Eat, Drink, Man, Woman
Dim Sum Under the Rainbow
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11am-3pm
Dinner: Monday-Frxiday 5-10pm
Saturday & Sunday: 11am-10pm,
Dim Sum 11am-2:30pm by Virginia B. Wood
Early in the summer, Chronicle bookeeper cindy soo piped up in a "Best of Austin" editorial meeting and told us about her new favorite Chinese place, Rainbow Seafood Restaurant. It seems the Rainbow was the first place she had found here that lived up to the restaurants in Houston's Chinatown neighborhood where she grew up. soo was pleased to have credible versions of the Cantonese specialties and Dim Sum favorites so much closer to her South Austin home.
The quality and diversity of ethnic food in any area depends in large part on the size and complexity of the immigrant population. A large portion of the 19th-century immigrant population in Central Texas was German and the delicious smoked meats of the area have become their legacy to us. Our large Mexican population brought with them an abundance of ancient ingredients and regional dishes. The most recent population in Central Texas is Asian, primarily Korean and Vietnamese with some Thai and Chinese for good measure. The larger Chinese population seems to have settled in Houston, a city with its own Chinatown neighborhood where some street and business signs read in Chinese characters and the restaurants are legendary. Rainbow Seafood Restaurant is a new member on the short list of Chinese fine dining restaurants in Austin.
On cindy's recommendation, I enlisted the company of a Chinese food-loving friend and went to check out Austin's newest Chinese eatery for myself. On a quiet Sunday evening, we were quickly seated in the large pleasant dining room with a tree-top view of southwest Austin. Tall, straight-backed black lacquer chairs are one of the only Oriental touches in the dining room, which is decorated in muted colors and features white tablecloths. It was a calm and soothing atmosphere in which to converse and enjoy a wonderful meal.
As in many Asian restaurants, the Rainbow menu is voluminous, almost daunting in that it features 173 choices. We thoroughly enjoyed our soup choice, the Velvet Corn Soup with Shredded Chicken ($2.95 for two). The silken texture and subtle flavor made a perfect beginning to our meal. After considering Peking Duck ($17.95 whole) and Pan-Fried Quail w/Pepper Salt ($7.95 for three), I made a selection from the Clay Pot section of the menu and had the Oysters with Roast Pork Pot ($6.50). Plump, juicy oysters and tender chunks of pork roast are slow-cooked in a mild broth with tofu, celery, snow peas, and carrots to make a very comforting meal. The stellar choice of the evening, however, was Sautéed Lobster with Ginger and Scallions (seasonal price varies). The lobster had been cut in pieces, unshelled, and sautéed in a marvelous brown sauce with ginger and scallions. We joked about the fact that it was not a meal you'd want to order if you needed to impress someone with your table manners, but it was absolutely finger-licking good.
Only open since April, Rainbow Seafood has quickly developed a loyal clientele for the Saturday and Sunday Dim Sum service. The Rainbow owners ensured the success of this venture by hiring former Tien Hong chef William Wong, and he brought his Dim Sum magic along with him. The dining room fills up early, with many Chinese and a few American families seated around the tables, patiently awaiting the treasure-laden carts as they make continuous circles around the dining room. The dining room atmosphere during the Dim Sum service is remarkably different than the quiet dinner hour. Families share the communal dining ritual of their culture and greet each other from table to table. Something about the experience was very evocative of Ang Lee's delightful 1994 film about families, food, and communication, the entertaining Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Perhaps it was the carts filled with stacked metal steam containers like the ones the chef in the film filled with exquisite culinary creations for his future step-daughter's school lunches.
I prevailed upon cindy soo to join me at the Rainbow for Dim Sum on a recent Sunday to find out more about Cantonese cuisine. My previous Dim Sum experience had been in the excellent 1980s cooking classes of Sara Aleshire and at Tien Hong. My advice would be to get to the Rainbow early to ensure prompt seating and the opportunity to sample each new cart of tidbits as it rolls fresh from the kitchen. We sampled a variety of dumplings, both steamed and fried. The round Steamed Shrimp and Cilantro Dumplings were delicate little bundles full of tender shrimp, and the rectangular Chicken Dumplings had a subtle chicken and scallion interior. The fried dumplings, encased in a thin, flaky pastry, are excellent, but only when they are fresh and hot from the kitchen.
I was surprised to find very sweet barbeque pork inside a soft bun that had been wok-steamed and was especially impressed with steamed stems of thin Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. The Steamed Spare Ribs with either plum or black bean sauce needed more meat, less gristle and fat for my taste, and the flavor of the Rice Soup with 1,000-year-old eggs that was comfort food to cindy was entirely too bland for me. It was explained to me the Cantonese cuisine is not known for spicy, strongly flavored food. I learned that the barbeque beef and pork dishes are likely to be sweeter than dessert offerings like the Golden Egg Custard, the Sweet Rice Coconut Bun, or the Fried Sesame Seed Puff. The soft, quivering egg custards encased in flaky pastry appeared to be a favored specialty. Knowledgeable diners were assertive about getting orders to take home. The most interesting dessert items we shared were thick slices of yellow sponge cake, warm and moist, fresh from the steamer. Naturally leavened only with eggs, the soft cake is plain and genoise-like. As we ate it, cindy lamented the lack of chocolate sauce in Chinese desserts.
My spirit of adventure failed me in the face of Curried Squid and Steamed Chicken Feet. The area of my brain that governs cultural curiosity and culinary anthropology could not convince the part that controls swallowing to relax and take chances. (I have the same problem with snails and tripe; go figure.) I was somewhat less embarrassed when my Cantonese companion didn't eat them either. No matter, the Chicken Feet are not required eating to partake of the Rainbow's extensive menu or immerse yourself in the fascinating cultural event of their Dim Sum service. I suggest you take your family to Sunday dinner. n
The Family Circle Restaurant
1721 Briarcliff, 927-1906
During the very same week I was being educated about Dim Sum and Cantonese culture, I discovered a restaurant that serves definitive renditions of the cuisine of my native culture, the American South (my ancestors having come to Texas from Ireland and England by way of Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma). MEXIC-ARTE Museum Vice President Gloria Moore tipped me off to her favorite neighborhood dining spot, describing in vivid detail the delectable yams - thinly sliced and layered with butter, brown sugar, and spices. It sure sounded like the genuine article to me.
Family Circle Restaurant chef/owner Sister Deborah Nalls certainly puts a righteous meal on the table. Regular entrées include a meat, two vegetables, cornbread muffins, and tea for a modest $4.95. Specials like the Smothered Pork Chops ($5.95) are only a little higher and very well worth it. The chops are fork tender, meat just melting off the bone, with plenty of good gravy to slop them around in. The yams were all sold out the last time I visited but I feasted on homemade macaroni and cheese and dipped the tender, slightly sweet cornbread muffins in the tasty black-eyed peas. A piping hot bowl of Sister Deborah's peach cobbler under a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream was the perfect ending to the meal.
My next thoroughly satisfying Family Circle meal included crisp Fried Chicken, Corn, Rice, and Gravy and more of the those divine, souffle-like cornbread muffins. Sister Deborah's son serves up his barbeque on Fridays at the Family Circle (brisket, ribs, Elgin sausage, chicken, sandwiches, and combo plates), and she fries up a mess of catfish, but I've yet to make it by there to try those things out. This place is obviously run by people who understand that good food and fellowship are meant to nourish the body and comfort the soul. Hallelujah, Sister. n