Hotly anticipated new Austin wine bar, Korean American restaurant, and shop Underdog is opening in Bouldin Creek this month. The 1600 South First Street bar/restaurant/retail shop will debut on Wednesday, May 10.
“Our intention is just to create somewhere we want to eat and drink,” explains Hargreave. To build out the food menu, the couple worked with consulting chef Morgan McGlone (the Australian chef/operator behind two chicken-centric restaurants), Claudia’s parents Christina and Joseph Lee, and chef de cuisine David Whalen.
The result is Korean American dishes with Texas ingredients that pair well with wines. There’s the galbi (Hargreave recounts how the team went through different iterations of the Korean beef dish and then realized that the “no bells and whistles, no frills” version was the best), noodles with mentaiko and uni, smoked eel terrine, and a caviar setup with buckwheat stroopwafels made with a bit of miso.
One of the Underdog’s dishes that Hargreave is especially excited about is the ebi burger (shrimp patty), which he thinks is “just the most underrated burger.” Then there’s the fried chicken, made McGlone’s insights (he runs Australian hot chicken restaurant mini-chain Belles Hot) with nori seasoning and served with house-made milk bread with pickles two ways, Korean and Southern American.
The couple visited Korea last year with her parents, and was taken aback by the possibilities of what they could do in Austin, especially when it came to Korean street food. “It just really reaffirmed to us what our place is in Austin and what we are able to offer that other people might not be able to do,” says Hargreave. During the interview, Claudia’s mother was teaching the kitchen team how to make a perilla leaf and cucumber bite.
Over on the wine side, Lee and Hargreave want to offer an inviting space for people to explore wines in accessible ways. Lee recounts how, when she first met Hargreave, she’d just drink Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck, and since then, “I’ve really learned the quality of wine and how well it goes with Korean food,” she says. She earned her WSET Level 2 award in wine and came to understand the importance of explaining wine outside of jargon. “‘This is a great red wine to just glug on the couch binging Netflix, this is really great on a hot day if you want to go to Zilker and drink something cold,’” she explains how she likes to describes wines to “make it a little less daunting.”
The wine programs at the bar and shop focus on low-intervention and sustainable wineries, as well as female winemakers — especially Asian female winemakers. Hargreave mentions a Korean winemaker in Beaujolais — Mee Godard — whose wines aren’t available in Texas yet. He’s also especially excited by wines from the Alsace region of France.
The retail shop will sell bottles and eventually offer wines by the glass to make use of the communal marble table in the space. The restaurant will offer both bottles and glasses. Lee wants to build out the rest of the shop offerings slowly to see what will make sense in the space, mentioning perhaps selling flowers, milk bread, takeout foods, pottery, and more.
Opening the restaurant for the couple was difficult for the newcomers. “Moving into this city as operators that are not part of a bigger hospitality group who have no roots in Texas, it’s been just a lot harder than we anticipated to break through this market,” says Lee. “No one knows who we are. With how much the city is growing and the growing pains of Austin — especially in construction but in just every area — we’re not important. Opening Underdog is not even any of the builders’ top priority.”
It’s been frustrating for the two. “How do small businesses survive?” asks Lee, “because there were moments where we didn’t anticipate [not being open for] this long. How do people open doors? We are running out of money.”
Because of the learning curve, they share that they know, in the future, they’d work more on planning and building out their construction and contractor teams from the beginning, which will help on the back end.
Underdog’s physical is “modern industrial chic,” according to Hargreave, that’s “very layered and textured,” according to Lee, with green tones and woodwork. The space was designed with Element 5 Architecture’s Drew Randall, Lilianne Steckel Interior Design, general contractor Joey Chioco, and Growler Domestics for the millwork.
Reservations can be booked online through Resy, but the couple wants to make sure that there is enough walk-in space too, especially seeing as how they want Underdog to become a neighborhood spot. The bar area has two communal tables and bar seating for walk-ins, and then there’s the restaurant portion with tables. The patio will open at a later date.
Lee and Hargreave intend Underdog as an anytime place, especially given its South Austin location, which means it’s an option for people on this side of the river that isn’t downtown or East Austin. “You should be able to have good food at any time without planning ahead and a good glass of wine,” says Lee.
“You can have great service and a lot of interaction at the table and service touches without being fine dining,” says Hargreave. “It’s about what’s important, and that’s just knowledge and being able to communicate and understand the needs of each individual and have them walk away feeling like they’ve experienced something new.”
Underdog’s retail hours are from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. The wine bar/restaurant hours are from 4 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.