HEA Cafe preliminary foray
Went to the HEA Cafe in the Walmart shopping center just west of the intersection of I-35 and 290/Ben White Blvd. (500 E Ben White Blvd, Austin, TX - (512) 804-2310) for dinner the other night.
They opened pretty recently and the place still looks shiny new. All kinds of Asian condiments on the table (siracha, chili/garlic paste/sauce, hot chili oil, fish sauce, soy sauce, and several others I'm not sure of) as well as an impressive utensil caddy (forks, wood chopsticks, enameled chopsticks, big ceramic soup spoons, smaller metal Western-style soup spoons, etc.) But anyway, about the food!
The menu looked mostly Vietnamese?, but also pan-Asian-esque (obviously I'm no expert here, so please bear with me) Appetizers included egg rolls, spring rolls, lettuce wraps, etc. About five kinds each of vermicelli bowls, rice bowls, pho, fried rice, noodle dishes as well as General Tso's chicken, brocolli with garlic sauce. We had two vermicelli bowls, one with a lemongrass sauce, one with a curry sauce. They came with a choice of chicken, beef, tofu and/or maybe something else that I can't remember.
And they came out very tasty. Generous portion of vermicelli with fresh, nice-lookin veggies and proteins, with shredded greenery and bean sprouts too, I think. Lemongrass sauce was tasty. Yellow curry was fine, but not incredible. Service was quick and pleasant.
This was just a preliminary foray for us, but we're planning a return visit to explore the rest of the menu. It looks promising...
Found myself in the nabe, and decided to take this place for a whirl.
The atmosphere is big, bright, shiny and scrubbed spotless, if a little sterile.
My eyes lit up at the sight of bún bò huế on the menu, but the sweet counter lady told me this was not yet on offer since they didn't think they had the right audience for it yet. I told her I would bring the audience tomorrow if she put it on the menu (I'll rely on y'all to keep my promise).
The disappointing news left me confused about what to order and, as a result, I may have mis-ordered with the bún xa (vermicelli noodles with stir-fried vegetables in lemongrass with chicken). Whoever cleans the restaurant must've had a go at my dish too -- it was scrubbed so clean it was flavourless. The vegetables were nice and bright and crisp, sitting atop of a huge bed of hospital-white rice noodles, with a fair portion of chopped chicken thighs scattered about. And it all tasted like absolutely nothing. Unbelievable. I had to douse it with fish sauce and an emergency stash of Texas Pete's I keep around just to help it down the gullet.
I tell myself it was a very healthy meal though, almost too healthy, especially considering the aromas from Chik-fil-a somehow found their way into my car and all the way back to my office just from the drive-by. A chicken biscuit could have saved the day (which wouldn't have been the first time).
I'll probably keep checking in to see if bún bò huế makes an appearance, and might even stop in to try their bahn mi, but otherwise not rushing back.
Yeah, this place is alriiiiight, but I definitely would not recommend it as a destination spot for chowhounders. I live in the area so it fulfills the Asian cravings that randomly strike my tastebuds, but for carnivores I would recommend both Lulu B's Vietnamese (trailer on S. Lamar) and Dong Nai (S. Lamar/290W near the Target) for vermicelli bowls. The quality of the meat in HEA's vermicelli bowls is just not on par with the other two Viet spots mentioned. At HEA I've tried the lemongrass vermicelli bowl with chicken and shrimp, neither of which were good. The meat was mushy, if that makes sense, and the chicken seemed to be almost entirely fat... I actually picked the chicken OUT of my leftovers when reheating to salvage the rest of the dish. Can anyone comment on HEA's tofu (quality and/or preparation)?
To be fair, the veggies (I remember broccoli, carrots, onions, and sprouts) that come on the vermicelli bowl are plentiful, well cooked, and tasty. I would imagien the veggies on any dish in this place would be good based on their quality in the vermicelli bowl, which is the only menu item I've tried here. No wait, tried the eggrolls too, which, as others have mentioned, have a grossly congealed consistency on the inside. I would love to patronize this Asian spot more often for reasons others have mentioned--sparkling clean (when bussed), friendly staff, affordable prices, very generous portions--but in my opinion the quality of meat is inexcusable. However, I did notice on the menu that you can order "extra veggies" on your bowl for an extra buck fifty, so it might be worth asking if they would hold the meat and double the veggies in the vermicelli bowls without additional cost. I'll let y'all know how it goes...
I've been twice now and gotten the same thing both times (can't remember the name, but the chicken broth with egg noodles and dumplings). I thought it was good both times. Had the spring rolls the first time, which were OK, and the chicken lettuce wraps the second time which I found to be mediocre at best.
I like all of the stuff on the table and the staff is nice as well. However, there was a large group the second time I went (at least 10) and their table was right next to ours. They left about when we got there and the table was never bussed, which kind of icked me out. I don't want to look at that while I'm eating. Still, while the service might have lacked a bit, the bowl was worth a return trip.