Although no se means “I don’t know” in Spanish, Café No Sé knows how to hold its own along one of Austin’s most well-known streets.
From my perspective, South Congress Hotel serves as a peek into Austin’s future. The minds behind this hotel that hosts Cafe No Sé are greater in number than Austin’s typical local business, but this doesn’t mean they’re any less invested in the spirit of our city than the mom and pop shop down the street. These Austin entrepreneurs have gone to great lengths to grow their hotel with Austin, as the city changes from a once-hidden gem of a town to a top destination. They acknowledge and embrace the cranes permanently caressing the skyline, but strive to preserve the infamous weirdness that put this city on the map.
How are they doing this, you ask? By adding their own unique spin on Austin within four walls, in hopes of attracting newcomers and long-time residents alike.
Welcome into Café No Sé
The atmosphere of Café no Sé combines your best friend’s home with a private lounge. Earthy, wooden tables and stools contrast with pops of color, from the retro turquoise espresso machine to the books and vases cradled by shelves that line the back of the restaurant.
From the decor to the food served, the restaurant and hotel as a whole take philosophies Austinites love, such as farm-to-table dining and intimate community, to an entirely new level.
Escape Any Day, Any Time
Executive Chef Michael Paley and his team pride themselves in the quality of their ingredients and the atmosphere they create for diners.
Paley says his primary goal for Café No Sé “is for it to be a neighborhood restaurant where guests stop in whenever they feel like it.” And this is quite possible because the café is open nearly 24/7 and offers an escape from the hustle and bustle of the world outside.
“You can have a great brunch on the weekend, desserts and coffee at 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, or a quick dinner any night of the week,” Paley shared. The chef’s primary hope is that “customers can walk away feeling like they have eaten vibrant, clean food, prepared delicately, but [with] a few surprises.”
Café No Sé seems comfortably familiar, but the dream team behind it go to lengths to make the space unique and memorable. Paley, who set up shop in Austin a decade ago, was instantly captivated by the pride Austinites have in their city and its local treasures. Big box places that don’t connect with the spirit of Austin seem like a threat to everyone who holds this pride. So Paley makes an effort to connect with his diners, while maintaining his personal integrity in the kitchen.
A Chef’s Vision
You can tell by the taste of each dish that Chef Paley understands food. He highlights specific ingredients so his dishes never seem “overly chef-ed,” a term he spontaneously coined.
He admits that although the popularity of farm-to-table dining has made it possible to source a plethora of ingredients locally, low mileage doesn’t guarantee quality. “Ingredients thrive in places that they are indigenous,” he notes. “Its possible to come across ingredients that may be grown locally, but it may not be the ideal region or climate for that ingredient.” According to his well-trained chef’s palate, when a food isn’t indigenous to a place, the flavor will tell you. Sometimes local products are saying “Sorry, I’m new here; I might not taste as good as that other guy.” Paley knows when to listen.
In cases when local farmers and artisans can’t provide what he needs, Paley searches for “growers, producers and vendors that have integrity in their life’s work, even if their product may not be in arm’s reach.” He believes the opportunity to have access to an incredible product is one you should jump on. This is why all of the dishes at Café No Sé seem to be re-interpretations of old classics.
Like old friends who just revamped their hairstyle and wardrobe, Paley’s dishes are familiar with a twist. As a green smoothie lover, I interact with kale all the time, but Café No Sé’s kale salad with currents and puffed brown rice was a flavorful and textured journey of discovery for my tastebuds. I also had no idea gnudi are like giant gnocchi, but stuffed with ricotta. Mine were doused in delicious browned butter sauce, which I can never say no to. The same was the case with my sticky lamb ribs that were marinated in cider and garnished in garam masala peanuts, two other favorite flavors of mine.
Overall, the meal I had at Café No Sé was delicious. I wish my ancho chili margarita had lasted a little longer, but that’s no one’s fault but my own.
The meal ended with a sophisticated browned butter cake and a trip back to childhood, in the form of an orange creamsicle gilded with golden flakes, freeze-dried orange and sticks of white chocolate. Above everything else, this decadent popsicle captured the spirit of Café No Sé for me. It was an elegant spin on something funky. Isn’t that just how we like our city?
1603 S. Congress Ave. – Website
@theAustinot wants to know:
Have you tried Café No Sé? What was your favorite part?
Wow. This place seems incredible. Next time I’m on a trip to Austin I’ll have to keep this in mind.