Sunday, March 7, 2010

Asian Food in Austin

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The second topic I wanted to cover for our food blogger "Eating in Austin" meta-guide is Asian food. After having grown up eating Chinese food pretty much every day for 18 years, this is a genre that is near and dear to my heart, so I was excited about tackling it. However, I'm going to be honest with you; if you're visiting from, say, California or New York (or even Houston - sigh), you might want to take this opportunity to explore some other food genres, as I don't think what we have to offer is as good as you can get in any of those venues. But we do have some solid offerings, so if you're from elsewhere in the country or just have a craving that simply must be satisfied, read on.

As with my guide to upscale dining, I've arranged the restaurants by area of town. This list is not comprehensive; I've included mainly my favorites here, although there are a few that don't qualify for "favorite" status that made it to the list because they were the only place that offered a particular genre in a particular part of town. I've left restaurants that serve mainly sushi off this guide - not because I don't like it, mind you, as it's one of my favorite foods in the universe - but because another blogger is handling that category.


View Asian Food in Austin in a larger map

DOWNTOWN (broadly defined here as spanning from I-35 to MoPac,
and from Ladybird Lake to MLK):


Unfortunately, nearly all the best Asian food in town is north of 183. However, if you need a fix and aren't up for a hike, you can find decent Korean food at Koriente and upscale Asian fusion (along with a terrific happy hour and delicious cocktails) at Imperia. I also have an inexplicable soft spot for the totally divey, weirdly-laid-out Mongolian Grille, where you pile your own raw ingredients into a bowl and the chef cooks them up for you as you watch. For contemporary Indian food, check out Clay Pit. They've got a surprisingly cheap lunch buffet and the most sinful take on korma I've ever tasted (not on the lunch buffet) - made with cashews, almonds and pistachios.

Or perhaps you'll have more luck with the food trucks and trailers, which are proliferating in this city faster than gerbils. There are a few that hang out downtown; Chi'Lantro, which serves Korean tacos, bulgogi burgers, and similar Korean-fusion items (they move around, so watch their Twitter feed to find their whereabouts); G'raj Mahal, which serves Indian food in a covered outdoor dining area draped with gauzy white fabric; and Me So Hungry, which offers banh mi and noodle dishes (none of which I've tried, so no guarantees).

JUST EAST OF DOWNTOWN:

The area east of downtown is particularly bereft of Asian food offerings, but one place deserves particular mention - East Side King (on the patio of Liberty Bar), another food trailer which is owned by a couple of chefs from Uchi and which consistently draws raves from Austin foodies.

SOUTH OF THE RIVER (CLOSE TO DOWNTOWN):

Just south of the river near downtown, check out the delicious goodies at Thai Fresh, quite possibly the only Asian restaurant in town that has a focus on sustainability. For banh mi, pretty much your only option is Lulu B's, another food trailer. Lulu B's also offers bùn - I'm not all that fond of their version, but it'll work in a pinch. Speaking of trailers, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the deliciousness of Asian-inspired crepes at Crepes Mille. I was a skeptic, but one bite convinced me.

For an easy Japanese-inspired meal, local chain Zen is super fast and always fresh, if not the most authentic (and they offer brown rice as an option, which I always appreciate). Zen has multiple locations in town, all of which I've mapped above. Just east of I-35, you'll find our only Indonesian restaurant, Java Noodles, where sweetened condensed milk became a part of my eating repertoire. Get away from the SXSW crowds at Bistro 88, where you'll find upscale Asian-inspired fare (including sushi) in a peaceful setting.

NORTH OF DOWNTOWN (south of 183):

Just north of downtown near campus, discover Madam Mam's, a great little Thai place that caters to the student population. Madam Mam's has opened a couple of other locations which are also mapped above. Another Thai place, Thai Kitchen, has my favorite squid with red curry dish in town and a gatee thom yum gai that is guaranteed to instantly cure any ailment. In this area, you again have only one choice for banh mi - at the hilariously-named Bite Mi. Vegetarians will enjoy the all-veggie all the time Veggie Heaven. Nearby Coco's Cafe serves Taiwanese food and delicious bubble drinks (and they have quite possibly the cutest website I've ever seen).

Further north of campus has the highest concentration of Korean food. Manna is adjacent to an Asian market and sports a lovely pickled veggie bar. Still further north, Korea House offers a full Korean menu, including Korean barbecue. I'm partial to the bi bim bap at Shilla near Highland Mall. Not Korean, but also near the mall, is Shanghai, which has some of the better dim sum service in town.

Off on its own, in another Asian-food-bereft part of town, check out Banzai, which always has my favorite shrimp tempura bowl on special.

Just barely south of 183 is the place I first discovered Vietnamese food. While in law school, a big bowl of Kim Phung's shrimp, hot pepper, lemongrass bùn was an extra special treat. I particularly like the spring rolls here, too.

FAR NORTH (North of 183):

Here's where the gettin' gets really good. My two favorite places in town for a family-style Vietnamese dinner exist north of 183 - Sunflower and Le Soleil - owned by two people who divorced one another and he opened a competing restaurant up the street with a nearly-identical menu (and, frankly, a bit of an edge on both food and atmosphere). I love the sizzling seafood platter, the steamed sea bass, the shaking beef, the roll-your-own spring rolls...OK, everything on the menu is terrific. You can find excellent banh mi at Thanh Nhi, Tam Deli, or Baguette House.

The most authentic Chinese food in town is at Asia Café (even their website is partially in Chinese!). Nearby, Chen's Noodle House serves wonderful made-to-order, hand-cut noodle dishes. If you can't quite bring yourself to drive all that way, try Din Ho Chinese BBQ, instead.

We have a small "Chinatown" shopping center with a number of good offerings, including First Chinese BBQ, and a new place called Fresh Tofu. There's also terrific pho to be had at Pho Saigon, a chain that hails from Houston. If you're in the mood for dim sum, Fortune Chinese Seafood has full dim sum service (try the turnip cake - it's outstanding). Nearby, but not in the shopping center itself, I've had good luck at Exotic Thai. If you head up that way, you must also check out the ginormous MT Supermarket, the largest Asian grocery store in town.

For Indian food up north, I highly recommend Swad, with dosas as big as your head, a great Thali platter, and a delightful drink made from fresh young coconut.

If you happen to be wayyyyyyy north (as in, north of Parmer Lane), probably the best Chinese barbecue in town is at Ho Ho's, owned by the former owners of Din Ho (mentioned above).

LAKEWAY:

This restaurant probably shouldn't be on any SXSW lists, as it is a ridiculous hike from downtown, BUT - it's also the best Chinese banquet dining in the Austin area, as far as I'm concerned. If you're up for a drive or happen to be staying in the Lakeway area, I highly recommend Pao's Mandarin House. Fantastic salt & pepper squid, delicious Peking duck...delicious everything, really. Ask for the Chinese menu (they have a more Americanized menu, as well, and they presumably decide which to hand you depending on how you look).

Did I miss one of your favorites? Leave me a comment below!

18 comments:

  1. Have you considered throwing your resume in at Lonely Planet? Zagats? Seriously! You should be getting paid for this.

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  2. no HoHo's? from the original owners of Din Ho? I have to say you really missed one there.

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  3. Good, exhaustive list. A few things I might add:

    1. New Oriental Market for Korean food. The grocery store is your average Korean grocery, but the little restaurant in back has great food, and most everything is $5 even, including tax. Kimchi soup rocks.

    2. Taj Palace by I-35 and Middle Fiskville has a good North Indian buffet. They make the naan behind a glass wall and bring it out hot and fresh.

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  4. Pho Saigon, located in the Chinatown Center, has consistently the best pho in Austin, with the freshest ingredients. I've never been a huge fan but Pho Saigon converted me. Interior is bright and sunny, service unbelievably prompt. I could partake of the broth intravenously.

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  5. The downtown Mongolian Grille used to be a movie-themed gay bar way back in the day. Pictures of Marilyn Monroe and other glam stars adorned walls, the atmosphere was more fern bar than club & the smallish, sunken dance floor was just the right size for the lounge.

    Have you tried the horribly or hilariously (depending on your view) named Pho King on E. Parmer Lane near Tech Ridge?

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  6. I agree on Pho Saigon. Great Pho. There is also this little hole in the wall up off of 183 called Sagiang that serves really great Vietnamese food. They have my second favorite egg rolls (the one with pork)!
    My first favorite egg rolls are at Titaya's on Burnet. They have AWESOME Thai Food. A plus is they actually serve vegetarian thai food (most places forget fish sauce isn't veggie-friendly). It's such a warm little family place.
    I also think the dim sum at T & S Seafood is really great. Their Salt & Pepper shrimp is to die for!

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  7. Oh, dear... what about Suzi's... South Lamar and Anderson Ln. locations?

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  8. OK now I am really, really hungry for lemongrass beef.

    Thanks for this post!

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  9. great revieww...and i had no idea about the sunflower vs le soleil backstory! no wonder the food tasted so similar. also i LOVE swad!!! :)

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  10. L. Shanna, a girl can always dream, can't she?

    Anon, agreed about Hoho's. I didn't include it because it is so far off the beaten path for SXSW goers (which is what this guide was originally intended for), but I'll add it.

    You guys are all making me feel green about Austin Asian food!

    Seth, I had no idea that New Oriental Market had Korean food and will check it out, pronto. It's been probably 17 years since I've been to Taj Palace, so I'm due for a return visit.

    Albert/April - I do like Pho Saigon and will add it. Not sure how that got left off the list. April, I now have Saigiang on my "to try" list. I've been to T&S and didn't love it, but it's been years and I'm due back (plus, I've never been to dim sum there). I used to love Titaya's, but sadly, I thought it was actively bad on my last visit. I must have just had bad luck or ordered the wrong thing.

    Kay, I love that historical info about Mongolian Grille! Hilarious. That explains the horrid colors in there. ;) I haven't been to Pho King, and that name is DEFINITELY hilarious. Must try it.

    Anole, I LOVE that you visit my blog, but I sadly have to disagree with you on Suzi's. I've had several pretty horrible experiences there. To be fair, Chinese food is the category I'm most picky about, but hers just doesn't cut it for me.

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  11. Have you tried Pao's in Lakeway? I'm from California and miss the Asian food options there, but Pao's definitely satisfies it. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

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  12. pinksundrops: YES, I LOVE Pao's - I actually think it's the best Chinese banquet dining in Austin. I left it off the list because it's such a hike from SXSW territory, but since I added Ho Ho's, I think I should add Pao's, as well. Thanks for the suggestion!

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  13. You make me so hungry.

    Both Sunflower and Le Soleil proprietors seem so angry whenever I come in. Tasty eats though.

    Do you know if I can get vegetarian food at Chen's or Asia Cafe? I see veggies and tofu mentioned on the Asia Cafe menu but that doesn't always mean veggie.

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  14. Yeah, the people at Sunflower always act like they're annoyed by the customers. On the other hand, the same people pretty much seem to be there 24/7, so I can kind of see why they might feel that way. I've had slightly better luck with the service at Le Soleil, and the owner was easy enough to work with when I planned an event there, but I agree that service is not either place's forté.

    I'm pretty sure you can get vegetarian food at Asia Café. Not sure about Chen's, though...their menu is pretty limited. I'll try to remember to check next time I'm up there.

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  15. Le Soleil has awesome service as well as food but I'm not sure their atmosphere is so great. I still go to Sunflower though -- I just love their food and am used to the strange service.

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  16. So where is Piranha Killer Sushi? Or Kenichi?

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  17. Probably the best and freshest Dim-Sum around is Fortune Seafood (very close to the Dim-Sum in Chinatown/LA). Do you have any others than can beat it???

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  18. PoRn: Very sadly, Fortune Seafood closed recently. I loved their dim sum, too.

    Have you tried Shanghai's dim sum? I like theirs, as well.

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