Madam Mam's Westgate [AUS]
- Brian Lindauer
I checked out the new Madam Mam's across from Central Market on Westgate at lunchtime this past week. The new space is pretty different from the original, with more of a cold, modern look (concrete floors, etc.). I tried the panang curry and noodle dish with ground chicken (forget the name) and both were as good as at the Guadalupe location. The service, on the other hand, was much better than the other location, where I've often had trouble getting someone to take a dessert order. This might have just been because the place was mostly empty, but I'm hoping not.
The first time I ate at Madam Mam’s was in 2002. I used to get pints with friends at the Dog & Duck on Tuesdays. While enjoying a few, a good friend named Ben had advised me to try the place.
I was dubious. I had lived in Los Angeles for a year, and the Asian cuisine there was fantastic. My favorite vacation spot was (and remains) San Francisco, where one can find delicious, affordable Thai food every several blocks. My experiences in Texas had been iffy: Houston alone had any decent Asian food by my barometer. Austin was weak in all Asian food -- except sushi: Musashino had long been the gold standard for sushi in Austin, and a dispersal of their expert chefs to other restaurants had served to bolster sushi in Austin.
Ben continued to harangue me. Finally I caved when he told me it was BYOB/W. On my first visit, I ordered the ultra-spicy fried catfish (Pud Cha) and was completely floored. Since that day, I have eaten at Madam Mam’s (University, or later, Westgate) at least once every three months.
In September, my wife and I moved to the Far South of Austin (Nearest cross-streets: William Cannon and Manchaca). I’ve enjoyed many things about “North San Antonio”, but the fine dining has left something to be desired. Since our move, Madam Mam’s Westgate has been something of an oasis.
Since Madam Mam’s has given so much to me, I thought I’d return the favor to a lesser extent by heartily endorsing their offering. Thinking of trying Madam Mam’s? Here are my recommendations. I also mention several things I’ve tried many times (hoping for excellence) and have been mildly disappointed by. I have yet to have anything bad at Madam Mam’s, although like every establishment they have off days.
A1 – Madam Roll – Deliciously deep fried baby spring rolls, chock full of delicious goodies, served with tangy sweet & sour sauce. I recommend ordering one A1 per person at the table (unless you’re getting the Satay special appetizer, which is only intermittently available).
A2 – Spring Roll – Made with shrimp or tofu. Both variants are solid if you’re an enthusiast, but forgettable overall.
A5 – Tod Mun Pla Glai – A savory, chunky mashed fish paste brought out with crispy sesame seed cakes and a couple slices of cucumber. The fish spread is delicious. However, the sesame seed cakes overpower the fish spread. A better dipping / spreading mechanism is required here.
Special Appetizer – Beef Satay – Not always available. Magnificent, absolutely perfect for sharing before dinner. The chicken variant is nearly as good. If you’ve got three (or more) people at the table, order one beef and one chicken and split them up.
P16 -- Pud Cha Catfish – You’re one bite from falling in love. If you enjoy spicy foods, you’ll find this dish divine. Can stand against anything West Coast Thai has to offer.
P11 – Tom Kha – Thai coconut soup with chicken, tofu, or shrimp. This Thai standard is about twice as spicy as anywhere else in town. Not as comforting as Thai Terra’s version; this one requires acolytes who love Thai pepper. But if that doesn’t deter you, you’ll be rewarded with the best Tom Kha in Austin. I prefer the shrimp version.
P13 – Masman Curry – This red curry dish is misleading: billed at “two peppers” on the Madam Mam’s heat scale, you’ll find it instead to be a hearty dish that is at times almost bland. If you’re dining with someone who mutually doesn’t mind sharing, have one person get this dish and another get something explosive (the Pud Cha, for instance). The onion, potato, peanut, red curry sauce, and rice combine to make a wonderful haven from the incendiary blows the other fiery dishes deal.
This is only my first installment. Coming up next: Noodle soups!
re: tom in austin
My wife Julie's version of the above:
Do yourself a favor, and eat here. Madam Mam’s seriously is the best Thai in Austin. While that doesn’t have the same meaning as it would in San Francisco, or even Boston, this place will inevitably result in you coming back for more.
A1 – Madam Roll – I am truly not a fan of fried food, but these deep fried spring rolls have almost made me a believer. My husband and I now regularly order this as our appetizer, and – true convert that I am – you’d better believe that I’ll be slapping his hand if he even tries to bogart one of my two personal rolls. The blend of flavors here is really the key. Perfectly crisp on the outside, the vegetable flavors nearly melt together in your mouth, and the tangy sweet & sour sauce accompaniment is a must.
A2 – Spring Roll – Very reliable – but once you’ve had the A1, you’ll never go back (unless maybe you’re with a bigger party and are looking for variety).
A5 – Tod Mun Pla Glai – If you ever went through a rice cake dieting phase, prepare yourself for a trip down memory lane. Not good, you say? I wholeheartedly agree. The shrimp/crab paste is a nice blend and has its own tangy kick, but the sesame cakes are horridly overpowering. I initially thought this appetizer would be delightful with some other (ANY other) carbohydrate for dipping, but now I’m not even so sure. Perhaps I was just comparing the seafood blend to the dry and almost nauseating flavors of the rice (er, I mean sesame...) cakes. Do yourself a favor, and skip this. (By the way – and if I can do nothing else to convince you – I am a seafood junkee, so I’m not screwing around here.)
Special Appetizer – Beef Satay – Beautifully executed. Nearly perfect seasoning, and this meat almost flakes in your mouth. It’s that tender. The peanut sauce that accompanies only elevates this appetizer. Enjoy!
P16 -- Pud Cha Catfish – Ignore the five peppers (or how ever many peppers indicates that you should avoid ordering a dish), and get this dish. This is the best catfish I’ve had in Austin. Delightfully spicy (and not the kind that makes you blow your nose eight times during dinner and wish you had a side of brie/crackers to soak up the spice), this dish is a real treat. P16 is one of Madam Mam’s entrees that will keep you coming back.
P11 – Tom Kha – Thai coconut soup with chicken, tofu, or shrimp. Yummy. They could tone it down on the spice, to be sure. Thai Tara doesn’t compare with Madam Mam’s on the whole, but the former’s Tom Kha rivals and, on the spice front, defeats Madam Mam’s P11. If you’re a fan of this coconut soup (and who isn’t), order this, but be sure to share with your partner/friends and/or order in tandem with a less spicy (and rich) entrée. Alternate bites.
P13 – Masman Curry – Two peppers, my ass. This curry dish exemplifies one of Madam Mam’s best qualities – their ability to blend spices. However, contrary to billing, it is not spicy at all. Potatoes are just the right amount of tender, and when the rice soaks up the curry, it’s quite a treat. Pair this with P11, and you won’t be sorry.
re: tom in austin
Definitely not in the gourmet category, but I enjoy their five egg omlette with spicy ground pork. My waiter recommended getting it along with a curry dish in order to use the omlette as a sponge to soak up the curry. Weird but good!
"Tom in Austin", I think I know this Ben of whom you speak.
Big thumbs up for their stir fried dishes. Esp. anything with baby eggplant and/or basil.
I was put off by the location. There can't be good food near campus!!! But a friend put me onto it and it's my favorite Thai by a mile.
(continued from above)
NS4 – Guay Teaw Nuer Combo – A bowl of vermicelli noodles with sliced beef, stewed beef, and meat balls. Extremely good and very accessible; hearty enough that you won’t be hungry in a couple hours.
NS5 – Guay Teaw Moo – Your choice of noodle with pork slices, fried fish balls, and KrabTM. Delicious, and like the NS4, not too spicy for the Thai spice neophyte.
NS8 – Guay Teaw Tom Yum Gai or Tofu – Chicken or tofu with your choice of noodle; lemongrass hot & sour soup, magrood, cilantro, mushrooms, and a hearty dose of Thai pepper. I prefer the tofu variant. I’ll be honest, I often find the chicken to be lackluster at Madam Mam’s, although it is superior to most places in town, especially the massively overrated Thai Kitchen on Guadalupe. The chicken there is thoroughly unappetizing – in fact, it remains the only Thai restaurant where I abandoned a meal midway due to the foulness of the chicken. This dish is also available in as NS9, which brings in seafood (shrimp, delicious squid, and KrabTM). I prefer the NS9 to the NS8; friends have dissented from that view, so be warned that your mileage may vary. Let me stress: while this dish has only two peppers on the Madam Mam’s Attack Scale, it is in fact much hotter. It doesn’t quite rival Mam’s fried catfish, but it will definitely clean you out. If you’re intending to team up at Mam’s with a dining partner (always a wise strategy), the NS8/NS9 can count as your spicy dish. (Is it just me, or does the NS9 seem slightly more spicy? I must be insane.)
NS14 – Guay Teaw Tom Yum Moo with peanut – This delicacy is a tongue-twister. Homeade special sauce-chili paste, ground peanut, jalapeno, lime, fish sauce, pork broth, ground pork, sliced pork, fried fish ball, KrabTM, and your choice of noodle. Three cheers. The flavor cascade might be puzzling at first. Actually, if you’re not attuned to the higher plane of spicy foods, you might miss the layered goodness and just get dropped by the sheer heat this dish can offer. Order some water in advance.
A Note on Mam’s Variety:
One of the most amazing things about Madam Mam’s is the size of their menu. It is one of the rare places you can go and bravely order. If you have no particular food taboos (shellfish or peanut allergies, for instance), you might as well randomly select an entrée. Other than the fried catfish, which (IMHO) stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast of characters, picking a favorite Mam dish ain’t easy!
My recommended strategy again involves a team-up. One member of the party orders a tried-and-true standard. The other orders adventurously. The dining team shares liberally. This assures a good time will be had by all.
Due to the massive variety of the menu, even a seasoned Mam’s veteran such as myself cannot claim Mamlightenment. There are still quite interesting dishes I have not tried that are jotted down on my TO DO list. (In fairness, if the catfish wasn’t so great, I probably would have made my way through all of Mam’s offerings by this point.)
A Note on Mam’s Adult Beverages:
Madam Mam’s is BYOB. On the Drag, this is nice. You can hoof it to 7-11 for some beer or gas station wine and have a lovely meal on the cheap. At Westgate, this feature is simply luxurious before nine PM: a liquor store awaits next-door. The wine selection isn’t exactly Whole Foods-grade, but definitely surpasses most restaurants in town. And the prices are street. No 150% markup to dazzle your wallet.
I recommend red wines with Thai food, regardless of whether the content is fishy. I especially recommend jammier Zinfandel, big Merlot, and saucy Shiraz. Again, your mileage may vary, and some would find my advice here heretical. In the end, the Golden Rule of Wine (“Drink what you like.”) applies.
I'm surprised at all the good reviews of Madam Mam's. As a far Southie, I was excited by the prospect of a good Thai restaurant down here, but I was disappointed. I went with a friend who hadn't had Thai food before and was a little nervous about trying anything. She ordered the pad thai and it was horrible! I had soup (I wish I remembered which one) and it was okay but the flavors were out of balance. I asked for it to be spicy and it was very sour without a hint of spiciness. I guess I'll have to give it another try and order some of the other recommendations.
I've eaten at Madam Mam's countless times, would go more if it were more convenient for me...I've eaten great Thai in Queens NY, Las Vegas (Lotus of Siam, considered by many to be the best in the US), and a few reasonable places in the East Bay/Berkeley area. Mam's is on par with those. I've never had the Pad Thai. Why would I when the Jungle Curry is so good, or the "Amazing" dishes...like the Amazing Green Beans. And many others. I've never been to a restaurant (well, maybe one in Florence, Cibreo) where everything on the menu was outstanding. You hit the weak points of Mam's apparently. Go back. Have the Jungle Curry and be ready to sweat. But the flavors are astonishing. You're lucky to be near one of the best Thai places in the country...really, not just the best in Austin...
Having moved to NYC from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived for over 30 years (my wholelife), I really missed having great Thai food (NYC mostly doesn't). I was very happy to find great Thai in Austin.
Both Berkeley and San Francisco have large Thai populations and hence - great Thai food. In fact, I lived a few blocks from a buhdist temple that had a Thai congregation who cooked, served and sold unbeleivable Thai food on the weekends (what's not to like about having agreen papaya salad made from scratch before you eyes, with the maker asking you how hot or fishy you like it?).
Madam Mam's is in that league. I'd put it up there with the best I've had including in SE Asia. While I have not been to Thailand, I went to bordering Malaysia and ate at some really great Thai owned Thai restaurants within sight Thailand. I'd say Madam Mam's is nearly as good as those (it would be tough to beat the lobster and other seafood plucked right out of the near by ocean or even dining room located tanks..).
I'd easily put Madam Mam's in my Austin top 10.