Pao's Shows the Way Beyond Kung Pao ChickenModern Chinese Secret

Pao's Mandarin House

800 Brazos, 482-8100

Open daily,11am-2:30pm; for dinner, 4:30-10pm. (Fri. & Sat. 'til 10:30pm)

Pao's has won three Chronicle critics' choice awards over the years and has been the subject of at least two glowing reviews (this will be the third). Yet the place remains obscure outside of downtown lunch circles. Several friends, many of them longtime Austinites who eat out often, had never heard of this unassuming source of authentic Chinese cuisine. While always packed during weekday lunch, Pao's is rarely more than half full in the evenings or during weekend dim sum.

Part of the problem may be the location; it's all but hidden in an office building, with no windows facing the street. Another could be the almost schizophrenic rupture between its lunch and dinner menus. By day, Pao's serves up strip-mall Chinese fare: hot-and-sour soup, chicken with peanuts, sweet-and-sour pork, moo goo gai pan, etc., all well-enough executed, but done to death elsewhere. Lunch patrons seem to love it; then again they have little choice, because during this hectic time, Pao's won't let you order from its more adventurous, and authentic, evening menus.

The mise-en-scéne shifts dramatically at night. Gone are the daytime men in suits with their ties draped across the shoulders, the din of their shop talk pleasantly absent from the air. At night, each dining party all but commandeers an entire section of the restaurant, creating a feeling of intimacy. If Pao's doesn't entirely avoid the clichés of the strip-mall aesthetic -- the napkins and carpet are a garish pink, for example -- the muted lighting and overall restraint of the decor make it a pleasant place to eat a meal. The service, too, adds to the relaxed feel. Unlike their counterparts at many restaurants, staffers here don't use slack business as an opportunity to slack off. The waiters are attentive almost to the point of fastidiousness, and the food emerges from the kitchen briskly.

The food, of course, is what makes the restaurant such a darling of the critics. Pao's offers nighttime patrons two menus: one a mix of standard Chinese-American and more traditional fare, the other consisting solely of Mandarin specialties. Until recently, the staff presented the latter only to Chinese patrons, giving it to others only on request. Now, in a policy change that can only help the restaurant's night business, the staff brings both menus to everyone.

The scallion pancakes ($1.55 for a hearty portion) alone could engender a large following. These savory delights are a kind of flat biscuit, the outsides crisped to a rich brown and the insides moist and flaky. Flecks of scallion dispersed throughout add just a touch of pungency to offset the richness of the bread. The dumplings, too, inspire craving for days after a meal. My favorite are the pan-fried pork dumplings ($3.55). Rice flour-based wrappers are stuffed with fragrant nuggets of ground pork, steamed and then seared until crisp. Alongside comes a dipping sauce which suggests soy, ginger, and sesame oil. The flavors dance on the tongue, and an order of eight, while ample by any reasonable definition, never seems like enough.

Equally delicious, and even more plentiful, are the hot and spicy wontons ($3.25 for an order of 10). Nothing like their deep-fried and hackneyed cousins, these are essentially a steamed miniature dumpling served over a pool of chile-infused oil, just hot enough to tickle the back of your throat.

As for entrées, vegetarians will enjoy the spicy bean curd ($6.25) from the Mandarin menu. My dining partner found the sauce a bit under-seasoned, but I enjoyed its delicate complexity. Colored a rich red-orange, the sauce opens on the palate with the flavors of ginger and star anise, and finishes on a moderate chile-hot note. As the sole entrée for one person, the dish lacked variety: a plate of tofu in sauce served with a bowl of rice. It works much better, I think, as one of many to be shared by a large party, the way that Chinese families eat in restaurants.

Another dish that would work better in such a context is the tea-smoked duck. I ordered it dining alone one night, and was mildly disappointed. A pile of deep auburn, but inelegantly displayed, duck wings and legs sat on one side of the plate; the other side featured a mound of canned pineapple cubes, under a parched orange slice, topped by an unhappy-looking cocktail cherry. Pao's is far too good a restaurant to present its food in this absurd fashion. But the meat, for the most part, was tender, juicy, and fragrant of Chinese spice; only a couple of pieces were too dry for consumption and should have been left off of the plate. Again, minus the ill-conceived fruit salad, the duck would make a fine component of a large feast.

For a dish that stands on its own, try the moo shi pork ($6.75). This dish combines cabbage, mushrooms, and fried eggs with tender shredded pork. One wraps this pleasing hash of flavors and textures into a paper-thin pancake, and dips it into a thick plum sauce. The Pao's version of the sauce is a bit too thick and sweet for my taste, but overall I like the dish very much.

The way to experience Pao's is to dine with a large party, load up on dumplings and pancakes, and explore the entrée menu as a team. When enough people do this, the restaurant will gain the nighttime success it deserves, and educate more diners in the pleasures of Chinese food beyond Kung Pao chicken and fried egg rolls.

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