Heart of the Orient

My Thanh

My Thanh

photograph by John Anderson

This may be a bit of a stretch, but stay with me here ... Austin has its own little China/VietnameseTown, loosely centered at the intersection of North Lamar and Highway 183. Within a one-mile radius of this crossroads, the raw ingredients or prepared foods for an Oriental dinner party, meal, or picnic can be had inexpensively and with ease, and everybody in town knows about it except the (non-Asian) Round Eyes. Before you all go ballistic and get all culturally sensitive on me, let me add that I refer to myself as a Round Eye out of self-deprecation. My heart and my palate are Oriental to the core. Last week I roamed around the area, poking my head into newly discovered spots, trying food and grabbing menus, and was amazed at the variety of foods I discovered. I even found two places serving Happy Pancake (Banh Xeo), the legendary street food of Central Vietnam (more on that later).

888 Vietnamese Restaurant
888 Vietnamese Restaurant

photograph by John Anderson

The south end of the zone is centered around My Thanh Oriental Market at the southeast corner of the intersection. It's Austin's biggest and most complete Oriental market, with an amazing assortment of foodstuffs and Oriental oddities: an herb counter with cures for all manner of ailments, Far Eastern veggie and herb seeds, great Oriental baby clothes, fresh meats and fish (including live catfish, tilapia, lobster, and blue crabs), a full line of dishes and kitchen equipment, fresh rice noodles, and bamboo shoots. The produce is cheap, beautiful, and wide-ranging, with all the regular stuff as well as the more esoteric (including fresh, pre-peeled green coconuts for juice or milk). If you've never cruised a large market like this, your life is incomplete, and you shouldn't leave without at least one #21 Kiwi Brand kitchen knife ($5.19), the best, most versatile knife in existence, and a can of Vietnamese French roast coffee ($3). A few doors down is Kim Phung Restaurant, the perennial winner of the Chronicle Readers' Restaurant Poll, and one of my faves for lunch and Vietnamese-style hot and sour soup.

Across Lamar to the west is Buffet Palace (another Austin favorite), Madina Market (which specializes in Pakastani supplies and offers some hot dishes as well), and the newly opened 888 Vietnamese Restaurant at the location of the old Quan Ba Tho. 888 kept the wonderful steamed rice rolls that Q.B.T. had become famous for, and added some new dishes as well, including the aforementioned Banh Xeo ($2.95), a coconut milk-and-rice flour crepe cooked with pork, shrimp, onion, sprouts, garlic, and scallion, eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with herbs, and dipped in Nuoc Cham sauce. They also serve a damn fine Jackfruit milkshake, and the ultimate Oriental comfort food, Congee (basically a thick rice soup with meats and seasonings which is usually eaten for breakfast or brunch).

Din Ho
Din Ho Chinese BBQ
photograph by John Anderson

To the north exactly half a mile on Lamar is Saigon Market and Deli, a hidden gem of a market with an incredible deli serving homestyle Vietnamese cuisine (11am-8pm). This is clean, fresh food, much different from the usual Vietnamese cafe fare, cooked with very little oil. Lan, the manager's wife and head chef, had a huge assortment of dishes the day I ate there: 14 different items in the steam table (any three served with rice for $3.49), including spicy tofu with Japanese eggplant, squid with watercress and green onion, kingfish steaks with spicy glaze, yuchoy greens with pork (yummy, similar to mild mustard greens), and Hanoi beef stew with lemongrass. The standards include kick-ass char siu roast pork ($6.50), whole roast ducks, fresh spring rolls, steamed pork buns with Chinese sausage and egg, Banh Xeo, and many more too numerous to mention. An amazing array of treats at unbelievable prices, and all available to go.

Just across the parking lot is Ba Le Bakery, a real find, serving bread with meats that would make the Earl of Sandwich proud. UT staff used to frequent a place near Dobie Mall called Petite Pavillon that made ethereal Vietnamese sandwiches that called to us like the sirens. Petite lost its lease and never reopened, creating a huge hole in our gastronomic psyches. Ba Le makes Petite seem like a distant memory. It bakes its own baguettes -- thin crispy crusts with a moist, flavorful center -- carrying on the rich tradition of baguette baking introduced by the French during their occupation (and, with apologies to my French friends, Ba Le takes bread to a new plateau). The sandwiches come with a wide range of fillings: chicken, barbecue pork, Xa Xiu seasoning, pork roll, seasoned meatball, shredded pork, combo, and the Ba Le gourmet with pâté, pork roll, roast pork, daikon, carrot, cucumbers, onion, and jalapeño ($2.50). They also serve a number of soups, rice platters, specialties, desserts, and the best sesame beef jerky on the planet (a huge bag for $3.50). Both of these spots can't be missed!

One mile to the west, on the northeast corner of Ohlen and 183, is Hong Kong Super Market, slightly smaller than My Thanh and carrying many of the same items. They used to have a cooked meat counter with great roast ducks, but a sign notes that it is closed temporarily. This market has a better assortment of produce than My Thanh, with some hard-to-find items like long beans, winged beans, Chinese okra, broccoli, celery, Thai eggplant, and fresh striped seaweed, but at slightly higher prices. It also has fresh, incubated chicken and duck eggs, although the sign says if you break it, you bought it.

Ba Le Bakery
Ba Le Bakery

photograph by John Anderson

Across the parking lot from them is a branch of Pho Công L´y and a new spot, Din Ho Chinese BBQ. The menu at Din Ho looks intriguing, and I've heard some good reports from Asian friends who describe Din Ho as "real Chinese." The owners are from Hong Kong via Dallas, and the food is "Hong Kong style." You'll find some of the regular Chinese menu items but also a wide assortment of hot pots (sort of a combo between soup and fondue, where items are placed into a simmering stock to cook them as you go, then the stock is consumed as a soup at the end), many options on pan-fried noodles, sizzling platters, noodle soups, and many items not normally seen on Austin menus. They also serve roast pork and barbecue pork by the pound and whole roasted chickens and ducks.

Din Ho publicizes their House Special Combination Dinners for groups of three to 10 people that are more like special banquet menus; each starts with an appetizer of two choices of the barbecue meats and includes a specialty soup and a hot pot among a host of other dishes for about $10 per person. Sounds like an adventurous treat for a group of friends. A group of about 12 Chinese gentlemen were indulging in one of these banquets while I was at Din Ho, and there was no talking at all, just the whir and clatter of flying chopsticks. The waitress came by my table with a huge platter of fresh lobster with ginger sauce that looked and smelled heavenly. Jackie, the owner, also mentioned that they make individual sauces for each menu item instead of using a brown sauce base for all the sauces like most Chinese restaurants do. I was the only Round Eye in the place, which to me is always a good sign.

On the other side of Hong Kong Market is Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant, and right around the corner is the Tan Tan Vietnamese Sandwich Shop. Cattycorner to the southwest across 183 is the ever-popular Sea Dragon, known for its seafood, and a new arrival called Pho Nam Vietnamese Restaurant, which has some interesting menu items such as an appetizer of shredded papaya and beef jerky, and fried tofu in spicy lemongrass/chili sauce with veggies, as well as the usual assortment of bun and pho.

My Thanh
My Thanh
photograph by John Anderson

Although technically just out of the one-mile loop of North Lamar and 183, Say Hi on Burnet at North Loop is a business that no discussion of Oriental markets in Austin would be complete without mentioning. The owner, Chai, is a world master at guessing Chinese slipper size by merely gazing upon your feet. The store has a very complete assortment of Oriental cooking supplies, but more importantly, it's the only market in town where the neophyte can get reliable cooking instructions on how to cook the ingredients. Chai's wife has taught Oriental cooking classes in town for years, and Chai is very knowledgeable as well; I've never stumped them with any Oriental cooking question I've had about authentic method or ingredients. The challenge here is to get the door open without letting the little bell ring to announce your arrival; Chai scares easily, and the bell is his first line of defense. It's a little game his friends play.

So, the next time you're planning a dinner party, either cooking it or getting it to go, head directly to Lamar and 183. Most of the Oriental menu items from restaurants travel quite well, and Chinese goes great with Vietnamese on a party menu. For a quick to-go lunch for the office, it would be hard to beat the sandwiches at Ba Le or many of the deli items from Saigon Deli or the dynamite vermicelli bun dishes from any of the Vietnamese cafes mentioned. But for a real treat, go to the markets, buy the ingredients, and cook it yourself.

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