Originally published in Austin Monthly, May 2015 Issue
THE PEACHED TORTILLA’S NEW BRICK-AND-MORTAR ON BURNET ROAD IS STILL GIVING FUSION CUISINE A GOOD NAME
You don’t need to know much about Austin to know that food trucks are a serious business here. Visitors come, lists in hand, to hit the trucks, trailers and carts they see on national best-of roundups. They’ve heard what we know: Our trailer cuisine is roundly excellent, and inventive risk-taking is one of its hallmarks. Even Anthony Bourdain has long been a vocal devotee of our city’s street food.
The seriousness applies as much to the business part, too. The Austin Food Trailer Alliance has helped to organize, advocate for and educate local operators since 2011. And we’ve seen countless examples of proprietors who have built their operations into veritable empires, armed with fiercely loyal followings and solid business plans, parlaying their successes into brick-and-mortar locations.
One of the latest to do so is The Peached Tortilla’s Eric Silverstein, who opened a version of his wildly popular food truck, sans wheels, on Burnet Road last December. A former litigator, Silverstein was one of the early players in Austin’s street food scene, rolling out his first truck in 2010. In 2012, he helped to organize Trailer Food Tuesdays, and he’s said he has as much passion for the business as he does for the food he serves.
It can’t be a coincidence, then, that business seems to be booming: He still operates two trucks and a busy catering operation alongside the new brick-and-mortar. I live nearby, and rarely have I driven by without seeing a waiting crowd. The small but bright and cheery restaurant starts filling up right at 5 p.m. with a mix of area families—kids chowing down on crispy umami chicken wings topped with a fish-sauce vinaigrette—and the kidless, drawn by the happy hour menu, the serious whiskey list and the inventive, Asian-inflected cocktails, such as the Roppongi gimlet made with Thai chiles and cucumber. And it just gets more packed from there.
Presumably, some want a taste of familiar truck favorites, including the JapaJam Burger, topped with sweet tomato jam, pepper jack cheese, a fried egg, Chinese barbecue sauce and tempura-fried onion strings; the bacon jam fries, which also come topped with cheddar, a fried egg and chili aioli; and the banh mi taco, among others. None of the preparations have suffered the transition.
If you weren’t already a trailer devotee, the waiters prep you for the experience, describing it as Asian-influenced Southern comfort food, a combination reflective of Silverstein’s background. He was born in Japan to a Chinese mother, with travels around Asia and a move to Georgia—hence the peach emblem—at age 11. The Asian and the comfort elements are readily apparent in dishes like the kimchi arancini, those cheesy fried rice-balls from Italian cuisine. The Southern? Not so much. Sure, you’ll find catfish and fried chicken on the menu, but those ingredients are equally at home in Vietnamese and Korean cuisine. And there’s the brisket and the tacos, but those are more Texan touches, aren’t they? (I leave you to argue the matter of whether Texas is part of the South.) Perhaps “Southern” is too broadly interpreted here.
Or is it a missed opportunity? For instance, the Southern Fun is a spicy, complex and compulsively edible take on Chinese beef chow fun, made with the same wide rice noodles, but also with braised brisket, bean sprouts and kale. Why not collards, that most eminent of Southern greens? Why doesn’t cornbread show up, say in Mom’s Toast, a delicious super-crisp bite topped with a ground pork and shrimp paste, piled with fresh herbs and drizzled with a Korean gochujang chili sauce? And they offer banchan, a typical Korean dish of little pickled snacks and side dishes. I’ve had banchan with beans. How would black-eyed peas hold up to such a preparation?
More than anything, the restaurant menu is Pan-Asian, with dishes that range from a Thai chopped salad, which is fresh and light but missing the sour note common in Thai cuisine, to Malaysian laksa, a nicely spicy creamy curry noodle dish with shrimp. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It makes sense given Silverstein’s background, but the fusion seems unfocused without a stronger Southern thread running through.
None of this is to say that the food isn’t good, or creative, or delightful. It’s all those things, as is the dining experience. The crowds and the accolades attest to that. Yes, you will find some dishes that aren’t as strong—such as the blistered catfish bowl, too sweet in my opinion—alongside excellent ones, like that Southern Fun or the Tres cauliflower, done (surprise!) three ways: pickled, charred and pureed with nori for a bite of umami heaven. And the Asian Movie Night, a magical sundae of popcorn ice cream topped with crumbled crisped rice crackers and “Asian” caramel made with a secret ingredient. (Shh, it’s fish sauce—trust me.)
I don’t fear that this unevenness is indicative of a lack of quality. It was just early days as of my two visits. Silverstein has proven he can tackle the unknown and turn it into culinary gold once. I’m sure he’ll do it again at this new restaurant.