My second topic for the 2011 Food Bloggers' Guide to Austin is Asian food. I covered this area last year, and the landscape has not changed significantly since then, so a fair amount of last year's post is being recycled here. Last year's readers should not despair, though; while the quantity of new spots isn't significant, the quality certainly is, particularly in the food trailer category - and some of these new places have quickly become favorites of mine.
As with my upscale dining guide, I've arranged the restaurants by area of town. With one exception, I've also omitted non-local chains and tried to focus on my favorites, although in some areas of town, the choices in a particular category are so sparse that I had to include some non-favorites to give you some variety. For the most part, I've also left off spots that serve mainly sushi, as sushi really deserves its own post.
View Asian Food in Austin - 2011 Edition in a larger map
DOWNTOWN (broadly defined here as spanning from I-35 to MoPac,
and from Ladybird Lake to MLK):
Probably the best Asian (or, at least, Asian fusion) in the downtown area can be had from the food trucks and trailers. A few of these can frequently be found downtown; Chi'Lantro (blog posts devoted to Chi'Lantro here and here), which serves Korean tacos, bulgogi burgers, and similar Korean-fusion items (they move around, so check their website or their Twitter feed to find their whereabouts); The Peached Tortilla (full blog post here), which offers high quality, super-delicious, Asian fusion tacos and sliders, with options for vegetarians and gluten-free eaters (again, check their website for their schedule; they are also on the move); and G'raj Mahal, which serves Indian food in a covered outdoor dining area draped with gauzy white fabric.
The best brick-and-mortar Asian restaurants in Austin are north of 183, but if you need a fix and aren't up for a hike, you can find decent Korean food at Koriente. Happy hour is indeed happy at Imperia, an upscale Asian fusion spot with fantastic cocktails and delicious appetizers and sushi at great prices (be warned: after happy hour, the prices are not so great). 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.
JUST EAST OF DOWNTOWN:
The area east of downtown is particularly bereft of traditional Asian food offerings, but again, Asian fusion trailers save the day here. I really like both locations of East Side King, one of which is on the patio of Liberty Bar, and the other of which resides at The Grackle. The menus for each are totally different; the Liberty location has buns similar to those at Momofuku, brussel sprout salad and beet fries; the offerings at the Grackle location are all grilled. I'm also a big fan of Not Your Mama's Food Truck, which is turning out some seriously tasty Asian treats like Korean fried chicken and beef tongue. The guy who owns this place isn't Asian and is basically self-taught, but he is good. Trust me on this one. Me So Hungry is another food truck serving up huge banh mi and noodle dishes.
SOUTH OF THE RIVER (CLOSE TO DOWNTOWN):
You'll find trailers serving Asian food south of the river, too. The idea of sushi from a trailer may sound scary, but the owner of Sushi-a-Go-Go works at the super-fancy Uchi, so he knows how to prepare sushi right. 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 banh mi, pretty much your only option is Lulu B's. Lulu B's also offers bùn - I'm not all that fond of their version, but it'll work in a pinch.
Your south of the river brick-and-mortar options include Thai Fresh, quite possibly the only Asian restaurant in town that has a focus on sustainability. Be sure to save room for their homemade ice creams; they are amazing. 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, 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 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. Across the street is New Oriental Market, another Asian grocery store with a Korean restaurant arm. 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.
Uchiko has breathed new life into another Asian-food-bereft part of the city. My favorite meal of 2010 was here; it's pricey, but well worth the splurge. If you're feeling more frugal, check out Banzai down the street, 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.
Here's where the gettin' gets really good. My two favorite places in Austin 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. 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. My favorite banh mi in Austin are at Thanh Nhi, but Tam Deli and Baguette House both have great versions, as well.
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 place called Fresh Tofu. I've made an exception for my non-chain rule for Pho Saigon, since many people I trust consider this the best pho in Austin (for more opinions about the best pho in Austin, check out this Yelp thread. If you're in the mood for dim sum, Fortune Chinese Seafood has full dim sum service (try the turnip cake - it's outstanding). If you head up that way, you must also check out the ginormous MT Supermarket, the largest Asian grocery store in Austin.
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).
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).
Leave me a comment if I've forgotten something great!