[Austin] Darn Good Sichuan in Austin!
If you saw my previous post on Sichuan Cuisine (Houston), then you know what a rabid fan I am of this regional style of Chinese cooking. It is hot, truly spicy and when done correctly, a wonderful alternative to the usual Americanized Chinese fare slopped up by most restaurants in this country. I just found the place in Houston a couple of weeks ago, then, my pal Mick, who writes reviews of Asian restaurants for the Austin Chronicle, told me about this little place in the back of an Asian food store on Hwy 183. He didn't know anything about it, except that Chinese grad students he knew kept talking about it. Ok, then I sent him my long report on Sichuan Cuisine in Houston, and immediately thereafter, he discovered from one of those students that this little hidden place served Sichuan-style food.
That did it! I had to try it! But a looming deadline for the magazine I write for kept me away for 24 hours, and what a painful wait that was! But I used the treat of this new place as a reward for finally turning in my November column...albeit about 2 weeks late...
Anyway, upon completion of said column, I hopped into my car and sped down 183, luckily traveling against the rush hour traffic. The place is located on the SW corner of 183 and Spicewood Springs in a little strip center which also features Sambet's Cajun whatever.
And here's what you were looking for: It's in the Asia Market, but it's formally, maybe for legal reasons or something, as Asia Cafe. Here is the info: 8650 Spicewood Springs Rd #115 (at 183)
Austin, Phone: 512-331-5780.
Folks, it is now my Number One choice for Chinese food in Austin. Now I won't have to drive all the way to Houston, or fly to NYC or Calif. for a hit of Sichuan "ma la" mouth-numbing specialties. This little joint does a pretty decent job of this unfortunately hard-to-find cuisine. Though I've never been to Sichuan, I have to think this is pretty "authentic", very close to the same dishes I've had in other Sichuan places in the USA. Lite on the cornstarch-thickened sauces and heavy on the red chile oil.
Okay, to the chow: My first visit had my head spinning...what to order? what to order? But the answer was really easy. I had to start with the Twice Cooked Pork which is one of my favorite Sichuan dishes, featuring, as it does, the glorious belly meat of the oh-so-regal pig. Is there really any other meat? I mean, really? So you place your order at the counter, pay up, and find a table. But before I ordered, I had to confirm with the woman behind the counter that this dish was indeed made with pork belly and not the usual Americanized version made with pork loin. "Americans not like fatty meat," I've been told in other Sichuan restaurants. Once, at the lauded Grand Sichuan International in NYC I ordered this dish and was served an Americanized version with loin. It sucked. I'd had the real thing there several times and was hugely disappointed. Did I say that it sucked? I asked the waiter and he gave me the answer in quotes above. So you should always specify you want this dish Chinese style, with fatty meat. (Unfortunately the guy was probably right: MOST Americans would probably send back the dish if served with belly, it is fatty, but it is worth every drop of cholesterol!) I also ordered a bowl of Zhong Dumplings (also known as Chengdu Dumplings at some places like SC in Hou), a Sichuan street staple.
The pork arrived first. It looked right, but I was disappointed that this place takes an unforgivable shortcut (in my opinion) by using celery as the vegetable instead of the more common leek. Now I am sure that in Sichuan, using Chinese celery in this is done regularly. But American celery is SO STRONG, and I hate that flavor, so whenever I find it used in Chinese places here, I take off some points. But in this case, the dish still wins---I just pushed the nasty green stuff to the side, and dug into the luscious, tasty pork which was seasoned with lots of chile, Sichuan peppercorn, fermented black beans and sliced jalapeños. Though slightly different from other versions I've had, I chalked those differences up to the chef's individual style and take...as i said somewhere else, there are probably as many recipes for this dish as there are cooks. Anyway, the dish was great, aside from the celery thing. I recommend it.
The dumplings, though, had no shortcomings. They were large, over-stuffed with seasoned ground pork, and very juicy, better than the ones I had in Houston at Sichuan Cuisine. And they were topped with a very hot chile sauce with plenty of "ma la" overtones...that is, plenty of chile, and plenty of the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Addictive stuff, this.
The food was so good, and there was so much more I wanted to try, I had to return the next day for another hit of this almost drug-like food. So I called a friend to go along for dinner, this way we could sample even more dishes. This time we shared four dishes: Water-boiled beef (on the menu as Spicy Beef), Ma Po Bean Curd, Dan Dan Noodles (on the menu as Szechuan Flavor Noodles), and Spicy Wontons (I think these are sometimes called "Long" wontons or dumplings).
Well, we hit 3 out of 4. I was a bit disappointed in the Ma Po Tofu. It was a sort of homogeneous mass of soft tofu, bits of ground pork and too much cornstarch thicker. And the flavor was relative undistinguished. Not terrible, just not as good as everything else we tried.
But the Water-boiled Beef was amazing. As good as any I've had before, and all the better since it is only 10 minutes from my driveway! The beef was amazingly tender, just as it should be, swimming in an incendiary chile sauce, all atop a layer of baby bok choy (I think it was bok choy, but it was very very baby...help on this one, anyone?), perhaps combined with another type of green as well. Oh, and the very top layer is a one-quarter inch layer of red oil, which is the way it is supposed to be served...no, actually the very top is a very generous sprinkling of crushed red chile and Sichuan peppercorn. Damn, it was very good. I want more right now, just writing about it. One thing, though it is very hot, it is not overly so...the flavors are well balanced, but it's still not for the timid.
The noodles were very good, I think as good or better than the Dan Dan I had at SC in Houston, but not as good as the NYC or Calif versions I've had. These lacked the chile sauce at the bottom of the bowl, but the flavors were still wonderful...these are traditional street food noodles and are topped with a spiced ground pork mixture, though I did not detect any of the usually included preserved cabbage. But they were still very good. Will get them again for sure.
The wontons were wonderfully floppy things, stuffed with ground pork and served in a very spicy, very "ma la" sauce which made my mouth tingle delightfully. I think there were at least 10 in the bowl and could easily be shared by 3-4 with a meal. The "slippery" mouth feel of these very light wonton wrappers is one of the sought-after attributes of this style of wonton, and Asia Cafe has done a great job of providing that. Another winner.
I will be going back again soon, probably today or tomorrow, and will report what I find then. Though it's not on the menu, I am sure I saw a fellow eating the Sichuan preparation of shredded potatoes and peppers...I will ask about that. I have a feeling they will take requests, though you might have to give them a day's notice...I'll investigate.
They feature some great looking fish dishes, some promising soups and many other things. Needless to say, the clientele is about 98% Asian, and everyone there seemed to be really enjoying the food. I know I did. Hope you will too!!!! But better go before it gets written up in the Chronicle and is overrun by, well, you know...though I think the place will spook many of those folks... this is for true hounds!
Here is an online menu:
Finally went back (after my hilariously bad trip a while back) and ordered the Spicy Beef. It was totally delicious, although I feel like my insides are now composed of 85% chili oil.
Anyway, big ups to Samba and the others who continue to write about the restaurant here. I'll be going back, hopefully with a crew, so I can expand my exploration of their menu beyond a couple of dishes.
After thoroughly enjoying the ma po doufu last time I went, I decided to head in for another round tonight. This time it was the Spicy Chicken and their green beans.
I was a little disappointed. The Spicy Chicken tasted great (not put off by bones) but it wasn't *spicy*. They used a few sichuan peppers in it, but none of them were cracked open, and the delicious red oil was used very sparingly. Maybe the cook didn't think I could handle it...I dunno.
The green beans were great, however. Very very flavorful. I'm definitely going to order that again when I head back to try the chicken delight next week.
I was tempted to order the potato dish, but your reviews kept me from it. My best friend's mother is from China and frequently cooks up that dish in her big family dinners, but she won't share her recipe with me (evil!).
Thank you so much for posting all these ongoing reviews. The Asian Market is just within walking distance from me and I've popped in from time to time to get odds and ends from the grocery store part. I was so intimidated by the marker boards in the back that I didn't even know that they have an English menu. I think I will head over tonight and get one of the dishes you recommend. I've tried for ages to get a decent ma po doufu in town, but none of the 183-area restaurants make a decent one that is nicely ma la hot. Maybe I'll give Asia Cafe a shot at it. :)
It's remarkable how one small cafe in the back of a food store in a rundown shopping center can generate so much discussion, so much trying to parse the mystery, as it were! Here's the latest report from the front: I had lunch at Asia Cafe today and found that they have new menus on the counter (though they haven't changed the menus online yet), incorporating many, if not all, of the whiteboard items. (For some reason, they're now numbering the items starting with "101" instead of "1," so Zhong dumplings, for example, are now 117 instead of 17.)
Two men at the table adjacent to mine were sharing what looked to be an outrageously great assortment of seafood, in ma-la/spicy red sauce, out of a huge ceramic bowl. I asked them what it was and one replied, 'Seafood in a clay pot." So, word up: The next time you're in Asia Cafe, consider ordering #244, 'Seafood Combination in Clay Pot.' Easily enough for two, or maybe even three (with a side of pea pods or green beans, perhaps), yours for a mere twelve dollars...
Speaking of hot stuff in pots, has anyone tried Hot Pot Fish or Hot Pot Mix here?
Just had my first Asia Cafe experience, which was sort of amusingly bad -- due entirely to miscommunication.
I grew up in New York on Chinese food and am certainly no stranger to some of the more exotic authentic flavors that were clearly present in many of the good-looking dishes around me. I heard about Asia Cafe through Mick Vann's Top 10 International Eats for 2006 as listed recently in the Austin Chronicle. I had earlier read his full review of Asia Cafe, and being relatively starved for decent Chinese cuisine, put it on the short list of places to try. It's not remotely convenient for me to visit -- about 15 minutes from where I work in North Austin and a good 35+ from where I live down South. But I made it a point to get there eventually and check it out, fully prepared to be disappointed.
As far as I'm concerned, Din Ho is head and shoulders above all other Chinese restaurants in town (I am reserving judgment on Asia Cafe at the moment). T&S is OK, Marco Polo is passable .. beyond that, it's a wasteland. I previously lived in Montreal and New York City, and the Chinese offerings in both cities are, on average, of a much higher level.
So I went in with high hopes. But to be honest, this is the sort of restaurant you need to visit with a friend or three. It's much easier to 'take risks' when you're mitigating those risks across a few dishes.
Basically my story is this: I wanted to order the "Hot Spicy Lamb" off the specials menu on the back. I asked the girl at the counter and she looked at me quizzically. "What number?" she asked. I said, "No number, that one!" pointing at the menu. And she pointed at the Chinese characters in between the "Hot Spicy Lamb" and "Salt and Pepper Cakes" (I think) and I'm sure you can tell by now which one I got. When they called me up for my dish, I saw a plate of deep-fried cakey looking circular objects with some onions and jalapenos on top. I know from experience that "Salt and Pepper" tends to mean "deep fried in salt and pepper" so I knew what I was getting, but I was unable to communicate this to the woman behind the counter. Needless to say, there was no lamb, and it wasn't spicy, though she insisted that it was "Hot Spicy Lamb." (It was cakey, for sure, with some ground pork (I think) inside and I'm not entirely sure what else). I've had things like "Salt and Pepper Shrimp" at other restaurants in the past that were more delicately seasoned.. and contained more identifiable internal components.
So I ate it, and regretted not trying harder to communicate my point, but my stomach is not happy with me right now. I mostly avoid deep-fried foods, and I certainly don't exclusively make meals of them. I suppose at the cost, I could have tried something else, but I just ate my dish and left. A friendly fellow across the way from me pointed me to chowhound, heartily recommending that I try again. Which I think I will .. even though I had a fairly frustrating experience, the food around me looked great. And there are some clearly good recommendations on here, so I will probably head towards the Twice Cooked Pork or Water-Boiled Beef. Moreover, I'll try to bring a friend so I can try more things, get a better sense for the menu.
BTW, has anybody tried their Singapore Rice Noodles? It is one of my favorite all-time dishes (I should have tried it instead!) and I'm wondering what their version is like.
Read all the above posts. do not waver. don't try those noodles. stick with the recommendations given here by fellow hounds and you will go away with a positive impression. (though any rest. is allowed the odd off day).
FWIW, I had the lamb tonight and it was quite good. Very flavorful, though very simple...lots of heat, garlic and a tad of gaminess that some might not like but I found nice. It is not the cumin lamb sometimes found in these Sichuan places...though a bit of cumin added, or sichuan peppercorns might have been a nice touch.
To me, it sounds like you had something like the salt and pepper pork stuffed eggplant which is very similar to what you described. I liked this, but it was a bit heavy on the tummy later...
I promise you will like this place if you can just get the right things. And I eat there alone quite often, so the group effort is not really necessary. Get ye back.
An aside: it's funny they've translated about 2/3 of that marker board, and none of the second board (which i believe we translated in an earlier post). I noticed they moved some things around on that board and pray they still offer the Ants Climb a Tree noodle dish which was moved from that board, or put into a different spot on it.
Went to Asia Cafe this weekend and were very, very happy with the food. The Spicy Fish was nothing short of divine. The Ma Po Tofu was very good, and could have been great with a few tweaks. The green beans weren't at all spicy, but well cooked and delicious, and the sauteed pea leaves were fantastic too. We'll definitely be back -- we sat by the counter so we could see what everyone was ordering and it all looked great. In fact we talked about going back as were were eating..!
Not sure about that one...I've had the pork elbow with dates...it was nice. and there is a braised pork belly dish on the menu (with preseverved vegetable) which I've had a few times and is nice. maybe it's the same thing... because I found this doing a search on the chinese characters on their menu and googling with translation. the dish here looks similar to what I had... din ho has this dish too, for what it's worth...
I was over at Asia Cafe this afternoon (I've visited perhaps half a dozen times before) and they had these items up on one of their whiteboards, in Chinese with English translations:
Sweet lotus root
Bell pepper & potato
Hot Pot Fish
Hot Pot Mix
Dong-Po Pork Elbow
There were many more items in Chinese only, but it seems Asia Cafe may be making some concessions to their non-Chinese-speaking customers (ever since the newspaper reviews, and perhaps the buzz on the Internet, I've seen non-Asian customers there just about every time I've stopped in).
As for me, I wasn't in the mood for a very spicy dish (heresy, I know) so I ordered the #12, Fried Noodle with Three Seafood Delight. I don't know whether it was because I told the lady taking orders the Chinese term for pan-fried noodles, "liang mian huang," after the order, or not, but I received a large, shallow glass bowl of fried noodles, thin, yellow and crispy around the perimeter of the bowl, topped with fat shrimp, scallops, and what looked like thin slices of boiled beef, perhaps flank steak(!).
Not that I'm complaining -- two or three seafoods or not, it was a beautiful presentation and a wonderfully restorative dish after a week of ice, sleet and freezing rain in Austin. Besides the above ingredients, I identified carrots, celery, bok choy, water chestnuts, pea pods, scallions, even what looked like asparagus. As the piping-hot dish cooled a bit, the noodles became more brothy and the whole reminded me a bit of a Chinese interpretation of Vietnamese pho. Again, unless you have a heavy hand with the chili sauce from the table, this is NOT a spicy dish, but I give it thumbs up nevertheless. It cost $8.50, with enough to take home for a second meal.
I can only echo others' approval of other menu items here, especially the Zhong Dumpling, ma-po tofu and eggplant with garlic sauce. The green beans in spicy sauce (gan bian si ji dou) weren't really spicy and although I thought they were OK, I don't think they were worth $5.50, at least not in this context.
I was surprised that the kung pao chicken in bean sauce (gong bao ji ding) wasn't more than ordinary, since I thought this was a benchmark dish of Sichuan cuisine (and I wish they hadn't used celery in it). As for the vaunted Chicken Delight, I liked it better the next day (after chilling in the fridge) than when consumed fresh and lukewarm -- great sauce, though. I'll be back...
there is another board with untranslated goodies. the translations you saw must have gone up after friday because they were not there then. Now, there are some treasures to be mined off the untranslated board including the noodle dish Ants Climb a Tree which I had last week, and a lamb dish I saw friday but didn't get because the order I saw go out was the end of the lamb for friday. too bad. it looked like it might be lamb with cumin, another Sichuan dish hijacked from N. China...lots of cumin and red chile powder. can't wait to have it later this week. And in the meantime, I repeat the request for someone to translate the untranslated...thanks!
I landed in Austin yesterday for a business trip and went straight to Asia Market. Got the spicy wontons, spicy beef, and green beans with spicy sauce. Huge portions, little money. Wontons were ok, but not really spicy. Beef was great and a little spicier. Green beans were great. Loved this place and will be back.
We were there this weekend and saw some pastry like thing that we hadn't seen before. I asked a couple what they were and they said they were at the bottom of the white vertical board (as opposed to the one taped to the wall and horizontal board). They translated them as golden bomb or something but said they weren't very good. They were seemingly hard shell pastry with seasme seeds on top.
We also saw dumplings come out in a steamer basket which I don't remember having seen before but I didn't get the translation.
On your advice sabamaster, we tried the mustard green pork noodle soup and like it. Noodles with long shreds of pork mixed with a nice portion of chopped greens. We also had the spicy fish fillet and quite enjoyed it.
I think we need to take a picture of the other items whiteboards and post them here (via a link no doubt) to see if others can translate.
A few comments on Asia Cafe. There remain several items on the marker boards that are not on the regular menu. If anyone can translate the entire list, that would be great. One item I mined off that menu was the Sichuan classic noodle dish, Ants Climb A Tree. It is a nifty (and really easy to make at home dish) consisting of mung bean noodles punctuated with bits of ground pork, the ants on the tree of noodles. It is fairly tame, but still very flavorful...very spare...my only complaint was that maybe the noodles were soaked too long and were just a tad on the mushy side. Good result, nonetheless. I think it was $6.50. Yesterday also had the twice cooked pork which remains a fave. It seems to get better each time I have it...probably 10 times now!!!! Yummy.
My son was in town over the holidays and we ate there a few times. Had the Spicy Fish Fillet which is the fish version of water boiled beef called Spicy Beef on their menu. It was quite good. Think I like the beef version better though. We also shared a MaPo Tofu which was also quite good...as usual. And I convinced my vegitarian Berkeley-resident son to eat the horribly named Chicken Delight and he loved it! We met some other folks there who had seen the Chronicle review and were about to order a couple of the insipid items on the menu...we guided them to a couple classics and shared the Chicken Delight with them...they are now converts. The point of this is that, if you go to this place and stray from the Sichuan standards, you will very likely be disappointed and wonder what the fuss is about. I think I've posted this before, but, as long as you get the items discussed in some of the previous posts (or this one), you should go away wanting to return soon.
Again, if anyone can help with the translation of these boards, I think a wealth of wonderful new dishes will be uncovered. The woman at the register has told me that there are no dishes on there that are not on the regular menu, but I've already discovered at least three....Help!!!!
Had company visit over the weekend, and we stopped in on the way back from airport late morning to have something already-made and in the fridge to nibble on when at home.
1) Shredded Chicken in Garlic sauce (first time)
Really good. I think I'm getting addicted to the flavor of that red-orange hot sauce.
2) Spicy Beef again
3) Green Beans again - 2 orders
4) Fried dumplings - these were OK. Some of the pork inside a couple didn't look completely done.
I immediately unpacked everything except for the dumplings into the tallest storage container I have (I have 2 of those Smart Spin plastic containers with blue lids - they work well for me, take no effort to keep organized, and seal very tightly). Putting the rice on the bottom 1/3 and meat on the rest, the oils and juices drain onto the rice which makes it even better for leftovers.
I saved the oil and sauce (the amount that was leftover after moving everything into storage containers) to use in cooking.
Breakfast today was a fried egg cut thin slices + sauteed diced onions and mixed into a 1-bowl with the rice+leftover chicken+red sauce drizzled over the top and microwaved. (aka my Sichuan BiBamBap sort of...)
Great find Sambamaster.
Anyone tried Jenny's Kitchen, the tiny Maylaysian restaurant in the same shopping center?
How long had this place been around before Senor Sambamaster discovered it? Austin Chronicle just put out a very positive review last week. I wonder if they found out about it from here.
I tried it recently and liked it a lot so I gotta give "mad props" -- to use the parlance of our times. It's definitely up there with Pao's and T&S but I'll have to go a few more times before I can declare it number one.
rudeboy, Sambamaster, thank you for your replies.
Went back again to Asia Market.
1) Green Bean w/Spicy Sauce
I know I said it before, but these are just the best green beans ever.
2) Chicken w/Spicy Sauce)
(note the bones in the top right
Did not like this dish at all. Mainly because of the unexpected little bones in the chicken nibbets! The chicken cubes looked like they would be boneless, but they aren't.
You can see them in the picture on the top right. It's too worrisome that young ones and esp my older father would accidentally eat one of the little bones. If the dish had other redeeming qualities, I might have liked it, but I didn't see anything that made up for the haveing to separate chicken from the little bones in it before or while eating it
3) Yang Zhow Fried Rice
Bought some interesting cooking supplies from the store-part of Asia Market. Just made a delicious breakfast for 2 with what I bought, leftovers, and 4 eggs. It reminded me of my favorite egg-rice-meat single bowl Katsudon-ish lunch in Tokyo.
Katsudon-type breakfast using Asia Market leftovers:
onions diced and sauteed - enough to mostly cover bottom of skillet
After onions sauteed for 5 minutes, added:
"Cold Soup Noodle Base" from Asia Market - 1/2 cup
(I bought this because the label said mirin, sugar, soy, etc., all the things that go in Katsudon)
boiled together for a minute (to combine flavors and just in case any beasties needed killing)
4 eggs+ 1tbsp water + salt and pepper: Whisk in a bowl, and add to Onions in Skillet on medium
Put leftover Spicy Beef + Rice in microwave oven for 1:30 till thoroughly heated
Run back to skillet to keep turning the eggs so they stay scrambled, not fried
Add heated Spicy Beef & Rice to skillet containing Onions & Egg that should now be almost set.
Mix all together, and enjoy with a large glass of ice water.
Great combination of flavors and the eggs just make it better.
I stored the leftover spicy beef on top of the leftover rice on purpose, so that the oil and sauce would drain off and on to the rice. Yum.
What else should I try there?
What in the world is: "Spicy Honey Comb" ?
sweet100s, Yes, Sichuan food can be very oily, something we in this country are not used to, but it is the way it's done. sometimes red chile oil like the dishes you had, sometimes just plain (ha, garlicy ain't plain) oil! However, I've never found the food to taste overly oily or greasy. most of that stays on the serving platter. probably less fat in the long run than a BK Whopper, really. If you can deal with chilled chicken, try the "Chicken Delight", it is amazing. and oily and hot and nutty and "Ma La" (numbing + hot) but not too much. actually, i think they under-use the sichuan peppercorns, the numbing, but not hot, ingredient. One idea: regarding shrimp...now this is just my opinion, but Sichuan is a land-locked province, so shrimp may not be one of the prime ingredients used in that cuisine, though there may be a tradition of fresh water prawns...I'm not sure...the point is, fish are plentiful and their fish dishes are wonderful, shrimp might be a recent innovation, so shrimp based dishes may be less successful than in the coastal cuisines of Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai, etc...anyone care to chime in on this?
Thanks much for the heads-up on this place. Got take-out a couple nights ago for several people.
Green beans - my favorite! Excellent taste in the beans themselves as well as the little things running around the beans (great flavored ground pork?) and all the seasonings
Spicy Beef, Spicy Fish - Delicious flavors, spicy but not so hot that it killed all the flavors
Rice - Really liked their rice. Can't quite explain why... Normally I wouldn't comment on white rice, but this just seemed extra good.
Peppery Shrimp - didn't like this dish at Asia Market. Shrimp weren't crisp and with enough flavorings. Salt & Pepper prawns / peppery shrimp is one of my favorite Chinese dishes. Favorite preps of this dish so far are by:
1) Hao Hao in Round Rock Salt & Pepper Shrimp
I alwasy ask for extra the "dry sauce" they make with the shrimp - with scallions and flavorings in it
2) PF Changs' Peppery Prawns
the mustard sauce on the side gives the shrimp a great zing
re: Kent Wang
Be warned that not all brands are the same...since the ban was lifted, all Sichuan peppercorns are heat treated to kill whatever peril kept them out of this country for several years. And the heat seems to affect the flavor and numbing potential. I've been very disappointed with most I've found. I think I got some at the new MT mkt that were ok. And some in Houston also. But the bag I got at Hong Kong mkt is fairly useless. They are cheap enough to simply buy them wherever you can find them and stick with the one that has kept its flavor.
I think Asia Mkt has them. Almost certain. they also have the widest variety of Sichuan sauces and bean pastes I've seen (that is, products produced in Sichuan).
Ate at the Asia Cafe last night. Very nice indeed...the sauteed pea leaves with garlic were especially yummy, almost buttery.
looked around yesterday, or sunday?, for these babies. they have three different brands. I suggest buying all of them, and sampling one by one to determine which has been least affected by the heat treatment. they also have the very unique dried Sichuan chiles Fuschia Dunlap mentions in her book "Land of Plenty" and they are the only place in austin I have seen them (they are about an inch and a half long, tear shaped, bell shaped. not the long, typical chiles). yum yum yum
re: Kent Wang
Gan bian is usually called "dry=fried" in English...the most well known examples are dry fried beef and the most famous dry fried green beans. Just as it implies, no sauce, little oil...and the results are yummy, flavors intensified by the "dehydration" of the ingredients...Asia Cafe doesn't really have anything done in this style...they have green beans, but they are not quite done in the gan bian style, at least in my opinion.
Sounds great. salt & pepper crabs sound fabulous.
I just got back from a lunch there with some friends and had some disappointing dishes. The spicy honey comb in the meat section is beef & trip in the normal spicy red sauce (served cold). The spicy hot rice jelly appetizer is the same red sauce with cilantro and these very soft rice sticks, also cold. Neither wowed me other than the red sauces which is better in the spicy fish and other dishes. Someone in the group had the braised tofu which was very bland and reminds me of something I'd get at an Americanized Chinese food. The egglplant stuffed with pork were good but batterfried and the salt & pepper shrimp were decent but not as good as T&S. We took some chances today and mostly struck out...
re: Carter B.
These are the chances ya take, but it's part of the exploration of any restaurant...I've found, even at the great Sichuan places in NYC and SF, if you order stuff that is from a more "traditional" menu, they tend to be less than satisfying. The trick is to find the hits and stick with them, guess that's how most of us do restaurants anyway, at least I tend to order the same things over and over...like amazing smoked duck with leeks at Sea Dragon. At Asia Market, sticking by and large to the Sichuan things, you are usually guaranteed a hit, though as you pointed out, some items share a similar prep, with the red chile garlic sauce on cold dishes like the rice jelly, the cold rabbit and the 'chicken delight', they are all good, but don't order them all at the same time as we did on Saturday! I wish their menu was a tad more diverse, but, hey, it's still better than any other Chinese joint in town, and far more convenient that driving to Houston, NYC or Calif.
wow, this is exactly what i've been looking for. i lived in beijing for a year before moving to austin and ive been absolutely aching for some gan bian si ji dou (the spicy green bean dish...use it next time, they'll be impressed) but too scared to try anything randomly because it's never spicy enough. after reading your post, i am definitely going to make the trip.
You should...I was there today for lunch and had the "chicken delight" and it was much better than the first time I'd had it...lots of ma la flavor and a stronger hint of sesame and even some peanut.
Two or three days ago I had the twice cooked pork for the 3rd or 4th time, not that doesn't mean it was cooked 8 times!, and it was the best I've had it...the pork was better, the seasoning more pronounced...now if they'd use leeks in the dish instead of celery, it would be nearly perfect.
re: Carter B.
CarterB, good seeing you there as well...
Need to get those translations emailed to me. We got the translation of the Sat. morning "breakfast" menu which includes lots of goodies ranging from the traditional crullers to bao of a couple types, scallion pancakes, soft tofu with a sweet (ginger?) syrup, and so on...PLUS, the always-there board consisting of mainly seafood items not on the regular menu. I will list them in the order they appear on the boards, so maybe that will help... today or tomorrow.
re: Carter B.
here are the translations we got on Saturday for 2 of the 3 marker boards at Asia Cafe. One, the breakfast one, is only Saturdays until about 2 or 3pm. all are a bit sketchy, the "green board" had some things our translators were not sure of...so? This should help augment the experience. If ya wanna order off these, you might want to remember the order these are in and just point to the correct, corresponding place on the menu!!!
1. steamed pork bun
2. fried chinese pancake (scallion)
4. warm soy milk
5. broken rice congee
6. veggie and pork steamed bun (these look great!)
7. sesame balls
8. sticky rice ball
9. flower tofu in ginger syrup
10. baked curry rice with Hong Kong style BBQ
11. egg tart
12. shrimp wrapped in wide clear noodle
13. fried shrimp balls
14. HK style sausage w/sticky rice
1. ginger/scallion crabs
2. salt & pepper crabs
3. crispy skin bass
4. fried calamari
5. tofu and bass
6. fish in black bean sauce
7. steamed fish
8. abalone in white sauce
11. stir-fried vegetable?
And do try the Chicken Delight!!! Cold chicken in an amazing chile, garlic, sichuan peppercorn sauce.
Speaking of breakfast and Asia Cafe, here is how to re-purpose Asia Cafe leftovers leftovers into a delicious breakfast.
- Twice Cooked Pork
- Green Beans
- Hot oils, drained immediately from the to-go packaging of Hot & Spicy Chicken *or* Spicy Beef *or* Spicy Fish into a separate container
Mix and Microwave above till very hot in 1 bowl.
Add on top:
- 2 eggs + 2 egg whites, just fried and hot
Cut up the egg in strips.
Drizzle more hot oil on top.
We went today for the first time and we mostly had dishes you've recommended above: pork in special garlic (my favorite), spicy green beans, ma po tofu, and two more mainstream dishes panfriend dumplings (not bad) and bbq pork (similar in taste to Din Ho). Next time I go I'll be more adventurous. Definitely a great find.
Went today again with some co-workers, who were hesitant at first while I forced them to go. The spicy fish we've had every time. The green beans are a staple now.
I looked at the new online menu, and they have Periwinkle Meat (sea snails).
Has anybody had Bitter Melon w/Beef or the Salt and Pepper Pork Chop?
A few observations on your observations:
I guess Asia Cafe is as Sichuan as, say, Grand Sichuan in NYC...the owner, or at least I assume she is one of the owners, told me she is from Sichuan...don't know if the chef is (and I think he is her husband), but I'll guess so. At GSI in NYC, you can get "all types of cuisine" including some downright crappy Americanized Chinese food. And yes, Asia Cafe has some of that, and some items from other regions of China...just like GSI. But, if you stick with the obviously Sichuan stuff, you will walk away with a better idea of where this place excels and that is in the typically Sichuan dishes. Though even with those, there are low points, i.e., the supposed ChongQing chicken (chicken with hot chile or whatever they call it) which is not done correctly, or the Pork with Garlic Sauce which is their version, I think, of the Sichuan dish sometimes called Fish Flavored Pork. The dish was average, and much like you'd get anywhere else in town---and I can't recommend it. But if you were to judge this joint by that dish, or the beef soup you had (which I sampled a few days ago and was likewise underwhelmed), then you go away scratching your head wondering what all the fuss was about.
This same thing has happened on the NYC and SF Bay Area boards in regards to folks trying some highly regarded Sichuan places and posting their more or less similar comments (to yours re: AC) about those places because they simply ordered the wrong dishes.
When you go back to AC, try some Sichuan standards and you will be served dishes and flavors you can't find anywhere else in Austin: The Spicy Beef or Spicy Fish Filet (both also known in the category of water boiled dishes); the Cooked Pork with Special Garlic Sauce (served cold); the Twice Cooked Pork (if only they'd use leeks instead of celery); the Spicy Wontons; Ma Po Tofu (on a good day, the best in town); the cold Chicken Delight; the Zhong Dumplings (make sure they come with a generous dollop or sprinkling of hot stuff on top); the Green Beans with Spicy Sauce; and if they have them, the Szechuan Flavor Noodles, though I think they have dropped them. There are other options, but these are some highlights of the Sichuan choices and, assuming the kitchen is "on" when you go, should impress you tremendously. Stray from their specialties and you will veer into average territory.
The online menu seems to have been updated this week, so maybe the prices are more current, and I noticed a couple of new things on it that I'd like to try...shredded pork with flower chives (ahhh, if they would only make this with smoked pork belly) and steamed pork leg with dates...
i visited Asia Cafe yesterday. the friends i was with were sick with the flu so to avoid contamination we all got our own dishes. i had the spicy beef noodle soup. it wasn't bad. it was a huge serving for $5 with an odd ratio of noodles to meat. there were enough noodles for 4 people. i kind of favor Coco's beef noodle soup over this version. the other dishes the sick people ordered were wonton soup (also with an enormous portion of noodles) and the pan fried noodles. we agreed din ho has better pan fried noodles but these weren't bad. it looks promising, i will go back and try some other, more adventurous dishes soon, with non-sick people.
the menu online i think is old. i remember the prices yesterday being slightly higher because we commented on it being a bit expensive for the type of service.
i don't know if this is a Sichuan restaurant per say. they sort of have all types of cuisine.
I visited over the weekend, and while I'm not prepared to say it's the best Chinese in Austin yet, it was the best Chinese restaurant meal I've had in Austin in a long, long time. It's hard to say based on a single meal, but I'm prepared to put it in the Pao's category, which, imo, is a notch higher than T&S and Din Ho.
We had water-boiled beef, which was nice and medium spicy, pea shoots, house special chicken (which was essentially small pieces of chicken stir fried with asparagus, bell pepper, onion, red chiles), and some dumplings, which sported a wrapper unlike any I've seen before in the States or Asia... thick and chewy but cooked through and certainly not pasty. With a great crunch as well.
Sorry for the lack of detail, but I have to wrap this up at the moment. Not in the same league as Grand Sichuan International, for any of you NYers, but certainly worth a visit.
Yes, yes, yes, yes. All these places are also *near* the top of the list and definitely have their high points...but... we all have our opinions. So check it out yourself and see what you think. Haute it ain't, that's for sure... Perfect? Nope. Worth the effort? Absolutely. Am ready to go back and I was just there Friday AND Saturday.
Alrighty, I've been back a couple more times since my last posting. Some observations: The quality of the dishes is not totally consistent from visit to visit. For example, I wrote about the disappointing quality of the Ma Po Tofu on an early visit. But the same dish last Sunday was much better, and closer to what it "should be", at least in the opinions of those at the table. Last night I had the Zhong Dumplings, and while the dumplings were ok, the sauce was totally insipid, as opposed to the bright, "ma la" (numbing-hot) flavors from the other two times I had them. On my Sunday visit, the Spicy Beef (water-boiled beef) was likewise tamed down...very little heat or spice, no numbing flavor whatsoever. Before it had nearly blown my head off...
However, overall, this is still the best, most "authentic" Chinese in town in my opinion, and that of another knowing human I shared the Sunday visit with. He knows his stuff.
So, new dishes to add to the list: rudeboy suggests the Sauteed Pea Leaves (shoots) and he's right...they were perfectly cooked and generously garlicky. Recommended. On a couple visits I'd seen people eathing a dish I've had in other Sichuan joints, but didn't see on this menu: potato shreds with green chile...well, they do have it sometimes and we ordered it on Sunday, but it was another disappointment. Instead of hot peppers, they used shreds of green bell, and the dish was flavorless...like a potato (ok, it tasted like plain potato)...little to recommend, but I'll wager you could request jalapeno shreds be added and that would perk it up plenty. Maybe another day...
We also had the green beans, sometimes called dry fried green beans...they were tasty, but instead of the more common ground pork as a flavoring, they used some sort of dried, or pickled cabbage. Still good, but not what I had expected. We tried a version of the dish they insisted at the counter was ChongQing chicken (called here Stir Fried Chicken with Hot Chile... the Chinese characters on the menu are the same as ChongQing chicken from other sources). Well, it sucked. Few chiles, no heat, and this resembled an insipid stir fry from any Americanized Chinese place...very disappointing. The real dish should be about 50/50 chiles and chicken and that's it...no carrots, celery, water chestnuts, no nuttin'. If the language barrier were not there, i'd talk to them about this dish. But...
We also had repeats of some other dishes, some mentioned above, but also Twice Cooked Pork, Pork with Special Garlic Sauce, Spicy Wontons, etc...all very good.
Last night the new dish we tried was Chicken Delight! Silly name, but nice dish. It was similar to the cold Pork with Special Garlic Sauce...but done with cold chicken, and topped with a very savory garlick chile oil, along with some peanuts, scallions, etc. No numbing flavor, but very tasty. Funny, though, the woman at the counter was convinced that we, probably as non-Asians, would not like the cold dish and she tried to talk us out of it...but we insisted...glad we did. Also had the pea shoots which were very nice, and the failed Zhong Dumplings...probably should have sent them back for a dollop of the spicy sauce, will next time.
Another sad note: on my first two visits two weeks ago, I had the Szechuan Flavor Noodles (dan dan noodles) which were pretty good. But they don't have them any more. I asked and the woman said "the cooker is gone" and I am not sure what that means...maybe she meant the person who makes them is not there anymore. but it's a simple dish to make and it seems like it would be easy to throw them together...too bad.
Also, there are menu items on the various signs on the wall and I tried to get her to tell me what they are. But she said that they are all on the printed menu. Well, I know that is not true. We saw two tables with some wonderful looking grilled skewered prawns...not on the menu. When we quizzed her, she pointed to the hand written stuff on the wall and said, "it's here, shrimp on stick". So, if you read Chinese, or are more successful at getting someone to translate for you, there are obviously some interesting treasures there...mostly seafood I think.
Ok, that's it for now. I'm sure I'll be posting more soon on this place. In the meantime, it'd be great to get other folks' reaction to this wonderful little gem...if you haven't gone and like Chinese, RUN over there now!!!! And post your experience!
"However, overall, this is still the best, most "authentic" Chinese in town in my opinion, and that of another knowing human I shared the Sunday visit with. He knows his stuff."
Those are pretty strong claims. Have you (and your friend) been to Pao's, T&S, Din Ho and China Palace (secret Chinese menu)?
I've been a couple of times....they take plastic. Dishes I've tried:
Roast Duck - good and crispy, seems like they brine the duck
Pork and Mustard Green Noodle Soup - great mustard green flavor with hokkien type noodles. Very filling for $5
Spicy Fish - truly ethereal
Garlic Pork - lots of noodles, pork, and strips of water chestnut. Good and spicy, a little sweet.
Sauteed pea leaves - nice and garlicky.
The green beans look good.
You really need to go family style - a meat dish, a soup, and a green dish. Three dishes fo four people works well.
I am quite sure they take cards for regular chow, have seen people waving plastic at the counter, but really didn't watch the transaction. There are ATMs in the area if you get stuck. Or simply plan ahead with some green in your pocket...$25 will feed 2-3 to the bursting point!
I forgot to mention that the cold pork dish mentioned above is truly sublime!!!
Ok, Hounds, I finally made it back to Asia Cafe for another hit of Sichuan madness! It was all I could do to resist going a couple times over the weekend, but it's been since Thursday that I was last there, so I had to mosey on back.
Since pork is king in my book, I had to try an old Sichuan favorite, Pork with Spicy Garlic Sauce. I wanted to try the Dan Dan Noodles again, but they were out, so I was a good little boy and ordered a vegetable, the Water Spinach with Garlic.
The pork dish was fantastic, but be advised it is served cold, or room temp. It consists of slice of blanched pork belly, more lean than fat, slathered with an amazing chile and garlic sauce with just a hint of Sichuan peppercorn. This sauce is extra garlicky, and not cooked, so if you don't like raw garlic, you might not want to go this route. But if you do, be prepared to be rewarded with something that, if they could do it, would command a $25 tag at Jeffery's or one of those joints...if they only had the guts.
The water spinich was the typical sauteed Chinese green, also laced with generous amounts of garlic, nothing out of the ordinary, but tasty nonetheless.
Next I need to delve into some of the very interesting fish dishes, and some of the soups.
More then. Still highly recommended...
Ohhhh...thanks so much for this. The menu looks great and I can't wait to go. Lucky that it is right around the corner from you...as with 3 out of 4 of the other Chinese restaurants I like, this is going to be a haul from South Austin...but thanks to your post, I'm absolutely sure it will be worth it!
I can't seem to edit this thing, and wanted to make a couple of changes, I was barely awake when I pounded this thing out on my laptop this morning...
1) the vegetable in the Water-boiled beef was "napa" cabbage, small pieces...at least for the most part, that's what it was...but i didn't take notes and my memory is a tad hazy on this point. Napa is the traditional, or one of the traditional bases for this dish.
2) In the Twice-cooked Pork, jalapeños are not really traditional, though I've seen them used before, I think. More often, you might find whole red chiles, if any.
3) The Spicy Wontons are similar to the "Dragon" wonton found at SC in Houston.
If this thing ever lets me edit my posting again, I will do so and delete this if I can. Sorry.