That's Amore!

Tony's Vineyard
2348 Guadalupe, 474-8040
Daily, 11am-9pm (delivery after 5pm)

Atmosphere is the first reason I recommend lunch or dinner at Tony's Vineyard -- you know, that curious pizzeria on the Drag? The decor is budget Italian, but each detail -- the plastic grapes and vines, the shelf of Italian dry goods, the gold-framed poster menus, the frosted mirror, the marble table tops, the painting of Baby With Food -- seems so purposefully placed, so thoughtfully chosen, that my heart is warmed by the efforts of my hosts even before they wait on me. If the plastic grapes and tiny white lights didn't transport me to another neighborhood, the music of Sinatra and Pavarotti did.

Hot food and big portions are other reasons to visit. Tony's set-up is unique in Austin: homestyle southern Italian cooking, assembled-to-order "cafeteria style," and served without a wait. The food does not approach gourmet, but it is fresh and comforting. I favor Tony's for a warm, sizable lunch.

Tony's Vineyard

photograph by John Anderson

The spaghetti with meatballs ($5.77) features robust meat sauce blanketing a heap of pasta and three huge meatballs. The meal includes a salad and bread, so on a recent visit I chose a Mediterranean salad of thin tomato wedges, raw red onion, basil, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. The salad looked fresh, but it suffered from flat-tasting, post-season tomatoes. A heavier dose of balsamic would have helped. The herb and butter roll on the side didn't pass for garlic bread, though I don't think it's supposed to. Since slick pasta can be sloppy on a styrofoam plate, you can also try the meatballs on a sub ($4.85).

The meat calzone ($4.30) fits three kinds of meat, three kinds of cheese, and tomato sauce into a dense pastry pack. It is bulky, but has distinctive layers of good, salty taste. The meat stromboli is hearty, too, and shows off the handiwork of the quietly working pizza-oven guy who is a fixture in this place.

Pizza is a very personal thing. I prefer mine with a thin crust, fresh toppings, and, especially, high-quality ingredients. Tony's pizza has all this going for it, which means it beats just about any delivery pizza in town. Tony's also offers stuffed pizzas; those and the thin crust seem to fly out the door.

Food here is assembled to order. Want a little more sauce on the side? Less cheese on the chicken parmesan? A crispier pizza crust? Just ask Tony. Delivery service is as efficient as in-house. My spinach-tomato pizza arrived at my door just 20 minutes after I ordered. One caveat: On two occasions, my pizza was undercooked.

Other food notes: The pasta here isn't tossed with sauce, as one might prefer, but the sauce it comes with is plentiful, and the eggplant parmesan is microwaved, but I didn't really mind.

Some needed touch-ups: The doughy buttered rolls could use some garlic, salt, and a run under the broiler; salads should be tossed to order instead of getting dressing drizzled on top; and a real Caesar dressing should replace the one that Tony's uses now, a doctored balsamic stand-in. Sure, you'll need to drop your Italian-o-meter at the door -- this place won't rouse memories of your favorite trattoria -- still, it's hard to dismiss its easy charm.

Despite the comfortable setting, the tables and chairs don't encourage lengthy sitting. Three people feel crowded at the rhombus-shaped tables designed for four. The nicest spot to eat, I think, is the bar, where two tall seats beckon drink patrons.

Only coffee drinkers, though, notice Tony's open-sidewalk bar. And almost everyone, it seems, overlooks its smart wine and beer list. Beers include Guiness, Bass, and Harp on draft ($2.50) and Heineken, Amstel Light, Molson Ice, and Moretti by the bottle ($1.99). Wine is strictly Italian and also cheap ($3.14 by the glass). For a restaurant with ultra-casual service, the wine list is extensive (10 total). With better seating, they've got a hot happy hour spot.

Ultimately, Tony's Vineyard is a campus place, which means that: 1) it serves the college crowd well, and 2) it hardly attracts anyone else. But on the next cool day, I might just make a special trip there. -- Ronna N. Welsh

Classic Thai Restaurant
9619 N. Lamar, 491-8856
Mon-Sat, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm
Sun, noon-9pm

Classic Thai is the Godzilla of the Thai lunch buffet kingdom ... breathing fire, got an attitude, on a roll, and unstoppable. I had been a regular at the buffet for a while because my mom had a fall, broke her wrist, and temporarily needed some help around the house. Her house was fairly close to Classic Thai, and I live near Wimberley, so it was convenient to stop there. It was run by some friendly, older Thai women, and the food was everything I could ask for at a lunch buffet. Mom got better, and I didn't go for a while. Then my capsaicin craving got the best of me, initiating my return to the tasty hinterlands of North Park Shopping Center.

I momentarily freaked upon entering the door. Instead of the sweet, older Thai women I had come to love, I saw young Thais in matching "Classic Thai" polo shirts. The subdued Thai music had been replaced by jamming Thai pop music (one singer was the spittin' image of a Thai Alanis Morissette) coming from a new Peavey sound system. The music was at a reasonable volume, mind you, but it was still weird. I quickly scanned the buffet line, expecting the worst: a change to mediocrity.

Didn't happen, false alarm ... Classic Thai (and Poo Thai in Cedar Park) were bought out by Simmaly Sareerat in the spring. According to Internet spies, she kept the original chefs and menus, and, judging by the taste of my recent visit, my spies were right.

Classic Thai puts out a real groaning board of a buffet: two soups, eight or nine entrees, two or three noodles, two or three salads, and two desserts with fresh fruit. Soups on my visits have included Coconut Milk Chicken Soup and Sour and Spicy Chicken Soup, both made with rich, spicy stocks laden with tender chicken chunks and no scrimping on the herbs that give Thai soups their pizazz. Flaky eggrolls made with rice paper, not eggroll wrappers, were tasty. I didn't try the wontons because they don't move me (and take up valuable room).

Entrees run the gamut of all the Thai sauces: red and green curries, phrik khing, mussamun, padprik ... with varying combinations of beef, chicken, and pork. Stir fries have plenty of meat (lack of which is a common complaint at Oriental buffets), veggies are crisp and flavorful, sauces rich and well-balanced, and there's ample use of the flavor bombs of Thai cuisine: makroot leaves, lemongrass, galangal root, bird pepper, and Thai holy basil. They don't scrimp on what can be expensive ingredients in the U.S.

Noodles have included Pad Woosen With Tofu (silver bean thread noodles), the ubiquitous Pad Thai, wide egg noodles with chicken and egg, and flat rice noodles with vegetables. Thai salads are among my favorites, and they are well-represented here. Yum Nuea (Thai Beef Salad) on one visit was better than my own, and I make a killer version. Beef Waterfall and Green Papaya salads have both been over the top. My last visit had a salad made with crispy noodles in the style of Mee Grob (crispy, carmelized, slightly sweet) with fried tofu, red onion, scallion, mint, and lime, which I've never encountered before ... but it's a salad I'd like to taste again sometime soon.

Vegetarian options are well-represented in most categories except soup, which would be one area of improvement for Classic Thai to consider. Desserts are another area in which Classic Thai falls a little short; their current offerings are an okay strawberry cheesecake, a Thai Jell-o of lime and coconut (which is short on flavor and has the consistency of gummi bears), and good, ripe fruit. I'd prefer something a little more authentic in the mix, but I don't go there for the dessert.

Bring on Mothra, Gamera, Rodan, and the Smog Monster. There's no stopping the lunch buffet at Classic Thai. It's the best in town and the competition doesn't even come close. -- Mick Vann

Yen Ching Chinese Noodle House
2910 Guadalupe, 472-4754
Sun-Thu, 11am-9:30pm;
Fri & Sat 11am-10pm

Yen Ching Noodle House
photograph by John Anderson

The Vietnamese noodle bowl -- be it a nest of vermicelli smattered with grilled meats or the aromatic bowl of Pho bobbing with sprouts and basil -- has become the fast food of choice among Austin's gastronomically correct. Not unlike the hamburger, options abound when it comes to topping your noodles. For variety, you can layer your vermicelli with meat or vegetables, eggrolls or tofu. When it comes to Pho, there's tendon, brisket, or a tangle of tripe. Yet the possibilities for a change in flavor more or less end there, unless, of course, you make a complete departure from Vietnam and opt for a pile of Chinese noodles. Now I'm not talking Chow Mein here, so don't balk just yet. What I'm suggesting is a bowl of homemade noodles smothered in brown bean sauce or plugged with pork, shrimp, squid, black mushrooms, fish, and veggies. You can get them at Yen Ching, the winning Chinese noodle house on the Drag.

There are a few things you should know before you venture into Yen Ching. First, the standard Chinese specials offered on the menu are just that: pretty standard fare not really worth raving about. Second, if you want to sample the restaurant's remarkable noodles, then you have to have a little time on your hands, as they're made fresh on order. Third, the noodles I'm recommending don't appear on the Lunch Special menu, as it was conceived for those folks who want to get in and out of the restaurant in less than an hour.

Unlike their Vietnamese counterparts, Yen Ching's homemade noodles are dense and chewy and tend to fill you up faster. Their elasticity is a testament to their freshness, and variety comes by way of a change in sauce instead of a mere change in topping, Yen Ching's sauces truly alter the noodles' taste. The heartwarming soup noodle with beef Szechuan style ($5.45) finds the long ribbons bathed in a spicy, almost creamy creation that will find favor among fans of the slow burn, whereas the soup noodle with shrimp and vegetable ($5.75) treads as softly on the palate as a lightly seasoned salad might. The noodle with special brown bean sauce ($5.45) features thinner noodles presented in a shallow plate instead of a deep soup bowl. The dark, sticky sauce gives the dish a richness not found in the "soup noodle" offerings, although its unmistakably sweet finish might be too much for some tastes.

I've not yet tried them, but Yen Ching's homemade noodles also come Japanese and Korean style -- the latter a cold preparation, further proof of the variety the restaurant offers. So next time a craving for noodles comes on and you have a little time to spare, I advise a change of pace. Yen Ching's made-to-order marvels are sure to please, no matter how you top them. The noodles are so good, in fact, that you may have a hard time going back to the same old bowl of Pho. -- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

La Abuelita
1707 E. Sixth, 478-1837
Daily, 8am-10pm

In its third incarnation in a year, the stuccoed Mexican villa that most recently housed Mi Rey Mexican Restaurant and, before that, Mexico Tipico has become La Abuelita. Set in a somewhat isolated if peaceful courtyard off East Sixth Street, the colorful cafe possesses an outdoor seating area with diamond-in-the-rough potential and a gaily appointed interior. Given these qualities, it's no wonder this little gem of a building attracts new restaurant owners. Yet one look at the track record of previous tenants reveals that the building's off-the-beaten-path location comes as both a blessing and a curse.

Like its predecessors and most of the neighboring restaurants in Olé Mexico, La Abuelita serves Tex-Mex standards as well as traditional Mexican fare. Commendably, the kitchen sends out plates that are fresher than the offerings served nearby, exhibited in the leaf lettuce and purple cabbage salad garnish as opposed to the ubiquitous helping of limp iceberg. I stumbled upon La Abuelita during a recent midday trip to what I expected to be Mi Rey. After my initial disappointment in Mi Rey's departure, I agreed to give La Abuelita a go and am happy I did so.

A sandwich board in front of the restaurant proclaimed "Fresh Caldo!" The waitress also sang the soup's praises, so I ordered a bowl of it ($3.95), along with Tostadas al Pastor ($1.99). The perfect antidote to Austin's first cool day, the caldo had a thin broth base that turned out to be packed with flavor. It came crowned with hunks of slightly crisp potato, zucchini, carrot, green bell pepper, corn-on-the-cob, and cabbage. Two homely chunks of beef floated amid the vegetables and fell apart with the gentle prodding of knife and fork, and the soup was paired with a mound of Spanish rice and several quarters of fresh lime. The tostada featured well-seasoned morsels of grilled pork and a generous mountain of mild white cheese crumbles in addition to the usual accompaniments. A friend ordered the mild Chile Relleno con Pollo ($7.95), which he and I both deemed good, if not quite as notable as the invigorating soup.

While we ate, La Abuelita's friendly owner made the rounds. He informed us that he's still waiting on his liquor license. So, for now anyway, meals at La Abuelita are a dry affair. He also mentioned plans to make use of the location's fabulous patio come spring. That, when paired with quality fare and a round of libations, should help to make La Abuelita a winning combination. -- R.C.

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