it's farm-to-table Northeastern Thai food. The Pad Kaprow and Laab Moo are incredible, but also incredibly spicy—like Thai-spicy.
JW: FIlipino and Vietnamese, that’s something you don’t hear much about here. Which Asian cuisines do you think are lacking in Austin? I personally don’t have a place for pho yet…
JK: Definitely Filipino. Sadly, Be More Pacific closed. Pho Dan is my go-to for pho, the bowls are huge with generous slices of meat. Sip Pho is more expensive, but the restaurant is beautifully designed by an architect.
JW: You, of all people, must know a good Taiwanese spot.
JK: I loved 101 By Teahaus, as I said earlier, but unfortunately, it closed due to the economic impacts of COVID-19. Now I recommend trying Coco's Cafe, Sweet Chive, Julie's Noodles, and Rice Bowl Cafe.
JW: These are all brilliant recommendations, and we might just have to go together. Thank you, Jane. Finally, what have you got coming up for 2022?
JK: Koko's Guide To Austin has been updated for 2022, and there’s a page on my favorite Asian spots. I'm also working on Koko's Guide To Fredericksburg, recently named the "new Napa" with over 100 wineries. I've been remodeling a house in Austin and working on a couple of new projects. Stay tuned on my Instagram and, in the meantime, let's definitely get dinner.