South Congress Mediterranean restaurant has Austinites booking weeks in advance for 'the whole experience'
Tucked away on South Congress and Music Lane is the magical Mediterranean oasis: Aba.
Aba, which is Hebrew for "father," opened its restaurant doors in October, providing fresh and vibrant Mediterranean dishes. Originally a Chicago favorite, Aba has already proven itself an Austin hit spot, booking dinner reservations for weeks in advance.
Aba first opened its doors in Chicago's Fulton Market District in 2018 after Marc Jacobs, executive partner and divisional president of Lettuce Entertain You and Chef CJ Jacobson had an idea to bridge Mediterranean cuisine with Californian freshness and modernism.
Jacobs, who has worked for the dining enterprise Lettuce Entertain You for 28 years, has been visiting Austin for the last seven years consulting with businesses in town. After a 2017 company retreat to Austin, the group quickly became enamored with the city.
Following the success of the Chicago restaurant, Jacobs and Jacobson took a chance when the opportunity arose to open its second location in Austin with developer Turnbridge Equities. The team visited the location on South Congress, spotted the enormous tree in their patio dining area and fell in love with the location, said Sue Kim, associate partner of Lettuce Entertain You.
Kim relocated to Austin with the opening of Aba on South Congress, along with other management on the team from Chicago.
"We are so grateful for the enthusiasm that our neighborhood and local community have shown us," Kim said. "There is no question that we embrace it. We are still so new though. There are so many people we still need to meet and serve, so we just do this one guest at a time, that's always been our mantra."
Marc Jacobs, CJ Jacobson and Sue Kim (Aba)
The inspiration behind the flavors in the kitchen comes from Chef Jacobson's stay in Israel, when he played professional volleyball there briefly. Although not permanently stationed in Austin, the chef spends a lot of his time in Austin, building new dishes through seasonal produce not found in Chicago.
Based on the season, Aba will adjust its menu to provide guests with the best seasonal flavors. The latest change was made this week when Aba transitioned to seven new menu items.
After 30 years in the business, Kim said she still "geeks out over the food" and is always looking forward to eating that perfect bite. She says the hummus is one of her favorites from Jacobson.
With only its outdoor patio open for dine-in, Kim said it has been heartbreaking not being able to accommodate more guests and she hopes to embrace more people in the future, the way the neighborhood has embraced them.
"We are taking this (pandemic) very seriously and decided to close (indoor dining), which has been challenging," Kim said. "I want to feed and nurture every soul that comes through our doors, and it's hard when you can't do that. We do the best we can with limited possibilities for walk-in."
Since its opening, Aba has been booked up most nights leaving lunchtime to be more accessible to those wanting to try out the restaurant without a reservation.
Sisters Sunny and Sidney Allison visited Aba earlier this week. (Isabella Lopes)
In their second visit, Sunny and Sidney Allison stopped by Aba Tuesday for lunch. The two sisters enjoyed the hummus, lamb and altogether Aba experience, they said. "We came last time without a reservation and they were able to fit us in," Sidney Allison said. "We love it here, the food is amazing."
From the location with a tree in the middle of the patio to the colorful creative dishes on the menu, Aba has made customer experience a top priority. It is what keeps people talking about the restaurant, and its dinner reservations booked several days or even weekends in a row.
"We focus on three things: great food, great service and attentive style, giving our guests the whole experience," Kim said. "It feels like a little piece of Eden, especially during these turbulent times."
- Austin black-owned restaurants see support after protests - austonia ›
- Austin food under $10, cheap eats that are delicious - austonia ›
- Comfort food recipes to try as the weather cools in Austin - austonia ›
- 11 Austin restaurants sharing the love this Valentine's Day with ... ›
- Brazilian food places to try in Austin - austonia ›
- Where to order Takeout comfort food in Austin - austonia ›
- Despite pandemic, love is sweet at South Austin bakery - austonia ›
- Hermes fashion brand to open location on South Congress - austonia ›
- Austin's luxury Soho House opens today for local creatives - austonia ›
- Austin Restaurant Weeks: Enjoy food and drink menus for a good cause at these 50 Austin restaurants - austonia ›
A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
- Real Estate - austonia ›
- Luxury real estate to get special tax status under 'blight' statute in ... ›
- Austin sees record-breaking real estate year in 2021 - austonia ›
- What billionaires like Elon Musk look for in Austin real estate - austonia ›
- Austin luxury real estate market booms in pandemic - austonia ›
- What $10 million (or more) can get you in Austin real estate right now ›
- Austin's housing market is hot, but buyers feel burned out - austonia ›
- Fall breeze begins cooling Austin housing market ›
Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
- Excitement, tensions build as Austin expects 18k fans at first Texas ... ›
- $10 million Austin NIL scholarship fund to help Longhorn athletes ... ›
- UT plans on Longhorns football in fall 2020 - austonia ›
- UT is going SEC! Texas board of regents approves move to future ... ›
- Former UT tennis coach Michael Center in halfway house after ... ›
- Former UT tennis coach Michael Center completes 6-month ... ›