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My local under-represented faves

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Hey, I'm new to Chowhound, thought I'd post on some of my favorite Austin restaurants that, to my mind, have been under-covered (or, in some cases, not covered at all) on the site. Would love to get feedback if any of you have been to these places.

1) Jenny's Kitchen (8650 Spicewood Springs, 257-3647). My wife and I discovered it on our way to Asia Cafe (it's in the same strip mall) and, on the basis of two visits, promptly fell in love. Our first time there, two weeks ago, we had breakfast: Chicken porridge, which is, as far as I can tell, a congee, and easily the best congee I've had in Austin, warm and filling and full of slivers of fresh ginger. We also had a shrimp noodle soup (can't remember the name) that was full of complex Malaysian (I think) spices and was so good we didn't even mind that we had ordered two soup dishes. (Plus, there was a nice peppery "free soup of the day" on the counter that you could help yourself to. No, we're not on a liquid diet; we just ordered unthinkingly.) Our third dish was scrambled eggs with shrimp, which was, basically, scrambled eggs with shrimp, but perfectly respectable for that. Ten days later we returned for dinner, and not only did Jenny remember us, she remembered what we had ordered. (This is a friendly place, and a constant stream of regulars seem to come in all the time.) This time we got completely different dishes: Rendang beef (one of the best red meat dishes I've ever had, period -- a bowl of chunks of meat swimming in broth), sambal eggplant (thumb-sized chunks of eggplant covered with wonderfully stinky fish sauce) and Thai-style fried chicken (basically, really good McNuggets covered with a tart shredded cabbage and seaweed salad). This is a tiny place -- a counter and maybe five tables -- but it's our new favorite restaurant in town.

2) Le Soleil (9616 N. Lamar Blvd., 821-0396). Our favorite Vietnamese place in town. Love the calamari salad, the crepes, the hotpots, the green beans with tofu. Question, though: Anybody who goes there notice a slight drop-off in quality lately? Our last three visits have been a bit disappointing. Dishes a bit oilier, less calamari in the calamari salad, a couple of bland dishes, etc. Not enough to scare us off the place, but enough to cause concern. Just a strong of bad luck on our part, or a genuine trend?

3) Vivi (825 E. Rundberg Lane, in the strip mall located at the SE intersection of Rundberg and I-35, 834-8882). This place must get great lunch business, because there is never anyone there when we go for dinner. I don't want to overpraise this place; it's basically a pho joint, with a not terribly adventurous menu, but my wife can't live without the vegetable and tofu rice noodle soup, which is a well-seasoned vegetarian soup with impeccably fresh, crunchy vegetables. We basically go there so she can get her soup fix, but whatever staple I wind up ordering (lemongrass chicken or tofu, salt and pepper shrimp) always winds up fresh and tasty, too.

4) Shilla Restaurant (6406 N. IH-35, in Lincoln Village Shopping Center, 453-4111). Can't believe this place doesn't show up in the Chowhound search engine; it has displaced Korea House as our fave Korean restaurant. We had one horrible experience with the pancakes and have stayed away from them since, but everything else is great: we always get the soft tofu ji gae (a spicy soup with seafood, veggies and custard-like soft tofu) and then usually order a bulgogi dish or jap chae (all of which are terrific) and if we head over with friends, one of the giant $20+ hop pots, which feed many happy people.

5) Sasha's Gourmet Russian Market (7817 Rockwood Lane, 459-1449). Recently moved from its old 2222/MoPac location to this spot across from the Sun Harvest off Anderson. I basically go there to get a helping of the best fresh half-sour pickles in town (shipped in from NYC every week). Haven't tried the tantalizing looking pickled mushrooms, but I can't hold out much longer . . .

6) Chola (2601 S. I 35, located across from Home Depot in the big Wal-Mart strip mall in Round Rock, off exit 250; 244-2222). Just went there for the first time last weekend for the Saturday buffet. Enjoyed ourselves immensely. My wife, who is Indian, quibbled with a couple of dishes, but was generally very pleased. The goat curry was terrific!

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  1. Thanks, and welcome to chowhound. These sound like some great places to check out. At Shilla, do you know if they have dol sot bi bim bap -- the type served in a hot stone bowl so that you get a crust of rice on the bottom? I'm still looking for a good version in Austin.

    At Sasha's, do they have new pickles as well as the half sours?

    3 Replies
    1. re: Brian Lindauer

      According to the Shilla takeout menu I'm looking at -- which, I should note, is an old one, so no guarantee that it's up to date -- they do serve dol sot bi bim bap. I haven't had it, so if you go and order it, please let me know how it is.

      As for Sasha's, well, I feel a bit dumb; I thought half-sours and new pickles were the same thing. (Could you tell me the difference?) But, yes -- I think these are new pickles; they're bright green and crunchy and still redolent of cucumber. Precisely the sort of pickles I ask for at Katz's and Manny Hattan's and never get.

      1. re: AustinNYCer

        It's a matter of the degree of fermentation. New pickles have only been fermented for a few days and still have a lot of the fresh cucumber flavor. You can see pictures of the different degrees of pickle here:

        http://www.nycpickleguys.com/pickles....

        Either way, I'm going to check them out, since I like both kinds.

      2. re: Brian Lindauer

        They do have dol sot bi bim bap. It's one of my favorite entrees to order from there. They serve it hot enough to come out sizzling (and therefore create a crust) and with the veggies and meat arranged neatly on top for you to mix up yourself.

        Shilla definitely is a well-hidden gem. It's not in the most prominent of locations, hiding in the back of the shopping center that buffers Highland Mall from I-35. They also serve sushi, which I have not tried, but my friend claims is excellent. I'm just there for the Korean fare. Service is polite and attentive. Our waitress was more than happy to refill the little pickled side dish bowls.

      3. thanks for the tips! out of the 6 listed, i have only heard of two - Le Soleil and Sasha's. As for your question about Le Soleil, perhaps the decline in quality is a little hiccup but hopefully they will get back on track as i am taking a group there for dinner in a few weeks. If you like Le Soleil, i'd be interested to know what you think of Sunflower over by the Target by Ohlen and 183. The owner of Le Soleil is the ex-husband of the owner of Sunflower.

        i'll definitely have to check out Shila soon as i have a korean friend who would make that for me all the time but she's moved to san francisco now so i must find a substitute for when the craving strikes. :)

        and i LOVE good pickles! :) and olives...and mushrooms...

        5 Replies
        1. re: kalex

          I'll admit, we went to Sunflower once, since we'd heard good things and knew about the Soleil connection, and had a very bad experience. Both of us felt vaguely ill after the meal, by which I don't mean to suggest that the food was toxic in any manner, just that it was greasy and heavy and unpleasant. I'm sure that it was an unrepresentative meal, but we walked out so unhappy we haven't been able to bring ourselves to go back. When we're in the mood for Vietnamese, we go to Soleil; when we're near that strip mall, we go to Din Ho. (Din Ho faves: minced chicken crab meat corn soup (bland-ish but comforting), sauteed water spinach, sauteed snow pea leaves (w/ or w/o crab meat), sauteed shrimp (with the best cooked celery I've ever had), salted fish w/ chicken & bean curd hot pot, prawns with special salt, fresh & dried squid with preserved vegetables. Stay away from anything in garlic sauce, which has an odd (vinegary?) 'off' taste.)

          1. re: AustinNYCer

            Thanks for the great tips, AustinNYCer. I am also a NYC transplant, but have lived here for five years. Finding good chinese food is nearly impossible, but I do share your love for Din Ho. I also happen to love half-sour pickles (most people in Austin don't have any idea what they are) so I'm going to have to try your tip on the Russian Market (how would I ever know it was there?) I used to live around the corner from Guss's Pickles on the Lower East Side and there's just nothing remotely comparable in this town.

            But I've got to say, you need to go try Sunflower again. I think they are better for lunch for dinner -- well, that's mostly all I know them for, since I've been frequenting the joint ever since I've been in town, working up north. It is easily my favorite restaurant in North Austin and I am surprised you had a disappointing meal there. Interestingly, I sort of had the inverse experience at La Soleil -- I went with a group and got to sample a bunch of stuff, some of which was tasty and other bland, and I went home feeling kind of bloated and heartburny. I'd try them again if North Lamar wasn't a hellhole.

            Some recommendations if you try Sunflower again. Try the Lemongrass Chicken or the Shrimp w/ Green Beans for something lighter and tasty. The Clay Pot selection (combination, seafood, or beef) are also reliable favorites for many -- basically meat, onions, mushrooms and spices in a hot pot on top of rice. The Chicken Roll appetizer (just a spring roll with chicken) is also superior to any other spring roll I've had in this town. I'm a big fan of the seafood curry and the five spice chicken but those are probably on the heavier end, so if you're looking to avoid your prior experience, I'd recommend you go elsewhere on the menu.

            1. re: tastegood

              If you go for lunch, be sure and also look at the RED menu, which is the dinner menu. Not everything is on the lunch menu.

              I went to Sunflower last night - we split the calimari salad and the shaken beef. Great combo. The beef was EXTREMELY tender and flavorful. I realized that I had never ordered it before.

              I think that LaSoleil is owned by the Sunflower owners ex husband. The menus are similar in some aspects. I like both of them, but I find that we choose Sunflower about 80% of the time over Soleil.

              There's another new Viet place that someone mentioned. "Somewhere on North Lamar" is all I know. Not Ba Le or the other one, but a new place.

              1. re: rudeboy

                Buu Buu?? i posted something about it a while back but no responses...since I live in east austin, i don't want to venture unless it's worth the drive :)

                1. re: rudeboy

                  There's a couple of good Viet places up at the new Asian center on North Lamar where it intersects Kramer (1 block south of Braker)
                  Lily's sandwiches - good ban mi sandwiches CHEAP. There's a pho place in the same strip thats pretty good as well as a couple of chinese places.

          2. Glad to hear you mention Chola - we've had great food every time we've been. Didn't know they had a Saturday buffet -- is that in the evening?

            1. Korea Garden on Lamar has dol sot bi bim bab. Since I haven't been there in a while I can not vouch for the food quality anymore. I was a Korea House fan for a long time but recently the amount of flies in there has really started to gross me out. I need a new Korean favorite. Thanks for the Shilla recommendation.