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Sea Dragon (the almost original one)

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I know this place has been criticized here in the past, or not praised as I think it should be. I've been eating at Sea Dragon since 1987, soon after it opened, originally around the parking lot where a shoe store now resides, I think.

Like any restaurant, you order the wrong thing and you can get crappy results. However, armed with a bit of knowledge, one can have some absolutely terrific chow at this place, to whit:

Couple nights ago went with a buddy before we started packing my CD collection (still not finished!) and we had some wonderful food. (Stay away from the Chinese stuff, in my opinion). We had an "appetizer" of the three course beef, or an abbreviated of the Viet classic, beef 7 ways. three different treatments of grilled beef were served with the ususal Viet salad plate and rice papers for rolling the stuff into your own vietnamese taco (i can't remember the generic name, if there is one). the beef comprised a ground beef mixture wrapped around an onion wedge, ground beef wrapped in, probably grape leaves, though it should be a leaf of "la lot", a pleasant herb...and the third presentation? Not sure, but was yummy, charred and delicious. Here's a tip on these dishes: make sure you ask for the pineapple/anchovy sauce to go with it (mam nem) ...it's a slightly pungent, fishy sauce, but really sings on these vietacos. They might not want to give it to you: I've been told "American not like that", but insist, it's worth it. other sauces are the usual chile/garlic, and nuoc mam (not really nuam cham which contains lime juice). too bad they don't offer the other 4 ways which include a terrific "fondue" of boiling vinegar for cooking the raw beef slices at the table.

We also had shrimp with black pepper, a preparation they also do with chicken and blue crab, and maybe soft shell crab... The "meat" is lightly battered, then fried, and topped with a "sofritto" of garlic, onion, chiles and scallions. Hot diggity, this is great! It is served with a "dipping sauce" of lemon juice, salt and black pepper--simple, yet perfect. The shrimp was absolutely delicious, not overcooked, seemingly quite fresh and just moist enough. Might just have to go there for lunch today!!!!

Other faves, as I've pointed out here before, include duck with leeks and ginger, a variety of lamb dishes (how many chinese or viet places have lamb in the menu), ginger pork, the various meats cooked in the lemongrass and hot pepper style, the goi cuon, and so on. the whole crab dishes are fantastic, and they usually have softshell versions of those two.

Anyone who's gone here and not had good food might just want to sample some of these. Unless your palate is dead, or just not too savvy, you should have a great awakening to some of Austin's forgotten treasures.

YMMV, etc. But, come on, give it a try! And don't forget to fedex some to me since I'm moving on Tuesday! Help! Wichita Ks has crappy restaurants, or at least that's how it seems so far...

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  1. Sounds good and made me hungry. Will make a point to try that next month when I'm back.

    1. Sorry about you having to go to Wichita - I work up there frequently, so I've had to search for restaurants....to no avail. There is a good brew pub called River City Brewery. There's a place called Yaya's Eurobistro that I've heard of. There's also a place called Scotch and Sirloin where I've had a decent steak (on per diem).

      About Sea Dragon - thanks. Two questions: 1) Can you order these dishes at lunch comfortably when the buffet is blaring? and 2) Can you order these dishes at Sea Dragon II at 620 and 183? Okay, a third question: 3) Can you order beef 7 ways for lunch, and how many people will that feed?

      Sorry about all the questions. I have to drag my co-workers around and make them try things. Now we all love Asia Cafe, thanks to you and my prodding. We eat there family style about every two weeks.

      Also, the shrimp with black pepper that you describe sounds a lot like Salt and Pepper shrimp. Some places finish it with butter and don't provide sauce. Sunflower gived you a bowl of salty black pepper and the lemony dipping sauce that you describe above.

      14 Replies
      1. re: rudeboy

        RE Ya Ya's...it's owned by the same corporation that owns the recently panned Red Robin...out of Kansas City I think...

        Now, writing that post did drive me to Sea Dragon (well, i drove myself in my honda) to have lunch...yes, avoid the buffet, as most buffets should be avoided (madras pavilion is an exception). I had the shrimp again. It was superb. They will happily hand you a menu and you can order whatever you wish. Service is a bit slow because it gets crowded with the propeller-heads grazing, grazing, grazing and grazing again, the buffet, but menu items are all available...
        I've never been to the other Sea Dragon, though it is closer to where i now live. The original is worth the extra drive....in fact I overheard the owner commenting on #2 the other evening and he indicated the menu is more chinese and less vietnamese...i guess to satisfy the more whitebread denizens of cedar-chopper park. Question 3: re-read the post....they don't serve beef 7 ways, they only get up to 3, but it's still quite wonderful. but that dish will easily feed two, three if you order a few other items. i think you get nine beef lozenges. Not sure the shrimp is the same....it is breaded...seems like the salt and pepper shrimp i've had in Chinese places is not, and usually comes with heads on. Take four people, order the shrimp, the beef, the duck, and the lamb with lemongrass and chile, then call two more friends to help you finish...and drink plenty of tsing tao to help you get through the rest of the work day. god, i'm sure glad i don't have a job!@!!

        By the way, talking of SD#2, the Twin Dragon on N. Lamar used to be owned by the same family...menu was similar, but the food was never the same....Sea Dragon has bright flavors, and so on, TD was always a bit dull and lifeless...so I'll assume the #2 will be a similar experience to TD.

        1. re: sambamaster

          Salt and pepper shrimp: at home, I soak the shrimp in salt water, then dredge in tapioca starch, patting most of it off, then fry for about a minute and a half. Then you stir fry that with the other stuff. It isn't a breading but the process makes the shells more brittle for chewing.

          Most places in town seem to serve it breaded - this includes T&S, where they ask you whether you want the shells or not, Soleil, Tea House, China cafe, and Sunflower. Marco Polo and Asia Cafe are the only places where I've been served the unbreaded version. Coincidentally, I did have an excellent version at the Tea House, raved about it, then took a friend back a second time and they were breaded to hell and back - not nearly as good as the first time. Marco Polo makes a good version. The ones that I had at Asia Cafe looked good, but were chewy and didn't have much flavor. I don't like the shells on if they aren't brittle enough - I don't enjoy chewing on shells.

          Unfortunately, Sea Dragon II is right around the corcer from where I work. Coincidentally, Sea Dragon I is right near where we USED to work (my company moved out to this wasteland). I'll probably have to try to go to SDII with this group. I'll reply and let everyone know what happens. Thanks for the tip!

          1. re: rudeboy

            Oh no, I didn't know T&S served theirs breaded. I've not been there yet (not exactly a solo-dining place), but it has been high on my list of places and plates to try. I was hoping for a head-on, shell-on version that wasn't breaded. Breaded versions can still be good, but I prefer it if they hold the bread.

            1. re: Nab

              Tapioca starch will give a light crispy coating - but these at T&S are definitely breaded somehow. The degree of breading is never predictable at several places, a la the Tea House. The first time I had them there was almost the best I've ever had. The degree of szechuan pepper also varies from place to place and at specific places over time.

              Nevertheless, I like the breaded version as long as there isn't too much.

              1. re: rudeboy

                din ho does a version of salt and pepper shrimp with shell/head and they are not battered. last time it was ordered there were only about 8-10 shrimp but had to be around U12-U16 size. i forget the exact name of the dish but it was prepared/served like sea dragon's shrimp with black pepper as noted above by sambamaster. hope this helps somebody

                1. re: ktown378

                  Thanks for the info. I think I sometimes also get Din Ho and T&S mixed up in my head sometimes too.

                  As a reference, this is the kind of s&p shrimp I'm looking for (photo halfway down, courtesy of LTHforum):
                  http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?...

                  1. re: Nab

                    Yea - that's also like Marco Polo......if you look closely, you can tell that the shells are soaked, dredged in tapioca, fried and then tossed/stir fried with the buttery goodness..

          2. re: sambamaster

            Well, I can report that the Sea Dragon WTFUN (way the ___ up North) is not equipped to handle menu requests at lunch. First, the staff said that you can't get beef 3/7 ways in anywhere in Austin, only in Houston. The lunch menu only had the standard chinese crap - there was a Viet section on their dinner menu. I felt like it would be a gamble to order from the kitchen, as it had already taken 10 minutes to get our menu and water. I was forced onto the $6.95 buffet.

            The buffet was typical - mostly gloppy congealing bland sauces of standard chinese. There was a black pepper chicken, which looked like breaded S@P with the jalapeno, bell pepper, garlic topping. It wasn't very good, either too much batter or too tough to chew. I mostly ate a lemongrass chicken, which was actually pretty good.

            I will never go back there. You were right.

            1. re: rudeboy

              What is the physical address of the "correct" Sea Dragon. I guess the first one?

              1. re: scrumptiouschef

                Somewhere in the neighborhood of 8000 Research. It is between Ohlen and Burnet, on the "South" side of 183.

                1. re: rudeboy

                  Thanks Rude I can vector in from your description

              2. re: rudeboy

                i can tell you that Sea Dragon #1 DOES three stages of the beef explosion! I had it the other day. so whoever told you that is incorrect. seven ways, on the other hand, is not around in austin...
                surprised the #2 as difficult at lunch as you describe. i've always had good luck ordering off the "real" menu at lunch at the Ohlen/Research location. in fact, i've never ventured into buffet territorry. forget it.... and; never order off the "lunch" menu either! big mistake...it's buffet food in disguise much of the time!!!

                1. re: sambamaster

                  i forget which paper it was in. but there is a restaurant serving the 7 course beef menu. it's new and i want to say it is located close to mopac on wells branch up north? i don't remember the name because it was vietnamese. but their ad stated in bold that they served it and was the only resto in austin to do so. if anybody has info on it, please share.

                  1. re: sambamaster

                    I actually saw them baggin up eggrolls off the buffet for a to go order. I'm sure that if one ordered Kung Pao Chicken, then it also would have come off the buffet. Oh well, it sounds like SD#1 needs a visit from me. Wish that I could get there during lunch.....

            2. I've been meaning to post this story...Sambamaster, your previous recommendation of Sea Dragon (in light of some other pans) caused me to try an experiment with Beijing Wok, the closest Chinese restaurant to me. Thinking about how you seem get to know a restaurant's strengths, and steer away from the mediocre Americanized Chinese food to get at the good stuff... it made me wonder if there weren't a bunch of hidden gems in Austin, and wouldn't it be great if one was right around the corner from me. Quixotic, I know.

              I tried BW 3 years ago when we were moving in, and was underwhelmed...borderline disgusted. But, here comes their snazzy new menu that includes things like "boiled dumplings in szechuan sauce," and "Ma La Tofu" and other things that sounded promising. One hectic night I decided to call them for delivery. The woman who answered the phone seemed to have some kind of accent, and I confirmed that they had revamped the menu...I told her I was excited to try the new things, and that I really preferred Chinese Chinese food to American-style. Then I ordered the boiled dumplings in szechuan sauce...she said "What kind of sauce?" I repeated it...phonetically: seh-shwan. Nothing. I tried see-shwan. I tried sih-ch-oo-ahn. Nothing. She got someone else to come to the phone. I got the order placed: twice cooked pork, the aforementioned dumplings, and sauteed green beans.

              The dumplings were monstrous - huge, tough, gluey, doughey wrappers....they had the barest amount of mystery filling, and were sitting in basically a soy/vinegar sauce with some chili flakes. Inedible. The twice cooked pork was not pork belly, just diced pork with cabbage, green and red bell pepper hunks, carrots and a generic shiny thick brown sauce. The green beans were old - tough with skins that just didn't break down when you chewed them.

              Well, I tried, and I will try Sea Dragon soon... thanks for the inspiration and especially the recommendations.

              PS - have you read any Calvin Trillin? Might be just the thing for this move...the Tummy Trilogy. And you are just that much closer to Arthur Bryant's!

              2 Replies
              1. re: saticoy

                Nice report on the experiment. Too bad, but you are right, there are some hidden dishes at many places....like the braised pork belly at Din Ho (called something else...steamed or braised pork with preserved vegetable?)

                I love Trillian's books, but Arthur Bryant's is lousy. been there... BTW, Trillian is in Austin this weekend for some reason...

                1. re: sambamaster

                  Hee hee - I knew if I brought up a hallowed midwestern BBQ place there would be immediate dissention...but at least it might be interesting to be a part of a different kind of BBQ war!!