In Austin, Texas, a city famed for its barbecue and Tex-Mex, chefs from around the world are paying homage to their cultural roots, quickly marking the state capital as one of hottest food scenes in the U.S. In the last decade, Austin has exploded with waves of new residents. The 2020 census revealed that it's the fastest-growing major metropolitan area in the country. Today, culinary professionals are bringing their diverse talents to the table — many with family members coming along for the ride.
On this month's TODAY All Day streaming series "Family Style," Al Roker meets with the families running some of Austin's most beloved eateries.
Al tastes Caribbean fare at Tony's Jamaican
Austin is famous for its food truck parks, which make it easy for both locals and tourists to sample flavors from around the globe at more affordable price points. Among the city's 1,200-plus food trucks is Tony's Jamaican — one of the spots for those craving true Caribbean fare.
Raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Scott learned how to cook when he was just 10 years old from his mother, Hyacinth, who believed it was imperative to raise young men to be self sufficient. Scott made his living cooking jerk chicken and serving drinks to visitors at a nearby beach town. But after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, tourism to the island came to a halt, forcing Scott to relocate for work.
He moved to the U.S., eventually landing in Austin in 2003. Scott had hoped to start cooking again, but wasn't able to find a job in a professional kitchen. So he turned to construction and began painting houses. While he was on the job, Scott's homemade lunches attracted the attention of fellow workers.
"I cook my own food, you know?" Scott told Al. "And they was like, 'Oh, you should open a restaurant.'"
Noting the lack of Jamaican cuisine in the city — and confident in his culinary smarts — Scott and his wife Kim took a leap of faith, opening their first food truck in 2012. A rocky start didn't discourage Scott, who lives by his mom's advice, "Don't make anybody tell you you can't do nothing." Luckily, when thousands flocked to Austin that month for the city's annual South by Southwest cultural festival, a food blogger stopped by and helped build his popularity among locals, too.
Today, Scott feeds a huge loyal following, including celebrities like Dave Chappelle. His business has been so successful that in 2018, Scott and his wife expanded the family business to their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, located just 20 minutes from downtown Austin.
But success never intimidates Scott, who continues to marinate his oxtail with the same secret sauces learned during his upbringing.
"If this is what I am blessed to do, you know, it's not only doing it for myself, but it's opening doors ... giving somebody a job," Scott told Al.
Much to Al's delight, he got a sampling of what makes Scott's food such a valuable treat for those who make the trek to his truck.
"My mother is Jamaican. And in our house oxtail was king," Al explained, noting that he grew up eating many dishes with oxtail including stews and dumplings.
At Tony's Jamaican, oxtail is also king. Marinated in Caribbean spices and a homemade sauce using onion, bell pepper, scotch bonnet pepper, Blue Mountain Country burnt sugar and Grace multipurpose seasoning blend, the oxtails are slow cooked until tender and literally fall off the bone.
Every bite brought on waves of nostalgia for Al, and for Scott as well. The successful chef keeps his first (very small) pot on display in his truck — a constant reminder of how far his passion for making food has taken him.
A modern twist on Vietnamese cuisine at Me Con Bistro
In Vietnamese, Me Con roughly translates to "my kids." And for Vietnamese refugee En "Ann" Hang, that's what cooking alongside her children in their dream restaurant is all about. But it was a long journey before Me Con Bistro opened its doors, one that began when Hang and her husband, Kia Huynh, fled the communist regime in Vietnam in the 1970s.
Hang and her husband did not travel to the U.S. together. It took almost four years for them to reunite with each other — and with all four of their children. Will Huynh, Hang's son and an owner of Me Con, left Vietnam where he was just seven and remembers being rescued by fishing boats with his uncle. He eventually reunited with his father in Houston, where his mother and three siblings joined a year later.
Though Huynh always loved his mother's food growing up, it wasn't until he went to high school in Austin that his love for cooking really developed. While living alone with his uncle, Huynh was encouraged to develop a new skill.
"There's only two of us, you're gonna have to do, you know, do your share so learn to cook something," Huynh recalls his uncle telling him. "I don't care how bad it tastes, I'm gonna eat it if you cook it."
Huynh and his siblings were able to open Me Con Bistro in 2016 when Hang finally agreed to share her special recipes, including her family's favorite pho. While Me Con Bistro began as an homage to his mother and her many sacrifices to make a better life for her family, Huynh didn't expect his mom to be wearing her chef's coat around the eatery. Still, every morning she comes to the restaurant, ready to support, help cook or just be with her family.
"I like working with my children. That’s why I come out to help them," Hang told TODAY. "I want to help my children however I can — and make the most of each day."
Two generations serve Ethiopian tradition at Habesha
At Habesha restaurant, a husband-and-wife duo are serving up traditional Ethiopian fare and bringing their teen daughters closer to their roots, one plate at a time.
"We want, more than anything else, for people to be familiar with not just Ethiopian food, but Ethiopian culture," Yidne Fantu, who co-owns Habesha with his wife, chef Selam Abebe, told TODAY.
The emphasis on family is everywhere at Habesha: from the Ethiopian art on the walls, to the owners' daughters, Aziel and Edil, often posting up to finish homework at a table. Immersed in the nourishing dishes of Fante and Abebe's home country also makes it easy for families to bond. In Ethiopia, many dishes are eaten with a flatbread called injera. This cultural difference, Fantu notes gleefully, makes it difficult to be swiping through your phone between bites as the experience requires everyone at the table to be truly present — and keep both hands free to enjoy the meal.
Raised in different parts of Ethiopia before moving to the U.S. for college, Abebe and Fantu moved to Austin and married in 2003. While Abebe decided to stay home to care for their young girls, her husband saw that her heart was in professional cooking. After saving for several years, the couple opened Habesha in 2012.
Today, they serve a large menu with dozens of dishes, including vegetarian favorites like stewed yellow split peas and braised collard greens. And as a nod to their new home in Texas, the restaurant also includes a generous "Meat Lovers" section of the menu, with many dishes beef dishes, such as kitfo, Ethiopian steak tartare.
During the pandemic, Fantu and Abebe were challenged to keep their business afloat. When the couple had to lay off most of their staff, Edil and Aziel stepped up to help to fill in wherever they could — from washing dishes, to taking to-go orders and even boxing up the injera.
"They did a lot, and they're part of the reason why we're still around," Fantu explained, getting emotional while speaking about his daughters. His kids, in turn, are also proud to be part of a family that values tradition and the support to follow their dreams.
"She's a really big inspiration to me," Aziel said of her mother. "Whenever things get hard, you just keep going."