Monday, March 5, 2012

Un-Pho-Gettable: Best Vietnamese Food in Austin


My third and final post for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide is on Vietnamese food. I'll be honest; I did not grow up eating Vietnamese food and am not really sure I'm qualified to write this post, but I've eaten a whole lot of it since I moved to Austin, so I can tell you what I like.

When it's cold out or I'm getting sick, few things make me feel better than a big bowl of pho. Thin rice noodles swimming in warm broth that you flavor yourself with the fixings they bring you (basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, and lime are the accompaniments I've commonly seen) has a way of warming your soul.

A version from Pho Thaison

While I've had a fair number of bowls of pho, they've been few and far between enough that I didn't have very developed opinions about where to find the best. So I turned to my delight-pho friend Linda from Girl Eats World and asked her to weigh in on her pho-vorites. Here's what she said:

"I judge a good bowl of pho by the texture of noodles, the clarity and flavor of the broth, and most importantly, how tender the meat is. (I’m partial to brisket.) These places pass on all three of these metrics. Since its opening, Pho Dan (previously named Pho Danh) has been my favorite place for pho and spring rolls. They have the best spring rolls I’ve had and are the closest thing to my mom’s spring rolls I’ve managed to find in Austin. Other notable places for pho are Pho Saigon, which is a hop and skip away from Pho Dan, and the new PhoNatics. PhoNatics has big portions and I recommend the Banh Mi Sliders. Pho ThaiSon also delivers when it comes to perfect bowls of pho and they do it in such a darling space. If you are in town for SXSW and find yourself out late into the night, might I suggest you indulge in a bowl of pho the next day? They’re the perfect antidote to a late night out on Sixth St."

Thanks, Linda! I've yet to visit two of these spots, and they are now high on my list.

Bun (Vermicelli)
Although it probably violates some sort of Asian code, I always think of bun (a/k/a vermicelli) as the soup-less version of pho. The versions I've had have typically been layered - a hidden mound of lettuce (usually shredded iceberg) is covered by a pile of rice noodles, which in turn is topped with your choice of protein and often garnished with chopped peanuts and cilantro. It's also usually accompanied by a side of fish sauce.

Vermicelli from YaYa's Cafe

My favorite spots in town for vermicelli are currently YaYa's Cafe and Shaved Ice (full blog post here) and - I know this will probably be controversial - my nostalgic favorite, Kim Phung. Kim Phung was the first place I ever ate vermicelli (around nineteen years ago, now!), and as a graduate student, it was a rare treat to splurge on their delicious shrimp, garlic, hot pepper vermicelli (which cost less than $6 back then). I'm also fond of Kim Phung's combination spring rolls, and sometimes make a meal out of an order of those.

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Kim Phung's spring rolls

Banh Mi
It's too bad I never discovered banh mi while in graduate school, because these tasty Vietnamese sandwiches are the ultimate way to fill up on the cheap. My favorites are at Thanh Nhi, where the large banh mi will set you back a mere $3.50. I'm pretty sure that's less than it would cost me to make these at home! Baguette House and Tam Deli also have excellent versions. Unfortunately for those of you who live in the southern parts of Austin, all three of these spots are pretty far north - but you can get a banh mi fix closer to home at YaYa's, LuLu B's, Elizabeth Street Café, or T&N Café.

Banh mi at Thanh Nhi. Say that five times fast.

Family Style
Although pho, bun and banh mi seem to have made it into mainstream eating, family-style meals still seem to be an unjustifiably rare way to enjoy Vietnamese food. The best places for this in Austin are, hands down, Le Soleil and Sunflower. These two competing restaurants are owned by former spouses who divorced; she kept Sunflower, he moved up the road and opened Le Soleil. Both have very similar menus, but Le Soleil's is somewhat expanded. I have a slight preference for Le Soleil because they have a larger space (which means it tends to be less crowded/claustrophobic), but both deliver solid food on a consistent basis. And it is worthy of note that Sunflower garnered top honors in the Vietnamese category of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance restaurant poll. At both places, I love the sizzling seafood platter, the shaken beef, the green beans with tofu, and the sea bass (either preparation).

Sizzling seafood platter at Le Soleil

Did I miss your favorite Vietnamese place? Leave me a comment!


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lettuce Eat: Salads in Austin


Feeling a little roughage around the edges from all that heavy food you've been eating? Then my second post for this year's Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide should provide you with some re-leaf. Yes, it's a tribute to the best salads in Austin.

I'll admit it: in general, a plate with a few feathery green things typically leads to me snacking later in a bad way, so I favor salads with a bit of substance to them. Here are a few of my favorite spots to get my greens (plus) on:

Leaf - all salads all the time, and they do them well. Their Abbi's Asian chicken salad is the only salad I've ever met that I'm consistently unable to finish in a single sitting. Leaf's ingredients always taste super fresh, and in addition to their pre-conceived salad offerings, they've got a build-your-own option so you can get yours just the way you want it. Leaf also took top honors in the salad category in a restaurant poll of Austin Food Blogger Alliance members, so you know it's gotta be good!

Abbi's Asian Chicken Salad at Leaf.

Zax - on my short list for excellent salads; their shrimp remoulade salad is just the right size and always makes me feel a little better about my health afterwards. If I'm feeling more indulgent (much more indulgent), their steak salad is also a winner in the taste category, although I'm less sure about its caloric minimalism.

Shrimp remoulade salad at Zax

I'm similarly suspicious about the calorie profile of the Interior Mexican Grilled Chicken Salad at Corazon, particularly since it's served with a couple of blue corn empanadas that have most definitely taken a bath in the deep fryer. But oh, man. It's totally worth every bite.

Suspiciously delicious salad at Corazon

Finally, they'll cook the salmon just the way you want it for the Miso-Hi Salmon Salad at The Grove. Yes, those are panko-crusted onion rings on there. Maybe they shouldn't have let me write this category...

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Some of my other very favorite salads in Austin include the Greek salad at Milto's (add tender grilled chicken for just $1; the dressing is excellent and the rolls they serve with it are perfection); the grilled salmon salad at Café Josie; the hacked chicken salad at Hangtown Grill; the maytag blueberry salad at Chez Zee (best with pecan chicken on top, but then it becomes awfully $$$); the smoked salmon and shrimp cake salad at East Side Café; and - I'll admit it - the cilantro lime shrimp salad at Nordstrom's Cafe Bistro.

Other top salad picks in the Austin Food Blogger Alliance poll included Alamo Drafthouse, Fogo de Chao (which I really think ought to be renamed Fogo de Chow); and Blue Dahlia Bistro.

Where's your favorite salad in town?


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