Peeves with Asia Cafe
1. They keep increasing their prices. (Many places are doing so, but it seems every single time I go, the prices are raised, yet again.) This place is supposed to be cheap. I don't think paying $8 for Mapo Tofu is exactly a good deal.
2. Lack of cleanliness. (I understand it's a dive, but the table and seats are always dirty - note to bussers: please don't just wipe the table off onto the seats, it's disgusting - and, watching the chef in a wifebeater scratching his belly and wiping the dripping sweat off his face across his forearm sans a hairnet anywhere in sight, doesn't exactly inspire confidence in health code compliance.)
3. Attitude. This is strange, and I've experienced and observed it enough to feel like I can comment: they treat Asian and white customers very differently. With whites, they're always smiling, making small talk, cracking jokes, almost exaggeratedly fawning over them. On the other hand, with Asian customers (and not just me), they're much more brusque, quieter, with hardly ever a smile, a Hello, or a Thank You. Strange. And can I just make an official announcement to all the white folks who go there? DO NOT hold up the line by asking moronic questions, such as 'What's in the Chicken and Chilis?' and 'Can you make XXX, without soy sauce?' (If you don't want soy sauce, GET PIZZA.) This is particularly directed at those middle-aged white guys in Hawaiian shirts.
4. While many items are good, some are simply *AWFUL* (and, sorry, NOT authentic). The Zhong Dumplings, for instance. Dumplings are not supposed to thick-skinned. They taste like they are defrosted from the packaged dumplings in the nearby freezers - and they probably are. The Xiao Long Bao (I forget what they call them in English on the menu), on the weekend brunch menu (and which they sometimes sell up front): again, the skin's way too thick for these - Xiao Long Bao's are supposed to be paper-thin with a pure meat filling (fatty enough so the grease, or 'soup' as we say in Chinese, comes out of the meat and somewhat collapses the buns). Otherwise you cannot bill them as 'Xiao Long Bao'. That would be like me calling tacos 'tamales'. And what's a Sichuan restaurant doing selling Xiao Long Bao anyway, which is a northern specialty? Last, the Spicy Rice Jelly has an unpleasant gristly texture that shouldn't be.
5. Is there really a reason to be stingy with the Sichuan peppercorn hot sauce? You have to ask for them now, and they only bring you a tiny little dish of it.
6. Finally, bring back the pre-order menu!
I remember the prices gong up to, but I'll still pay 8 bucks for ma po tofu because to me, this place still has the best chinese food in town, and I split it with another person alongside their green beans or water spinach.
I totally agree with you on the stingyness of the sichuan peppercorn hot sauce. I used to put enough on to make my mouth numb, and now, they barely give you enough to taste it.
Can't say much about your other criticisms, but I'll pay attention next time I am there.
Well, I'm a white guy and I haven't noticed any fawning over me; they've always been rather brusque. Not a complaint; I just figured they were busy and weren't focused on small talk or that fake-friendly attitude that some servers have, and which I don't care about anyway. So your #3 doesn't resonate with me.
But yeah, prices are going up. I don't mind too much because for the quality and the fact that you can't get this type of food anywhere else in Austin, it's still not overpriced, IMO. Cleanliness is a small concern, but as soon as I start eating all my concerns usually go out the window.
I don't know about authenticity, but as I've been eating my way through the menu I haven't found too many things I don't like. Can't really think of any, actually, though I like some things way better than others. I think the amount of hot sauce you get on your dish depends somewhat on who's cooking; not always the same person.
And yes, I've been known to wear a Hawaiian shirt, but I always have my order ready and I don't ask any questions, stupid or otherwise, or try to make substitutions - maybe after I've had everything on the menu a few times I will, but now I'm just seeing what the food is like the way they want to give it to me, and I haven't been disappointed yet.
I can't speak to the authenticity of the Xiao Long Bao (never having had them), but Asia Cafe has taken over the large space next door (formerly a comics emporium) and from the looks of things, they should have a proper, much-enlarged restaurant operational by mid-September. I look forward to revisiting them next month to see what, if anything, has changed. But I want to make clear that I still love the joint and don't see anything comparable to it in Central Texas.
The newly expanded Asia Cafe has opened with an expanded menu to boot. Noticeable differences are more soup choices and more whole fish choices in addition to merging the whiteboard specials into the main menu plus some other randomly new dishes. Still it is order at the counter service and we tried a new (I think) dish called something like Taepan fish fillet which was served on a hot plate with lightly fried fish, with veggies and lots of garlic. Good stuff.
I didn't mean to disparage Asia Cafe as I agree that its the best option for Szechuan cooking in Central Texas. Its just they have items on their menu that are more representative of other regions that are not that great.
That said, your experience will be better if you order things from that region instead of dishes from other regions of China.
For those not familiar with regional differences, a few good rules of thumb is :
1. If 1 dish sounds like its heavily spiced and another sounds milder, go for the more heavily spiced dish, Asia Cafe will do these better.
2. Don't try to think about your favorite dish at your other Austin Chinese restaurant and order the same one to compare here because your other favorite Austin Chinese restaurant probably cooks dishes of a different region.
3. try not to be adverse to oil. Szechuan cuisine tends to be heavier in oil.
4. If you ask for a recommendation, don't say "what can you recommend" if they see that you are not Chinese, its more likely they will try to steer you towards the safer less exotic items. Instead ask "which dishes are Szechuan dishes".
> 3. try not to be adverse to oil. Szechuan cuisine tends to be heavier in oil.
This is my biggest problem. I always have to pay a stiff price; for some reason the oil just throws my innards off (TMI). Wish there was something like beano that I could take beforehand that would protect me from the oil reaction.
Love the food at Asia Cafe though. Must try the new fish dishes.