No Noodlin' Around
Sea Dragon Offers an Ocean of Vietnamese Flavors
8776-B Research, 451-5051
Mon-Fri, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm
Don't get me wrong. I love Vietnamese noodles. They're one of this city's bona fide dining bargains, rivaled only perhaps by a well stuffed breakfast taco. The problem is that at most of Austin's Vietnamese/Chinese restaurants noodles are the only items offered on the Vietnamese section of the menu. Okay, there may be a few rice dishes or specialties, but for the most part your options are noodles, noodles, or noodles. Just as Italian food is not defined simply by spaghetti, Vietnamese cuisine consists of more than a handful of pasta bowls. Diners interested in exploring Vietnamese fare beyond rice sticks and vermicelli can venture to Sea Dragon, where authentic seafood is the specialty of the house. Exotic fruits of the sea abound at the spacious, affordable eatery, including such tidbits as jellyfish, eel, squid, soft-shell crab, and fresh lobster and fish, all adorned with the pungent herbs and condiments that distinguish Vietnamese cookery.
How fresh is the fish at Sea Dragon? After ordering the special Steamed Talapia With Ginger and Scallions ($17.95, feeds two), my companion and I watched our waiter stroll to the fish tank, scoop one of its six large occupants into a bucket, and whisk it into the kitchen to the unnerving beat of our dinner's tail. Twenty minutes later, the fish arrived at our table steamed whole, topped with cilantro and scallions, and laid on a bed of glass noodles in a divine ginger-soy sauce. Squeamishness became delight as we devoured the succulent talapia, leaving head and bones alone in our wake.
The Shrimp Wrapped Around Sugar Cane ($8.50) was a tasty twist on the mu-shu or fajita concept. Two spongy masses of ground shrimp were clad around pieces of sugar cane, grilled, and served accompanied by rice-paper pancakes, fresh mint, vermicelli, bean sprouts, and a hoisin dipping sauce. Our challenge was to lay the right amount of ingredients on the rice paper (hint: avoid overloading), then roll the whole thing up burrito style while being careful not to tear the wrapper. After a few messy efforts, we found that doubling the rice paper and dipping the rolls into the sauce -- as opposed to putting the sauce on before rolling -- minimized napkin requirements.
Both the Squid With Peppercorn ($7.95) and the Soft-Shell Crab With Lettuce ($10.95) failed to meet the standard set by the other entrées. The deep-fried squid was tender, but its subtle flavor was lost in its heavy batter coating. Fortunately, the dish was salvaged by a snappy condiment of lemon juice and white and black pepper. The soft-shell crab, on the other hand, would have been a total disappointment had it not been so much fun to eat. The same heavy batter rendered the fried crab unidentifiable, but the crunchy bits improved after being wrapped up with cucumber and mint inside individual lettuce leaves.
Despite our extreme apprehension ordering it, the Jellyfish Salad With Shrimp Chips appetizer ($6.95) proved to be the most pleasant surprise on the menu. Paradoxically squishy yet crunchy, the ribbons of jellyfish were addictive teamed with boiled shrimp, sesame seeds, sweet pickled vegetables, and a delicious lemon fish-sauce dressing. The mysterious shrimp chips -- airy crisps best described within the confinement of Western abstraction as shrimp Munchos -- rounded out the smorgasbord. I should mention that the mélange of strange delights could feed two to four, though I do not intend to share mine next time.
Although Sea Dragon specializes in seafood, patrons who simply must have their noodles will also find the standard selection of bunh and pho at typical low prices. And spring roll enthusiasts will be pleased by the small but scrumptious Shrimp Rolls ($2.25), which come with an outstanding homemade chili-garlic sauce. Also noteworthy are the deep-fried Shrimp and Water Chestnut Spring Rolls ($4.25), bite size treats marked by a hint of cherry and served with an outstanding crystallized ginger sauce.
In its history, Vietnam has seen occupation by the Chinese and the French, contributors of the world's two greatest culinary traditions. (Try Sea Dragon's iced French coffee with sweetened condensed milk for $1.50 as a starter or a dessert.) Combine these influences with the ingenuity of a coastal population, and it's not surprising that Vietnamese cuisine includes a host of fine seafood. What is surprising is that so few Vietnamese restaurateurs choose to serve more than noodles, the hamburgers and hot dogs of their country. For this reason alone, Sea Dragon is to be commended for providing us a broader view of Vietnamese food, not to mention the chance to say, "I dig jellyfish."
Tan Tan Vietnamese Restaurant
1601 W. Ohlen, 832-9585
"Pho," "mì," and "hú tiêu" -- the writing is literally on the wall at Tan Tan, a charming Vietnamese soup joint where the names of the house specialties are posted overhead in glittering 3-D letters. Hidden behind Target off Route 183, the clean, inviting eatery also offers a healthy selection of bunh (vermicelli bowls), as well as some mean crispy noodles, but the real finds are listed just below the ceiling.
Pho, the soul food of Saigon, is a rich beef broth with rice noodles served with fresh bean sprouts, herbs, lime, and jalapeños to add to your liking. Traditionally, the soup also includes a choice of various cuts of beef, such as round steak, brisket, tendon, and tripe, but at Tan Tan chicken, shrimp, and vegetable options are also available. Loaded with crisp broccoli, carrots, red onion, and Napa cabbage as well as huge cubes of firm raw tofu, the colorful vegetable pho in particular shines. Order a large pho ($4.10) only if you're ravenous; otherwise a small ($3.65) should do.
Hú tiêu comes with the same rice noodles and condiments as the pho, but the broth's base is a robust golden chicken stock. And in place of beef, your choice of additional ingredients includes barbecue pork, assorted seafood (squid, shrimp, and fishball), chicken, and vegetables. Mì is a chicken broth-based soup in which the rice noodles of pho and hú tiêu are replaced by scrumptious thin egg noodles. Wontons head up the list of additional ingredients, which also includes pork, seafood, and vegetables. All hú tiêu and mì come in small and large sizes at the sinfully low prices of $3.95 and $4.45 respectively.
Be sure to try one of two outstanding twists on Tan Tan's standards. The hú tiêu mì thâp cam ($4.45, number 33 on the menu) combines the rice noodles of hú tiêu with the egg noodles of mì in a chicken broth loaded with the works: shrimp, pork, squid, fishball, and lettuce. And the heavenly bún bò hue ($4.45, number 53 on the menu) features thinly sliced beef in a splendid spicy beef broth, which is even better seasoned with the condiments of mint, Thai holy basil, and red cabbage. -- P.E.
20 Buttercup Creek Blvd. (by La Fiesta Restaurant), 331-3810, 331-3859
It isn't as far as Chiang Mai, but for Central and South Austinites, the trek to Poothai Restaurant feels about as long. The trip is worth it, however, as the small Cedar Park restaurant specializes in Thai food with a distinctive taste of the homeland. Poothai is a family affair. Mom works her magic in the kitchen; Pop holds down the front of the house, and daughter waits tables, answering menu questions matter-of-factly and offering dining advice.
My recent dinner at Poothai was a festive one, enjoyed in the company of several friends, one of whom lived and worked in Thailand for more than three years. When it comes to gauging authenticity at Thai restaurants, I trust her palate over mine, and she gave Poothai a "two thumbs up." Our appetizers included an order of the House Satay ($3.25), four skewers of wafer-thin pork doused in a surprisingly light, smooth peanut sauce; the Tod Mun, slightly piquant, diminutive fish cakes ($4.25 for six); and Steamed Dumplings ($3.25 for six). Though not out of the ordinary, the satay was remarkable for the meat's moistness and the sauce notable in that it bore no trace of the mealiness that too often plagues store-bought peanut sauces. The Tod Mun tasted fresh and fiery, and the meat-filled dumplings were tasty, although their minced garlic topping was overwhelmingly bitter.
Next came an aromatic bowl of Tom Ka Gai ($5.75). The thin, coconut milk-based broth was afloat with lemongrass and galanga and earned top marks from everyone for its exquisite balance of a multitude of pronounced flavors. Entrées were equally appreciated as they arrived one by one at the table. The Plah Lat Plick (seasonally priced) was a triumphant fried fish preparation full of sinus-clearing spice. An order of beef Larb ($6.75) registered even higher on the spice scale, the mound of ground beef and toasted rice abundantly interspersed with Thai chile flakes and a generous helping of minced cilantro. The Moo Kee Mao ($5.95) pleased the tamer-tongued among us, though it certainly lacked nothing in the palate-teasing department. The dish of sautéed pork and tender bamboo shoots was highly perfumed with fresh basil and smelled nearly as good as it tasted. Only the Pad Thai ($5.75), the popular noodle dish topped with bean sprouts and ground peanuts, received mixed reviews. While the desirable textures -- soft noodles, crisp sprouts, crunchy peanuts, and chewy bits of chicken -- were present, the dish tasted strangely sweet, knocked out of balance by a heavy hand with the sugar. Overall though, dinner was a wonderful experience.
A note at the bottom of Poothai's menu asks for patrons' patience after ordering, noting that all meals are made "from scratch." It goes on to say that with patience, diners will be sure to enjoy some of the best home-styled Thai cooking in Cedar Park. I'd take the comment one step further, saying that Poothai turns out some of the best Thai cuisine in Austin. -- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry