How Longhorn Jane Ko Became Austin’s Most Influential Foodie

Jane Ko, BS ’13, is a food blogger who made a splash in Austin’s restaurant scene with the launch of her blog, A Taste of Koko, in 2010. Under the moniker “Koko,” the Taiwanese-born and South Texas-raised writer shares trending new restaurants, weekend getaway ideas, and personal guides to the top dishes in Austin with her thousands of followers. As one of the first local influencers in the early days of social media, Ko pioneered an unconventional career path with her nutrition degree. What started as a fun undergraduate project—posting recipes between three part-time jobs—soon became a go-to reference for all things food and travel in Central Texas. 

Ko grew up in Port Lavaca, where she says dining options were limited to drive-thru chains. Although she wasn’t raised eating out—her “frugal” parents preferred to cook at home—her passion for food photography soon propelled her into the fine dining world of metropolitan Austin. Since her rise to popularity online, Ko has curated an expertise on local restaurants, which she now shares through print travel guides: Koko’s Guide to Austin and Koko’s Guide to Fredericksburg. Ko has also been a speaker at South by Southwest, where she organized a food crawl with over 20,000 participants. Ko, who has amassed more than 150,000 followers on Instagram, was voted “best local blogger in Austin” by the Austin Chronicle and “Disruptor of 2020” by Austin Woman magazine. 

She spoke with the Alcalde about building her brand and her all-time favorite restaurants. 

What first sparked your passion for food? 

I was not raised eating out and going to nice restaurants. I didn’t have an interest in food until I got to Austin in 2007 to go to UT. Coming from a really small town, going to UT was hard … As I was working on my degree in nutrition, I was reading a couple of national blogs predominantly written by women online about food, fashion, home, lifestyle. That inspired me to build a website. In 2010, I bought [the domain name] and started my website. I did recipes for the first couple of years because I didn’t know how to do restaurant coverage. 

Ko at Goldie’s Bar.

What was it like carving out a space for yourself as an influencer during the growth of social media? 

I started with the website first. Instagram also launched in 2010, but no one was really interested in it. I had a personal account using the lo-fi filter, which was really trendy back then, and didn’t start using it professionally until maybe 2013. That’s when I started posting some of my food pictures. I was one of the first restaurant bloggers in Austin, and what sparked it was one restaurant invited me out to shoot photos and eat for free. And that was a big deal for someone in their early 20s who never ate out. Once I did one, I started getting more invites. Then there were a few publicists in town who started inviting me to their clients’ restaurants. I think the difference between then and now is that there was no one else to compare myself to because I was the only person in town doing it. 

How would you say that Austin’s food scene has changed since you started A Taste of Koko?  

Oh, it’s changed dramatically. Austin was always the live music capital, but now we’re known for [our restaurants]. I think this all happened because of specific individuals in the city. You have Aaron Franklin who made barbecue cool, and you have Tyson Cole who paved the room for [high-end] sushi. Then you have the guys from Ramen Tatsu-ya. When they first opened, people were not really receptive to it because we all grew up eating 19-cent packages of noodles, so why pay [more] for a bowl of ramen? There was a lot of education that was spearheaded by the restaurants. 

How have you kept up with the changing local food scene and social media evolution over the years? 

When I first started, I was covering every single thing I could get access to within my budget—or everything I was getting invited to. I had more personal relationships with the restaurant owners and chefs. I would sit in the kitchen and they would let me eat out of the pan, or they would let me see what was happening in the process. I can’t do that now. I don’t have a lot of personal connections to the industry because there are just so many new restaurants.  

And originally, I started with photos. I was obsessed with how magazines like Bon Appétit would shoot recipes, and I wanted to recreate that with restaurant meals. Then, I started doing videos because I always looked for the next thing that might be trendy that hasn’t been done already. And then the next thing that I remember as a milestone for me was probably 2015 when I posted my first photo of me eating the food versus just the food on the table. That was a big change because people immediately felt like they knew who was behind the lens; they knew who was behind the website.  

Ko at Qi Austin.

After a decade of being online, what was it like publishing your book, Koko’s Guide to Austin, last year? 

I grew up as a bookworm; I loved reading as a child. I had publishers come to me over the years saying that they wanted me to do a cookbook because I was a food blogger and I had to explain to them like, oh no, I don’t cook at home, but I would love to do a book on Austin. And every single publisher told me that nobody wanted a travel book on Austin. But I always wanted to do one and I was about to turn 30 and thought, why don’t I just self-publish? I thought I might sell one copy, but I published the book and it’s sold tens of thousands of copies since.  

What is it like being a visible representative of Austin’s food culture? 

It’s very gratifying. Now, coming up into my 13th year, I’ve been trying to get better about taking a step back and remembering where I came from. I just published my second book on Fredericksburg, and that project really reminded me how I grew up in a small town, moved to Austin, went to UT. I’m pretty shy in person—it feels weird that people message me all the time now. I live in a digital world and most times [it feels like] I’m just talking to myself on Instagram—but then thousands of people watch my content and they feel like they know me. 

What do you like to do outside of work? Who is Jane, apart from being Koko? 

I would say my work is my life. It’s been like that for a long time, but it’s kind of hard when your life is being posted online. So, it’s hard for me to define what I love doing in my free time because what I do for work is travel, I go to hotels, I go eat at nice restaurants, tell stories—like those are all fun things that everyone else gets to do based on my recommendations. So, things for me that are fun are basic, like going to the park. I love sitting on a blanket at Auditorium Shores. I don’t get to do that very often. 

When you get the chance to eat for fun, where are you a regular? 

I love the puffy tacos at El Chilito, those are kind of a weekday go-to for me. I love ATX Cocina. I also love their new restaurant called Bulevar. Komé is my go-to for sushi that doesn’t break the bank because you know, I would love to be able to go to Uchi every week, but I can’t.  

As Austin has grown and changed, are there any restaurants in town that you miss? 

La Mexicana—I used to go there all the time when I was at UT because those $2 tacos were the only thing I could afford and they were also open 24 hours, so I remember I’d go there at 2 or 3 a.m. I was very sad about them closing. 

When you visit new restaurants in town, what are you looking for? 

Anything that’s new always does well on social. So, I always look at 1) Is it local? 2) What kind of cuisine and what is the story here? and 3), What does the restaurant look like? Luckily most restaurants that opened in the last couple of years all look stunning in Austin. Another goal of mine lately is to keep featuring our older restaurants because they don’t get the same recognition. I love Tamale House, I love the Peached Tortilla—they’ve been around for 10 years—and Magnolia Café.   

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

CREDITS: Courtesy Jane Ko


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