Sugar Pine, a smart new Japanese Café in north Austin, is the culmination of three generations of restaurant experience, innovation, and drive. Co-owner Joyce Yang’s parents I-Chien and Chu-Tzu were the owners of the popular Hunan Palace restaurant on North Lamar back in the 1990s, and it’s there that Joyce first got her feel for the restaurant business.
Branching out in 2000, Joyce was the first to introduce “bubble teas” to Austin at her unique Taiwanese cafes ‘Coco’s.’ At the time, the novel tapioca “pearl” drinks were hugely popular in Asia but were still relatively rare in the U.S. Nearly two decades later, two Coco’s locations are still thriving, one near the UT campus and the other in north Austin.
Interestingly, on my last trip to Taipei, I was surprised to see just how current the Cocos concept is to its Asian counterparts. The bright colors, design, and overall feel of the Research Boulevard location would be perfectly at home in an upscale Taipei shopping district or mall.
In June of 2019, together with Architect husband Madhu Phillips, Joyce opened Sugar Pine, this time with their teenaged kids Calvin and Lilia in tow.
Sugar Pine is located on the busy frontage road of Hwy 183 near Ohlen. The building housed a ‘River City’ doughnut shop for many years but received a beautiful redesign inside and out. Though not large, the space has tall ceilings and is filled with light from the floor-to-ceiling front windows. The tables are covered with tiny orchids or succulent arrangements, and the space is further brightened by metal chairs in vivid yellow. The outside patio features a beautiful wall fountain, and the enclosure is topped with a striking array of flowering and creeping plants.
The idea for the restaurant started with the family’s love of Japanese food, but since Sushi was already well represented in Austin, they decided to focus on a different popular culinary treat…
“Onigiri” or stuffed rice balls, like so many Japanese concepts, have a history that can be traced back for thousands of years. Historical references even allow for the dating of the evolution of the recipe, i.e., when seaweed started to be used for easier handling (Edo Period – give or take 300 years). Purportedly rice balls even featured in documented Samurai preparedness as they were portable and quick to eat.
Though often mistaken for sushi ‘nigiri’, onigiri is considered a separate culinary form. The prime difference being that onigiri is made with plain cooked rice while sushi is made with cooked rice in styles that vary by the proportions of vinegar, sugar, and salt added. (Edo, Tokyo-style / Osaka, Kansai-style, etc.)
Evolution has continued with onigiri, and today, though still quite portable, they are more often triangular in shape. (purportedly a 1980’s modification)
At Sugar Pine, in addition to being beautiful, these little creations come with a variety of delicious centers; spicy tuna, salmon, steak, chicken, ume shiso, pickled vegetables, spicy tofu, and even avocado are available.
Along with the onigiri specialties, Sugar Pine’s menu also features a variety of ‘small plates’ including chicken Karaage, (think true chicken nuggets), Japanese style Fish & Chips, Shrimp Tempura. My particular favorite, however, is a bit of a rarity in Austin, Soba noodle. These buckwheat noodles are served cold with a very flavorful kelp/seaweed dipping sauce. The sauce here is vegetarian but also comes with a side of traditional bonito flakes.
The hardier options on the menu include excellent pork, or chicken Katsu (panko-breaded, pan-fried cutlets) served plain or with a curry sauce. Grilled steak and salmon plates round out the menu, all of which are accompanied by a variety of sautéed vegetables, steamed rice, miso soup, and house-made pickled vegetables.
Beverage choices are limited but well-considered. A good value Sake – Eikun Junmai-Shu Water Lords really stands out. The wine sections include a nice rosé, four reds and five whites plus a popular Red Mead. Madhu, however, a craft beer fan, was the drive behind having a nice sampling of local draft beers featuring Live Oak, Circle, Austin Beer Works, and Thirsty Goat.
The youngest members of the Phillips family had a strong influence on the desserts featured at Sugar Pine.
As you enter the restaurant, the first food case contains a very popular selection of unique ice cream and sorbet ice flavors. The ice creams are rich house-made “spun custards” in amazing flavors like Miso Caramel, Black Sesame, and White Chocolate Tai Tea. One must-try sorbet ice is the fresh Watermelon Thai Basil.
Sugar Pine is a great place for an easy lunch, dinner, or just a snack at any time of the day. The crowd varies from young high school or college kids to parents and grandparents seemingly brought by their kids.
Sugar Pine truly hits a sweet spot between convenience, style, and high quality.
By Richard Arebalo
OTL Features Editor