Sunday, February 27, 2011

Asian Food in Austin - 2011 Edition


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.


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.


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.

FAR NORTH (North of 183):

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!


Friday, February 25, 2011

Food Photo Friday - Guacamole at La Condesa

La Condesa eluded me at first. I had a couple of experiences there early on that weren't so great. But people kept wanting to go, and I kept obliging them. And suddenly, I loved the place.


Take this guacamole, for instance. Guacamole is always delicious on its own, but when paired with a wonderfully smoky chipotle sauce and toasted almonds, it transforms from tasty to one of those experiences where you're making little guttural noises in the back of your throat. La Condesa has several other guacamole preparations, too - one with pomegranate seeds, queso fresco, & toasted pepitas; and another with green apple and crab. But this one is my favorite. The God-camole of guacamoles.

Happy Friday!


Monday, February 21, 2011

An Austin Visitor's Guide to Upscale Dining - 2011 Edition

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


It's that time of year again - in just a few short weeks, legions of visitors from all over the world will descend upon Austin for South by Southwest. In preparation for this event, several Austin food bloggers have once again gathered together to update, expand and improve upon our Food Bloggers' Guide to Austin (link is to the 2010 Guide; I'll edit with the link to this year's Guide once it's available). [EDIT: 2011 Guide is up; check it out here!]

I've decided to tackle the same categories I handled last year - upscale dining and Asian food (updated Asian food post should be coming shortly). There's been a lot of change in the restaurant scene here in the last twelve months, so although I'll be borrowing the format and a fair amount of content from last year's posts, there will still be plenty of new finds for folks who visited my post last year.

As with last year, I focused more on central Austin options, since most SXSW-ers will be in that area. Everything is roughly categorized into a particular area of town, and there's a handy map to help you find something near you. This year, I've also honed down my picks to my personal favorites and knocked out the chains, because we have so many fantastic locally-owned or -operated eateries in this town.

View Upscale Dining 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):

Austin Land & Cattle Co. - Need to get your iron up? Skip the chain steak joints and support a great local one.

Belmont - Classic American fare with a swanky 60's vibe. It'll make you want to snap your fingers as you walk in the joint.

Cafe Josie - Island style/tropical fare in an accessible, relaxing atmosphere.

Chez Nous - It's hard to believe that this sweet French bistro has stuck it out in the midst of the nuttiest part of Sixth Street for nearly thirty years, but it has.

Congress - Executive Chef David Bull is swankifying Austin with this all-prix-fixe dining option. My blow-by-blow of the 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). Do NOT miss the desserts here - pastry chef Plinio Sandalio's creations are genius.

Driskill Grill - Fine dining in a beautiful historic hotel.

Haddington's - A gastropub with excellent food and a terrific, laid-back atmosphere. Duck fat sazerac, anyone? Their stuffed trout is fantastic (photo here).

La Condesa - It took me a couple visits to hit my sweet spot here, but now I'm a big fan. Flavorful, interesting Mexican fare in a gorgeous and interesting space.

Lambert's - Not your father's barbecue - in only the best way.

La Traviata - Their carbonara will make you cry tears of joy. Blog post dedicated to this thing of beauty here.

Parkside - 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).

Péché - Absinthe bar that also happens to have excellent food and service.

Ranch 616 - 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.

TRIO - the Four Seasons Hotel is all about exceeding expectations, and its restaurant, TRIO, does just that. It consistently turns out outstanding food combined with exemplary service.

TRACE - In the super-cool W Hotel Austin, TRACE focuses on locally-sourced products and is one of my favorite brunch spots in town.

Wink - Another great spot offering New American fare with a focus on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and an emphasis on personal attention.


Braise - A very welcome new addition to the east side. I'm gaga over their beef osso buco, but have enjoyed everything I've eaten here. Full blog post here.

East Side Cafe - One of my favorite places to take out of town guests - homey, funky, and Austin-y, with a large garden on the premises that sources many of their herbs, decorative garnishes, and some of their veggies. Browse their adorable gift shop, Pitchforks & Tablespoons, while you wait for your table.

East Side Show Room - Even in a city full of funk, East Side Show Room brings the funk. Good, locally-sourced eats in a sumptuously steampunky setting. My blog post about it is here.


Barley Swine - I'm late to the game on this and confess that I haven't been, in part due to some mixed reviews I heard early on. But I've been hearing more raves than rants, so it's on my list to visit soon. By Bryce Gilmore, the proprietor at Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, one of the finest spots for trailer food in town.

Olivia - New American with a focus on locally-sourced ingredients. Named one of 2009's Best New Restaurants in America by Bon Appetit.

Paggi House - One of the more romantic spots in Austin; New American in lovely surrounds.

South Congress Cafe - New American in a casual-yet-upscale setting.

Uchi - Sushi/Japanese fusion. On the higher end of the pricey range, in part due to their tiny portion sizes. But every bite will be outstanding.

Vespaio - Italian. Reservations only available before 6:30 p.m. M-Th & Sunday - all other times, be prepared for a wait. Its sister restaurant next door, Enoteca Vespaio, also offers delicious food in a more casual atmosphere.

Zax - A bright, laid back spot 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.


The Carillon - 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.

Chez Zee - It's hard not to feel special while you're dining surrounded by twinkly white Christmas lights and whimsical art. Their smoky olive oil is like nothing I've ever tasted.

El Arbol - The star of this restaurant is its namesake tree, which towers majestically over the restaurant's spacious patios. Between the stylish décor and the beautiful waitstaff, it's quite possible to imagine yourself in Argentina (as opposed to across the street from a Burger King).

FINO - 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. Its sister restaurant a couple of miles away, Asti, serves solid Italian fare.

Fonda San Miguel - Interior Mexican in a warm, inviting atmosphere.

Foreign & Domestic - Ned & Jodi Elliott bring with them some serious chef chops, including stints at Thomas Keller's Per Se. Their restaurant is playful and accessible, with a completely open (and tiny) kitchen surrounded by bar seating so you can watch the action while you swoon over your food.

Mirabelle - With menu item descriptions as long as this blog post, you'll know what you'll be getting - and you know that it'll be good.

Musashino - As good as it gets in town for old school sushi.

Texas French Bread - this little bakery and café has been around since the early '80s, but just added dinner service within the last couple of years. I first tried them for dinner late last year, and was absolutely impressed. Much of the food is locally sourced, and everything I tried was beautifully prepared.

Uchiko - My favorite meal of 2010 occurred here. Considering I dine out twice a day nearly every day, that's saying something. The sister restaurant to Uchi, but I find it to be more playful and more accessible, and the portion sizes seem less teensy, all of which I appreciate.

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

The Grove - 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 - Specializing in wild game.

Jack Allen's Kitchen - Jack Allen, the founding chef of Z'Tejas, brings a breath of fresh air to an otherwise-barren upscale restaurant landscape, the Oak Hill area. The flavors here are bright, fresh and innovative. Try the Navajo Taco or the trout salad - both are fantastic.

Mikado Ryotei - Not as good as Musashino for straight up, traditional-style sushi, but they've got some really excellent rolls here if that's your sushi preference.

North by Northwest - Come for SXSW, eat at NXNW - almost too silly to be true. But this is one of the very few non-chain, upscale eateries in the area, it's consistently decent, and they brew their own beer. 'nuff said.

Did I miss something? Leave me a comment!


Friday, February 18, 2011

Food Photo Friday - The Scallop

Can I get an amen?

This beauty from Chez Zee was one of the best scallop preparations I've had in a long while. A large sea scallop was seared and topped with lightly candied pecans and a brown butter sauce, then served over a parsnip purée. The subtle sweetness of the sauce and the pecans mellowed the wonderful sear on the scallop, and the parsnip purée added texture without being too heavy. Perfect. This one was a gift from the chef, but I urged them to add it to the menu, because I need to be able to go back and order it again.


I have long been a fan of Chez Zee. The twinkly white Christmas lights, the fire engine red piano, and the always-engaging art make for such a delightful dining ambience. I'm partial to their pecan crusted chicken over any of their salads (the Maytag blueberry is my recent fave), and the butterscotch pudding with salted caramel sauce is to dieeeeee for. Their signature smoked olive oil is the perfect accompaniment to your before-meal bread. And they have a brand new executive chef - Ben Nathan (formerly of The Belmont) - who promises to kick the food up another notch. I'm looking forward to exploring this new chapter with an old favorite.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Food Photo Friday - Beet Salad

I'm not usually a beet fan. But since I try to be an open-minded (and open-mouthed) eater, I snagged a taste of this red and golden beet salad at the media launch party for the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, held at the Whole Foods Culinary Center. The beets, tossed in a light vinaigrette with walnuts, were wonderful - fresh and light and crunchy, and not too earthy the way beets sometimes tend to be.


This year's Festival promises to be even better than beets - check out the full schedule for details. To celebrate their 26th year, the Festival folks are offering 26% off the first 500 tickets sold for the Sunday Fair, the fabulous tasting party at the end of the Festival. Get your discounted tickets here!


Monday, February 7, 2011

Getting Peached at The Peached Tortilla

It used to be that the American Dream was defined by the small business owner who became successful by virtue of hard work and clean living. For later generations who were fortunate enough to benefit from their parents' and grandparents' pursuit of that dream, another element was added to the mix: the desire to succeed at something they were passionate about.

It is obvious to anyone who's spent a few minutes talking to Eric Silverstein that he is on track to achieving the new version of the American dream. He quit a lucrative job as a lawyer in Missouri to launch The Peached Tortilla, a mobile food truck business that has spent the last four months winning the hearts of food lovers in Austin. Not only is the food being turned out of this truck outstanding, but Eric's passion is infectious, and his humble, friendly demeanor means that every visit to The Peached Tortilla is not just a food run, but a visit to a friend.

The Peached Tortilla open for business.

As anyone who knows me knows, I tend to be a little suspicious of Asian fusion. I'm not sure whether I'm a traditionalist or just protective of the flavors I grew up with, but I typically cast a wary eye upon perceived attempts to evolve Asian flavors into something different. But Eric and his chef, Louis (who has worked the kitchens at Maria Maria and Imperia), have done this right. They've captured influences from Asian, Mexican, and Southern cooking and have married them in a way that makes the finished product into something altogether new, and definitely delightful. Everything I've tasted here was busting at the seams with bright, crisp, fresh flavors. This is Asian fusion I can get behind. Their menu tops out at $3.50, so it's very affordable for upscale-restaurant-quality food. And with gluten-free and vegetarian options available, there's a little something here for everyone.

Just look at this gorgeousness. How can you not want to eat this?

Top: crunchy catfish taco (Southern spiced, cornmeal-encrusted catfish with creamy slaw, spicy mayo, and purple cabbage);
Bottom: banh mi taco (Vietnamese-braised pork belly topped with pickled daikon and carrot salad, sriracha mayo, and cilantro).

L to R: Southern squash taco (sautéed citrus-scented summer squashes and red peppers, sweet onions, spiced pecans, basil aioli);
chicken pad thai taco (chicken sautéed in pad thai sauce with bean sprouts, peanuts, and lime wedge);
banh mi taco.

Left: Banh mi slider (Vietnamese-braised pork belly, pickled daikon and carrot salad, sriracha mayo, cilantro)
Right: BBQ brisket slider (brisket, creamy slaw, smoky roasted peach BBQ sauce).

Belgian fries - served with your choice of dipping sauces (peach mint, truffle mayo, bacon ranch, smoky roasted peach BBQ, or sriracha mayo). All of the ones I've tasted have been wonderful, but the peach mint is their special, and it is AMAZING.

Want to get peached? These guys are on the move, so check the truck schedule on their website to find them. You'll be glad you did.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Food Photo Friday - Coconut Rice Pudding

It wasn't the best week for food photos. Nothing I ate photographed well, either because it was unattractive or because my lack of photography skills rendered it that way. So I was digging through the archives looking for something to dust off for this post when I finished a batch of coconut rice pudding and fixed myself a bowl to accompany my browsing. And as the warm, gently-sweet goodness took hold of my soul, I thought, "Why not?" Out came the camera, and here we are. Taken mere moments before this post was written.


Made using this recipe, only I scaled the sugar back to 1/3 cup and added some toasted almonds for a bit of texture contrast. Clearly not the most beautiful food photo ever shot - far from it - but the perfect thing to take the edge off this wintry weather. Hope you find similar inspiration on this frigid Friday, whether it be in your bowl, or elsewhere.


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