Photo by Jane Ko
Anyone who lives in Austin has no doubt heard of Jane Ko, aka A taste of Koko. The social media darling has been blogging about Bat City’s incredible restaurant scene for over a decade, charting a meteoric expansion that cuts through every obstacle that stands in our way. With a Instagram account amassing 115,000 subscribers, a statewide number one selling book in Koko’s Guide to Austin, and a speaker series that covers 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 the boomtown millions in 2020, swapping a Brooklyn shoebox for a downtown Austin condo with jaw-dropping washer and dryer perks. And while the transition was nothing short of glorious, I had my reservations, just like any other non-white, non-American individual packing for a move down South (even, perhaps especially, with a Texan husband in tow ). But Austin is unlike any other Lone Star town, and has been for a long time. In fact, the Metro Asian population has doubled over the past decade, and we are now the third largest racial demographic in the region, at just 7% of the total population.
I recently caught up with Jane, who I’ve 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 I wasn’t as excited to meet another AAPI as I am now. How did you experience moving from Taiwan to Texas?
JK: Well, I was three, so I don’t remember much, and my experience was probably quite different. I grew up in a small town in southern Texas called Port Lavaca, with a population of 10,000. Came to Austin in 2007 to go to school at UT Austin—Biology, PreMed, like every other Asian [laughs]. This plan fell through because 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 cuisine in Austin?
JK: Non-existent. The restaurant scene in Austin in 2007 was very sterile – mostly chains, and I was also an on-campus student who didn’t grow up dining out. I received my first invitation to the restaurant in 2012, then I started writing reviews.
JW: I remember when I arrived, it was so depressing. I went to a sushi restaurant downtown and had the worst ramen. Trying to find decent Chinese, or at least Chinese American, even with recommendations from long-time Austinians…let’s just say it took several months and a lot of mediocre Kung Pao. How did you navigate your culinary journey?
JK: Downtown Kyoto (now closed) was one of my first Asian restaurants in Austin and the food was good. Uchi opened in 2010, and it set the bar high, but it was good food. I still remember when Ramen Tatsu-Ya opened in 2012, with their sophisticated Japanese ramen that exceeded the 50-cent packets at the grocery store.
JW: How has the Asian community changed since you arrived in Austin? And how has this affected the local cuisine?
JK: It’s definitely grown over the last decade, especially with all the tech companies opening offices here like Indeed, Dropbox, Apple, Samsung, and Facebook. With the growth of the Asian population, there has been an increase in Asian restaurants. I also think anyone who comes from California and New York with a strong taste for Asian cuisine has contributed to it.
JW: I agree. Our neighbor from San Francisco, Melissa, is always on the lookout for great Asian food with us. Demand is growing and the Lunar New Year is only getting bigger. How do you usually celebrate?
JW: I think we’ll get dumplings to take away from Little Wu. Speaking of which, where do you go for Chinese? I like North Chinatown, but since we don’t have a car, my husband and I usually go by bike Old Thousand. They do a pretty stellar job with vegetarian options.
JK: Oooh, authentic Chinese is tough in Austin. I used to go to 101 By Teahaus all the time – their Taiwanese beef noodle soup reminded me of home, but unfortunately it closed. I appreciate Dinho, rice bowl cafe, Chen Z Noodle House, First Chinese barbecue, and Three Gorges House. 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 imagine high-end Chinese fashionable like that. I like casual joints better. What about Korean? Can we talk about the incredible H-Mart is near 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 Korean snacks. My favorite is the frozen section.
JW: Japanese cuisine has become very exciting lately. Who would have thought that fresh fish could be kept so well in the desert. Favorites?
JK: Kome is my go-to for sushi, and I love 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 also my go-to for ramen, but every time we go to Asahi they are full as I always get there after 2pm. How do you think Sazan compares to Tatsu Ya– they seem to be everywhere at the moment?
JK: Personally, I think Tatsu-Ya is too heavy, and I prefer lighter broths like Sazan and chicken broth from Komé. Sazan’s original Paitan is my favorite – the chicken and pork broth is delicate and I like how the arugula and diced onions break up the creaminess.
JK: I recently tried Yarn N Viet—Filipino and Vietnamese—and it was pretty good. You should also try WED WED, it’s farm-to-table cuisine in northeast Thailand. Pad Kaprow and Laab Moo are amazing, but also incredibly spicy, like spicy Thai.
JW: Filipinos and Vietnamese, that’s something you don’t hear much about here. Which Asian cuisines do you think are missing in Austin? Personally, I don’t have a place for photography yet…
JK: Definitely Filipino. Unfortunately, Be More Pacific has closed. Pho Dan is my favorite 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.
JW: Those are all brilliant recommendations, and maybe we should go together. Thanks Jane. Finally, what do you have planned for 2022?
JK: Koko’s Guide to Austin has been updated for 2022, and there is 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 was home renovation in austin and working on a few new projects. Stay tuned on my instagram and, in the meantime, let’s definitely go to dinner.