Recipe for Success

Austin's Favorite Chinese Food

Suzi's Chinese Kitchen

1152 S. Lamar, 441-8400
Mon-Thu, 11am-10pm; Fri & Sat 'til 10:30pm; Sun, 4:30-10pm.

photograph by John Anderson
Ask your neighbor where is the best place in town to pick up a pair of chopsticks and the likely answer is Suzi's Chinese Kitchen. Since opening just south of Ray Hennig's Heart of Texas Music in 1992, Suzi's has gained recognition steadily, securing the award of Best Chinese Restaurant in the 1995 Chronicle Readers' Restaurant Poll and defending its title handily in 1996. Business has been so rosy at Suzi's, in fact, that fans in North Austin no longer have to journey across the river to enjoy the restaurant's mandarin cuisine thanks to the recent opening of a second Suzi's, Suzi's Chinese Grill, on Anderson Lane.

A glance around the original location reveals why diners prefer its atmosphere over the typical strip-mall setting that hampers many of Austin's other Chinese restaurants. The building's wood-walled interior is decorated in a smart black-and-white motif that prevails over the lone drawback of a drop ceiling. Attractive paper shutters with wooden frames, serene paintings of wildlife, and handsome prints depicting Chinese characters envelop a spacious room soothed by flowering plants and ornamental trees. Even the obligatory fish tank -- a miniature thatched pagoda -- seems happily in place at the center of the main dining room.

The menu, too, is in sharp contrast to the norm. The chic gray-and-black laminate shows little of the linguistic confusion of the usual Chinese dinner list. The descriptions of the items are clear and concise, and although the entrée profiles are at times wanting in information, most diners will appreciate Suzi's nod toward communication. Patrons are invited, for example, to enjoy the Arciero Chardonnay for its "ripe and complex [flavor] with green apple and spice aromas."

This attention to detail is consistent with Suzi's specialty -- mandarin cuisine. Complex and cosmopolitan, mandarin food is the sophisticated fare of northern China, of the government offices and courts of historic Beijing (aka Peking). Sometimes referred to as classic Chinese cuisine, mandarin includes famous dishes like Moo Shu Pork, a standout at Suzi's. Served with flour "pancakes," which are more like lardless tortillas, the lightly sauced mixture of charred pork and stir-fried vegetables is tucked inside a warm wrap along with rich plum sauce to create the Far East's exquisite answer to the fajita ($6.95). Rounding the moo shu out with a cup of Hot and Sour Soup ($1.50), a mandarin staple of sundry ingredients in a peppery pork broth seasoned with rice vinegar, is a fitting way for the uninitiated to acquaint themselves with Suzi's kitchen.

The restaurant's portions and quality of ingredients are also impressive. The Sautéed Trio ($6.95) combines a gingery heap of tender beef, lean chicken, and succulent shrimp with a rich, piquant Burgundy sauce (it's worth noting that this is the only item I've sampled at Suzi's that registers on the heat scale), while the Boneless Young Duckling with Ginger Root ($8.95) features ample slices of choice duck breast and vegetables in a thin, sweet sauce. (I found the latter dish one-dimensional until I discovered large, scrumptious slivers of pungent ginger root hidden underneath the other ingredients.) The menu's best bargain, however, has to be the Emperor's Choice, which should be called the Peasant's Preference: $5.50 for a pile of lightly fried rice and chunks of tasty grilled pork, chicken, shrimp and vegetables, the flavors of which erupt with a touch of soy sauce.

While Suzi's is at home with mandarin fare, it wanders into other regional Chinese cuisine with mixed results. Asked for his opinion about the Southern, or Cantonese, appetizer Pan Fried Dumplings (six for $4.25), our waiter was quick to warn us that it required about 20 minutes to prepare before heartily offering his recommendation. The wait proved worth it. The spongy pockets of flour dough offered perfect resistance to the tooth and the herbed pork inside shone. The Fish Filet in Spicy Szechuan Sauce ($7.95), on the other hand, was a disappointment. Covered with a sugary orange glaze reminiscent of a sweet and sour sauce, the fried pieces of red snapper hardly exhibited the variety of contrasting flavors and fiery kick of a Szechuan preparation. The dish's mildness shouldn't have come as a surprise, however, as Szechuan is the only Chinese cuisine to incorporate chile peppers to a significant degree, whereas mandarin cooks are known for their light touch with seasonings, particularly chiles.

If I have one complaint with Suzi's, it has to do with something on which the people there seemed to have worked extra hard: the menu. While the English is precise, the designers have outsmarted themselves by listing descriptions of many dishes that Westerners know by common names. Thus, Kung Pao Chicken becomes Chicken Peanut, Peking Duck becomes Crispy Duck, and so on. Sometimes the scheme works. It's nice to know what comes in the Shark Fin Soup with Crab Meat ($4.95) (shark fin meat is tasty, with a consistency according to my dining companion that is "like Silly Putty, but it gives") or anticipate a satiny sip of the delightful Velvet Corn Soup with Crab Meat ($1.95). But how does the unsuspecting diner know that the Stir Fried Noodle and not the Pan Fried Noodle refers to Lo Mein (which comes with some tasty scallops, but at $7.25 I'd go with the fried rice)? And what if he or she has always wanted to try a good version of General Tsao's Chicken but isn't quite sure under which of Suzi's ambiguous entries it falls?

Granted, however, my lament is minor. Semantics aside, Suzi's offers an ecclectic assortment of quality Chinese food that is at its best exceptional and at its worst better than the stuff served at most other joints in town. Given that the restaurant's atmosphere serves only to augment the food, it's fair to say that Suzi's has earned its reputation. Most importantly, as I can attest to at this very moment, Suzi's food passes the Chinese-leftovers test. Is there anything as comforting as a pair of chopsticks and some good cold fried rice?

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