Friday, March 4, 2016

AFBA 2016 City Guide: Best Chinese Food in Austin



My second post for this year's Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide is an update of my Chinese food guide for 2015. 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 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"
If you live in or near Central Austin, Din Ho Chinese BBQ (8557 Research Blvd., Austin, TX 78758) is probably your go-to for Cantonese food. Over the twenty years I've been going there, the food and service has varied a bit in quality; even so, I've yet to be unhappy about a meal I've eaten here. 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.

If you need a spot to host a large banquet or wedding, the very spacious New Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant (10901 North Lamar Blvd., Ste A-1, Austin TX 78753) is the place you're seeking. An Asian organization to which I belong hosted their Lunar New Year banquet at New Fortune this year, and the food was fantastic. Looking for something a bit fancier? The more well-appointed Chinatown Restaurant (three locations: North, 3407 Greystone Dr., Austin TX 78731; Downtown, 107 W. 5th St., Austin TX 78701; and Westlake, 2712 Bee Caves Road, Ste 124, Austin TX 78746) would appeal to those turned off by the austere atmospheres of most Chinese restaurants. Chinatown's food tilts away from the traditional, but traditional Chinese food lovers will enjoy the flavors here, too (my favorite dish here is their sizzling honey pepper steak).

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 few people seem to have heard of my favorite Szechuanese restaurant, Sichuan River (4534 Westgate Blvd, Austin TX 78745) down south. I'm also fond of the little-known Szechuan House (11005 Burnet Rd, Austin TX 78758) up north (ignore the terrible Americanized-looking food on their website - this is not representative!). Both Sichuan River and Szechuan House 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. If you're looking for something more hip, Wu Chow (500 W. 5th St., Austin TX 78701), from C.K. Chin of Swift's Attic, also offers Szechuanese fare. You pay a premium for the beautiful surroundings and the downtown location, but there are certainly circumstances that justify the extra expense.


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 $9.50; they also have my favorite scallion 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
In the last year, the dim sum scene in Austin has brightened a bit. For traditional dim sum, my favorite is New Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant (10901 North Lamar Blvd., Ste A-1, Austin TX 78753). For a more upscale dim sum experience, check out Wu Chow (500 W. 5th St., Austin TX 78701). They have 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!).

Other dim sum spots in town include Shanghai (6718 Middle Fiskville Rd., Austin TX 78752) and Chinatown Restaurant (dim sum only offered at two of their three locations: North, 3407 Greystone Dr., Austin TX 78731 and Westlake, 2712 Bee Caves Road, Ste 124, Austin TX 78746). Chinatown recently acquired a dim sum chef from San Francisco and significantly upped their dim sum game. Full blog post about Chinatown's dim sum can be found here.

If you're in the know about great Chinese food that I missed, please let me know in the comments!



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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

AFBA 2016 City Guide: Best Fine Dining in Austin



Believe it or not, this is the seventh (!!) year of publishing an upscale dining guide on this blog. As with previous years, this year's post is again part of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide. To simplify things, I've used an easy-to-apply, bright-line rule to define "fine dining" for this guide: any locally-owned restaurant that offers at least one entrée that cost more than $25 may be a part of this list. For those of you who, like me, are usually trying to think of a restaurant in a particular part of town, this list is divided according to restaurant location. Bon appétit!


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

Austin Land & Cattle, 1205 North Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78703. According to their website, ALC is the only independent, family-owned steakhouse in Austin. They've been around for 20 years, which is quite an accomplishment in Austin's ever-changing restaurant landscape.

Cafe Josie
Scallops at Café Josie
Café Josie1200 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78703 - One of the few establishments left near downtown where you can have a conversation without shouting over a din. I've found the food to be delicious and consistent. If you're dining with extra-hungry people, they offer a $40 all-you-can-eat option as well as an a la carte menu.

Clark's Oyster Bar1200 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78703 - The prices here are on the steep side for what you get, but everything I've tried has been excellent, and I am glad for a spot to add to the short list of locally-owned seafood restaurants.

Cippolina, 1213 West Lynn, Austin, TX 78703 - Charming bistro with a more casual feel.

Counter 3. Five. VII., 315 Congress, Ste 100, Austin TX 78701 - This all prix-fixe restaurant guarantees you a front row seat to the show of creating your meal.

Driskill Grill604 Brazos, Austin TX 78701 - Fine dining in a beautiful historic hotel. They have their own dry aging room.

El Naranjo85 Rainey Street, Austin TX 78701 - Quite possibly the best interior Mexican food in town.

Emmer & Rye, 51 Rainey Street, Ste 110, Austin TX 78701 - My first experience at Emmer & Rye could have been better, but the large majority of the people I know who have been really love it, so perhaps we were there on an off day.

Fixe500 W. 5th Street, Austin TX 78701 - My favorite spot for upscale Southern food, serving amazingly fluffy biscuits and some of the best fried chicken I've ever tasted.

Geraldine's, 605 Davis Street, Austin TX 78701 - New spot in Austin's first Kimpton hotel property that offers live music every night.

The GroveThree locations: Downtown, 800 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78701; 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.

Jeffrey's, 1204 West Lynn, Austin TX 78703 - On the spendy side as far as Austin fine dining goes, but you can enjoy their excellent food for much less during happy hour - 4:30-6:30 Tues-Sun and all night on Monday.

Josephine House, 1601 Waterston, Austin TX 78703 - A very sweet restaurant in an old house. I'm partial to their Monday night steak frites night.

La Condesa
Aguachile at La Condesa
La Condesa400 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.

Lambert's401 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 Traviata314 N. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78701 - Their carbonara will make you cry tears of joy. Blog post dedicated to this thing of beauty here.

Parkside301 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).

Olamaie1610 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.

Péché208 W. 4th St., Austin TX 78701 - Absinthe bar that also happens to have excellent food and service.

Ranch 616616 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 Attic315 N. Congress, Austin TX 78701 - Inventive small plates (for example, edamame served with pop rock salt) in a wonderfully steampunkish space.

TRIO98 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
TRACE200 Lavaca St., Austin TX 78701 - In the super-cool W Hotel Austin, which makes it a great choice for a meal before hitting a show at ACL Live,

Wink1014 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:

Al Fico, 1700 E. 2nd Street, Austin TX 78702 - Comforting Italian fare from the folks who own Vino Vino (see North of Downtown section). Full blog post about Al Fico can be found here.

Buenos Aires Café, Two locations: East - 1201 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78702; Lakeway - 13500 Galleria Circle, Bee Cave, TX 78738 - 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; after two visits, it has yet to impress, and on one of these visits we suffered through a painfully chewy $90+ steak. This place gets a ton of love from other food writers, though, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt.

East Side Cafe2113 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 Room1100 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78702 - Good, locally-sourced eats in a sumptuously steampunky setting. My blog post about it is here.

Hillside Farmacy1209 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 shepherd's pie, and they've got you covered for every meal - opening at 9a daily and closing at 10 or 11 at night.

Jacoby's3235 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.

Launderette2115 Holly St., Austin TX 78702 - I'm a huge fan of Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki (both formerly of Sway and La Condesa), and their latest venture did not disappoint. It's one of the few places where I actually get excited about ordering chicken; their brick chicken is outstanding.

Salt & Time1912 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 Sow1917 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."

qui1600 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):

Cantine, 1100 South Lamar Blvd, Ste 2115, Austin TX 78704 - Newish venture from Austin restaurant veterans Emmett & Lisa Fox. Be sure to try the anchovy-stuffed fried olives, a holdover from the Foxes' now-closed favorite, FINO.

Juliet Ristorante, 1500 Barton Springs Rd, Austin TX 78704 - Italian fare in a lovely space reminiscent of my parents' home in the 70s (but modernized to be beautiful in this decade). My food experiences here have been a little inconsistent, but it's worth a visit.

Crispy Wild Boar at Lenoir
Crispy Wild Boar at Lenoir
Lenoir1807 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 $45; 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 Duck1201 S. Lamar, Austin TX 78704 - A food trailer that grew up to be a brick & mortar, by the same chef-owner as Barley Swine (below). Full blog post here.

Olivia2043 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.

Otoko, 1603 South Congress, Ave., Austin TX 78704 - A brand new, 12-seat sushi and kaiseki counter by Austin superstar chef Paul Qui.

South Congress Cafe1600 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.

Sway1417 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
Uchi801 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.

Vespaio1610 S. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78704 - Italian. Its sister restaurant next door, Enoteca Vespaio, also offers delicious food in a more casual atmosphere.

Zax312 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:

Asti408C E. 43rd St., Austin TX 78751 - Solid Italian fare from experienced restauranteurs Lisa & Emmett Fox.

Barley Swine6555 Burnet Road, Ste 400, Austin TX 78757 - Interesting, innovative fare from a chef with a nose-to-tail philosophy.

The Carillon1900 University Ave., Austin TX 78705 - 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 very good food.

Chinatown, Three locations: North - 3407 Greystone Drive, Austin TX 78731; Downtown - 107 W. 5th Street, Austin, TX 78701; West - 2712 Bee Caves Road, Ste 124, Austin TX 78746 - I recently attended a media tasting at the Westlake location and loved many of the dishes served, especially the sizzling honey pepper steak.

Fonda San Miguel2330 W. North Loop, Austin TX 78756 - Interior Mexican in a warm, inviting atmosphere.

Foreign & Domestic306 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.

Chirashi at Hanabi
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.

Mussels at Texas French Bread
Mussels at Texas French Bread
Texas French Bread2900 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.

Uchiko4200 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.


Vino Vino, 4119 Guadalupe Street, Austin TX 78751 - Wine bar that also serves excellent food.


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

Andiamo Ristorante2521 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!)

Apis, 23526 Highway 71 West, Spicewood, Texas 78669 - One of my very favorite restaurants in Austin. Their 23-course tasting menu is my current favorite way to celebrate a big event.

Café Malta3421 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.

Eleven Plates, 3801 N. Capital of Texas Hwy, Ste C-200, Austin TX 78746 - A solid offering on the west side of town with a nice patio overlooking the hill country and a solid menu (and truffle fries!).

Hudson's on the Bend3509 RR 620, Austin TX 78734 - Specializing in wild game.

Trout Salad at Jack Allen's Kitchen
Jack Allen's KitchenThree locations: South - 7720 Highway 71 West, Austin TX 78735; West- 3600 N Capital of Texas Hwy, Austin, TX 78746;  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 NorthwestTwo 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.

Soto11066 Pecan Park Blvd, Cedar Park, TX 78613 - Well worth the drive to Cedar Park. If you want to be really wowed by a meal, go find Chef Andy and tell him to surprise you. He will. Full blog post here.

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

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