Friday, March 6, 2015

AFBA 2015 City Guide: Chinese Food in Austin


** This guide has been updated for 2016. The new version can be found here. **

I spent the better part of the first eighteen years of my life eating Chinese food pretty much every day. My mom is a formidable cook, so this background led to me being a bit...picky...about my Chinese food. And while Austin isn't exactly a Chinese food mecca, there are some wonderful spots in town to find excellent Chinese cuisine.

CANTONESE

DinHoSalt&PepperSquid.jpg
Salt & Pepper Squid at Din Ho = "the usual"
I'll admit that the relatively convenient location of Din Ho Chinese BBQ (8557 Research Blvd., Austin, TX 78758) likely contributes heavily to the fact that I most often head there when I'm craving Cantonese food. I've been going there regularly for nearly twenty years, and the food has remained fairly consistent (though the service, unfortunately, has not). Our standard order here always includes salt & pepper squid (called "fresh and dried squid in special salt" on their menu) and sauteed snow pea leaves; other favorites are their won ton soup, Peking duck (served with steamed buns rather than the traditional pancakes), and Singapore style rice noodles.

Great Cantonese food can also be found at First Chinese BBQ (10901 N. Lamar, Austin, TX 78753) and Ho Ho Chinese BBQ (13000 N. IH-35, Austin, TX 78753). If you find yourself out in Lakeway, I've also had some truly outstanding meals at Pao's Mandarin House (2300 Lohman's Spur, Austin TX 78734). Hot tip: Pao's has a secret menu with some of the more traditional dishes on it that I've found you have to ask for unless your party is predominantly Asian.


SZECHUANESE

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Sichuan Spicy Sizzling Lamb at Sichuan River
When you start talking Szechuanese food, most people are familiar with the popular Asia Cafe (8650 Spicewood Springs, Austin TX 78759), known for their spicy fish. Ditto A+A Sichuan (13376 Research Blvd., Austin TX 78750), a little ways further west of Asia Cafe. But my favorite Szechuanese food actually comes from two restaurants that very few people seem to have heard of - Sichuan River (4534 Westgate Blvd, Austin TX 78745) down south and Szechuan House (11005 Burnet Rd, Austin TX 78758) up north (ignore the terrible Americanized-looking food on their website - this is not representative!). Both offer several dishes in common that are outstanding: a version of sizzling lamb; dry fried green beans; and ma po tofu. Szechuan House also has a mushroom dish called "Stir Fried Three Kind (sic) of Mushroom" that I would order pretty much every day if I were a vegetarian.


NOODLES

I'm not really sure this is a legitimate category for a Chinese food post, but there were three places whose noodles deserved mention so it seemed like they should all live together. 

RiceBowlCafeBeefNoodleSoup.jpg

Rice Bowl Café (11220 N. Lamar, Austin TX 78753) serves up a GIGANTIC bowl of handmade noodles with beef and veggies for just $9; they also have my favorite green onion pancakes in town.


ChenZSpicyLambNoodleJPG

Chen's Noodle House (8650 Spicewood Springs Rd., Austin TX 78759) and Chen Z (6705 Hwy 290, Austin TX 78735) both offer a variety of wonderful handmade noodle dishes in delightfully divey surroundings.


XianNoodlesJPG
Xian Noodles at Xian Sushi & Noodle

Xian Sushi & Noodle (Two locations: Mueller - 1801 E. 51st St., Bldg C 370, Austin TX 78723 and Northwest - 13201 RR 620 N. Ste U208, Austin TX 78717) is the only place in town where you can watch a chef hand pull your noodles before serving them. You can choose the thickness of your noodles; I think the texture of the thicker ones like the pappardelle adds a bit of oomph that makes the noodles taste more homemade.

DIM SUM

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Dan Ta (custard tarts) from Wu Chow
Austin is, unfortunately, sorely lacking in good dim sum spots; at the moment, Shanghai (6718 Middle Fiskville Rd., Austin TX 78752) is my favorite from a very small pool. But soon-to-open Wu Chow (500 W. 5th St., Austin TX 78701) from C.K. Chin of Swift's Attic completely won me over with the dim sum pop-up they hosted at Swift's a few weeks ago. Ridiculously good dim sum offerings including hands-down the best xiao long bao in town and the flakiest dan ta (custard tarts) I have ever tasted. They are using high quality ingredients and making everything from scratch (including those incredible tart crusts!) so I'm curious what the price point will be like, but this is definitely one of my most highly-anticipated restaurant openings of 2015. They'll be offering a comprehensive menu of Chinese dishes, not just dim sum.

What's your favorite spot in town for Chinese food?


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Monday, March 2, 2015

AFBA 2015 City Guide: Fine Dining in Austin


***This guide has been updated. The latest version can be found here.***

Five years ago, I turned my enthusiasm for fine dining into a guide of my favorite upscale restaurants in Austin. It has been updated annually and this year is again part of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance's City Guide
I struggled a bit this year with the definition of "fine dining." Many lovely spots feel upscale to me, even though their prices are more on the reasonable end of the spectrum. In an effort to draw a bright line rule (and keep this list from being a mile long), I ultimately decided to count a restaurant as "fine dining" if it offered at least one entrée that cost more than $25. I realize this is a bit of an arbitrary cutoff, but I had to make a break somewhere!

As in years past, I've divided my suggestions into areas of town, and have included only locally-owned restaurants. Hope you enjoy this year's installment!
DOWNTOWN (broadly defined here as spanning from I-35 to MoPac,
and from Ladybird Lake to MLK):

Arro, 601 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78701 - The upscale, French sister to Easy Tiger and 24 Diner, Arro seems to suffer from some consistency issues. But the better of my two visits here was so lovely that I wanted to include it in this guide.

Cafe Josie
Scallops at Café Josie
Café Josie, 1200 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78703 - After a change in ownership in 2012, Café Josie's menu and interior were overhauled. The new menu has been modernized, and after quite a few meals there, I've been very impressed. Don't miss their brussels sprouts - they are currently my favorites in town.

Clark's Oyster Bar, 1200 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78703 - I've only visited Clark's once, but thoroughly enjoyed my experience there. I thought the prices were on the steep side for what you get, but I am glad for a spot to add to the short list of locally-owned seafood restaurants.

Congress, 200 N. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78701 - Executive Chef David Bull was the first to open an Austin restaurant with all-prix-fixe dining. My blow-by-blow of a meal I had at Congress can be found here. Congress is part of a trilogy of restaurants in the same location - Second is a more casual (but still upscale), order-off-the-menu affair, and Bar Congress connects the two and is a great spot for a cocktail while you're waiting for a table (or a show to start).

Driskill Grill, 604 Brazos, Austin TX 78701 - Fine dining in a beautiful historic hotel. The surrounds will delight the traditionalist in you, but the menu is more modern than you might expect.

El Naranjo, 85 Rainey Street, Austin TX 78701 - Quite possibly the best interior Mexican food in town.

Fixe, 500 W. 5th Street, Austin TX 78701 - Upscale Southern food seems to be having a moment in Austin right now. Fixe is my favorite of the bunch, serving amazingly fluffy biscuits and some of the best fried chicken I've ever tasted.

La Condesa
Aguachile at La Condesa
La Condesa, 400 W. 2nd Street, Austin TX 78701 - It took me a couple visits to hit my sweet spot here, but now I'm a huge fan. Flavorful, interesting Mexican fare in a gorgeous and interesting space. The small plates are the star of the show here.

Lambert's, 401 W. 2nd Street, Austin TX 78701 - Not your father's barbecue. Think pork ribs with a fennel-coriander rub, brisket with a brown sugar and coffee rub, and brussels sprouts with bacon and brown butter.

La Traviata, 314 N. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78701 - Their carbonara will make you cry tears of joy. Blog post dedicated to this thing of beauty here.

Parkside, 301 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78701 - New American fare. If you're dining with someone who wants a more casual meal, send them back to the Parkside's sister restaurant, a pizza joint adjacent to the Parkside and aptly called Backspace (while you eat at Parkside, of course).

Olamaie, 1610 San Antonio St., Austin TX 78701 - another new upscale Southern restaurant with phenomenal biscuits (off the menu) and simply gorgeous surroundings (I so coveted their dining chairs that I asked our server to find out where they were from). Word to the wise, though; they will firmly refuse any changes to their recipes (this includes removing ingredients), so study the menu beforehand to make sure it will work for diners with dietary restrictions.

Péché, 208 W. 4th St., Austin TX 78701 - Absinthe bar that also happens to have excellent food and service.

Ranch 616, 616 Nueces St., Austin TX 78701 - Quirky...like Austin. I'm partial to the jalapeno-maize trout, but I don't really think you can go wrong here. Strong cocktails and a nice patio round out the deal.

Swift's Attic, 315 N. Congress, Austin TX 78701 - Inventive small plates (for example, edamame served with pop rock salt) in a wonderfully steampunkish space.

TRIO, 98 San Jacinto, Austin TX 78701 - The Four Seasons Hotel is all about exceeding expectations, and its restaurant, TRIO, does just that.

TRACE
Market Snacks at TRACE
TRACE, 200 Lavaca St., Austin TX 78701 - In the super-cool W Hotel Austin, TRACE focuses on locally-sourced products.

Wink, 1014 N. Lamar, Austin TX 78701 - Another great spot offering New American fare with a focus on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and an emphasis on personal attention. If you're celebrating a special occasion, let them know; they'll print up special celebratory menus just for you.


EAST:

Buenos Aires Café, 1201 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78702 - Lovely spot serving up - you guessed it! - Argentinian fare. If you have room for dessert, they've upped the ante with their quatro leches cake. Extra leches is always a win in my book.

Dai Due2406 Manor Road, Austin TX 78722 - I struggled with whether to include Dai Due here; we enjoyed some outstanding dishes while we were here, but we also suffered through a painfully chewy $90+ steak. This place gets a ton of love from other food writers, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. (T-F 8a-3p and 5p-10p; Sa-Su 10a-3p and 5p-10p)

East Side Cafe, 2113 Manor Rd, Austin TX 78722 - A glimpse into the good old days when Austin was more hippie-funky, with a large garden on the premises that sources many of their herbs, decorative garnishes, and some of their veggies.

East Side Show Room, 1100 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78702 - Good, locally-sourced eats in a sumptuously steampunky setting. My blog post about it is here.

Gardner, 1914 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78702 - More veggie-focused than its sister restaurant, Contigo - though there is plenty to keep the meat-eaters happy, too.

Hillside Farmacy, 1209 E. 11th Street, Austin TX 78702 - This sweet little place is housed in a building that once was home to a pharmacy, and they've kept many of the accoutrements of the previous occupant intact. Their menu covers everything from raw oysters to ribs, and they've got you covered for every meal - opening at 9a daily and closing at 10 or 11 at night.

Jacoby's, 3235 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin TX 78702 - This family-operated restaurant sources all of its beef from the family's ranch, and there's a really cool little mercantile on the premises so you can get a little shopping fix after your meal.

La V, 1501 E. 7th St., Austin TX 78702 - A French spot inspired by Provence that bills its wine list as "world class." Full blog post here.

Launderette, 2115 Holly St., Austin TX 78702 - This restaurant has been long anticipated by fans of Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki (both formerly of Sway and La Condesa). I'm so looking forward to trying it.

Mettle, 507 Calles, Austin TX 78702 - It took me too long to discover Mettle, but my first visit had me clamoring for more. Wonderful food by a chef with a résumé that includes Alinea and a stint with Thomas Keller.

Salt & Time, 1912 E. 7th St., Austin TX 78702 - It's a butcher shop! It's a restaurant! It's both, in one tasty package.

Salty Sow
Triple Fried Duck Fat Fries with 110 Minute Eggs at Salty Sow
Salty Sow, 1917 Manor Rd., Austin TX 78722 - On the casual end of upscale dining, which is one of the things I like about it. I'm a sucker for their triple fried duck fat fries, the brussel sprout caesar salad, the truffled deviled eggs, the crispy chicken thighs, and the butterscotch boudino. Also, I love the fact that an entire section of their menu is dedicated to "Things in a Jar."

qui, 1600 E. 6th St., Austin TX 78702 - I have long been a fan of Paul Qui. Many years ago, back in his Uchiko days, he prepared what may very well be my favorite meal of all time - a blowout, multi-course wine dinner that I feel sure I will never forget. So I'm sad to report that my first meal at his signature restaurant fell so far short of my (admittedly very high) expectations that I have not been back. That said, manymany people rave about this place, so it seems like I should include it on this list. YMMV.

SOUTH OF THE RIVER (CLOSE TO DOWNTOWN):

Barley Swine, 2024 S. Lamar, Austin TX 78704 - Interesting, innovative fare from a chef with a nose-to-tail philosophy. They are now all-prix-fixe and take reservations.

Crispy Wild Boar at Lenoir
Crispy Wild Boar at Lenoir
Lenoir, 1807 S. 1st St., Austin TX 78704 - Like eating at the home of owners Todd and Jessica Duplechan. The concept is simple: any three courses for $38; extra courses are $10. The food is wonderful and the service is exemplary. Don't miss it (and be sure to make a reservation).

Odd Duck, 1201 S. Lamar, Austin TX 78704 - A food trailer that grew up to be a brick & mortar, by the same chef-owner as Barley Swine (above). Full blog post here.

Olivia, 2043 S. Lamar, Austin TX 78704 - New American with a focus on locally-sourced ingredients. The open and well-lit space, designed by Austin architect Michael Hsu, is part of its charm.

South Congress Cafe, 1600 S. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78704 - New American in a casual-yet-upscale setting. They don't take reservations, and there can be a long wait at peak hours. Consider yourself warned.

Sway, 1417 S. 1st, Austin TX 78704 - Modern Thai dishes that pack a serious flavor punch. Full blog post about it here.

Pitchfork Roll at Uchi
Pitchfork Roll at Uchi
Uchi, 801 S. Lamar, Austin TX 78704 - Sushi/Japanese fusion. It's a scene, and usually requires a wait, but it's worth it. Don't miss the hamachi nabe.

Vespaio, 1610 S. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78704 - Italian. Its sister restaurant next door, Enoteca Vespaio, also offers delicious food in a more casual atmosphere.

Zax, 312 Barton Springs Rd, Austin TX 78704 - A bright, laid back spot with a dog-friendly patio that I always enjoy. I have trouble veering away from the shrimp remoulade salad, but whenever I have, it's always been tasty. For those of you with refined bloody Mary palates, be sure to check out their build-your-own bloody Mary bar during brunch.


NORTH OF DOWNTOWN:

Asti, 408C E. 43rd St., Austin TX 78751 - Solid Italian fare from experienced restauranteurs Lisa & Emmett Fox.

Blackbird and Henry, 3016 Guadalupe, Austin TX 78705 - Delicious food served in a casual, welcoming space.

The Carillon, 1900 University Ave., Austin TX 78705 - One of my very favorite special occasion spots in Austin. Located in the AT&T Conference Center & Hotel on campus, The Carillon could easily be a buffet restaurant in a large, well-funded university. And, in fact, during the day, it is. But at night, it transforms into a fine dining establishment with excellent food.

Grilled Octopus at FINO
Grilled Octopus at FINO
FINO, 2905 San Gabriel, Austin TX 78705 - A wonderful hidden gem that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves. The menu has a Mediterranean/Spanish slant, but there is something here for everyone...everyone with taste buds, that is. Sadly, FINO is closing at the end of March, so head on over there while you still can.

Fonda San Miguel, 2330 W. North Loop, Austin TX 78756 - Interior Mexican in a warm, inviting atmosphere.

Foreign & Domestic, 306 E. 53rd St., Austin TX 78751 - A tiny place with a completely open (and similarly tiny) kitchen surrounded by bar seating so you can watch the action while you swoon over your food. The food here can be a little adventurous (in a good way) - I once tried venison heart tartare here.

hanabi - A lovely neighborhood sushi restaurant with consistently very fresh fish and some of the most earnest service I've ever encountered. I probably eat here more often than any other restaurant. Full blog post about it here.

Komê - One of the few sushi places in town where my non-raw-fish-eating husband gets excited about ordering sushi. Both the raw and the cooked offerings here are excellent - and surprisingly affordable (for sushi). I just wish they took reservations, as there is usually a wait, and their waiting area is cramped and uncomfortable.

Musashino - Consistently good old-school sushi. If you're dining with non-sushi-eaters who don't feel like eating tempura or teriyaki, they'll let you order Chinese food from Chinatown upstairs.

Olive & June - This Italian restaurant from established Austin chef Shawn Cirkiel is a favorite of mine. I love their Sunday dinners, when they offer a very generous multi-course meal for $29 (children 12 and under are free!), A blog post about my first meal at Olive & June can be found here.

Sala & Betty5201 Airport Blvd, Austin TX 78751 - This casual, family-friendly new place from the chef of the former Aquarelle is so accessible, price-wise, that its spot on a fine dining list could fairly be questioned. But I am so excited about the delicious meal I just enjoyed here that I decided to include it.

Mussels at Texas French Bread
Mussels at Texas French Bread
Texas French Bread, 2900 Rio Grande, Austin TX 78705 - This little bakery and café offers a wonderful dinner service. It's one of my favorites for a casual but delicious meal. Much of the food is locally sourced, and everything I have tried has been beautifully prepared.

Uchiko, 4200 N. Lamar Blvd., Austin TX 78756 - The sister restaurant to Uchi. I've heard their food described as more "masculine" while Uchi's is more "feminine" - I guess my taste buds are hermaphrodites, because I love both spots.


BIT OF A HIKE (North of 183, south of Ben White, West of 360):

Andiamo Ristorante, 2521 Rutland Drive, Austin TX 78758 - This out-of-the-way Italian restaurant has a devoted following for a reason. Addictive bread, wonderful pasta, photo art that will make you want to get on the next plane to Italy. Their monthly wine dinners are not to be missed (reservations fill up quickly, so be sure to get on their mailing list!)

Café Malta, 3421 W. William Cannon Dr., Austin TX 78745 - Tucked away in a strip mall that also contains a tobacco shop and a Taco Bell, Café Malta definitely qualifies as a hidden gem. To my surprise and delight, they make most everything from scratch, from their pastas to their preserves.

The Grove, Two locations: West - 6317 Bee Caves Rd, Austin TX 78746 and Lakeway - 3001 RR 620, Austin TX 78734 - A solid offering by experienced Austin restauranteur Reed Clemons - great food and wine + a spacious patio make for a relaxed, enjoyable meal.

Hudson's on the Bend, 3509 RR 620, Austin TX 78734 - Specializing in wild game.

Trout Salad at Jack Allen's
Trout Salad at Jack Allen's Kitchen
Jack Allen's Kitchen, Two locations: South - 7720 Highway 71 West, Austin TX 78735 and Round Rock - 2500 Hoppe Trail, Round Rock, TX 78681 - Jack Allen, the founding chef of Z'Tejas, brings a breath of fresh air to otherwise-barren upscale restaurant landscapes. The flavors here are bright, fresh and innovative. Try the Navajo Taco or the trout salad - both are fantastic.

North by Northwest, Two locations: Northwest - 10010 N. Capital of Texas Hwy, Austin TX 78759; and South - 5701 W. Slaughter Ln, Ste D, Austin TX 78749 - Consistently decent, and they brew their own beer. 'nuff said.

Soto, 11066 Pecan Park Blvd, Cedar Park, TX 78613 - Many of my food blogger friends rave about this sushi spot; for reasons I can't quite explain, I have yet to visit it.

Did I miss your favorite spot for a fancy meal? Leave me a comment!

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