Table Fable

When a Waiter Forgets the Customer and the service, Even good Food Can Be Tough to Swallow

Front to back: Shrimp and Squid Stir-Fried With Garlic and Salt, spring rolls, and Vermicelli with Charcoal-Broiled Pork and Egg Roll.
Front to back: Shrimp and Squid Stir-Fried With Garlic and Salt, spring rolls, and Vermicelli with Charcoal-Broiled Pork and Egg Roll. (Photo By John Anderson)

The Tea House

13376 Research #100, 335-0935

Monday-Saturday, 11am-10pm; Sunday, 11am-9pm

The same group that brought you Saigon Kitchen for so many years (now operated by an aunt of the founder) now brings you the Tea House. The location has seen several attempts at other concepts (Austin Java and Java Grill), but it's pleasant and open, and the decorations add rather than detract. The Tea House is serving a mix of Vietnamese and Chinese, which is common for restaurants afraid of not appealing to the biggest audience or not wanting to appear too esoteric. The food is fine, but the service can be a drawback.

First, allow me a rant about waitpeople in general. The perfect waiters accomplish two key things simultaneously: They seamlessly provide for your every dining need, and they do it in a way that's never obtrusive. You never know that they are hovering at your beck and call. Waiter X, our server on the first visit to the Tea House, did the latter with aplomb and the former very, very poorly.

As a former restaurant person with 30 years' experience, I can assure you that waiters are mercenaries by nature. Which is why it seemed so odd that our table, which was ordering $50 worth of food on a slow afternoon, was completely ignored, while the other two tables present, which were ordering off the lunch menu and had $10 tabs, were attentively cared for. Simple mathematics proves that a larger tab should equal a bigger tip, all things being equal, and of course, in a perfect world, every table would get equal treatment. Maybe we just got the server that didn't care if he made any money. Maybe he hated our guts at first sight. It will remain a mystery.

I'll mention first-visit food while we track the waiter's actions through the meal. We ask if we could order off the full menu rather than the lunch menu and are met with an audible sigh, followed by a reluctant "OK." The menus are presented, and three minutes later we're asked if we're ready to order (from an eight-page menu, mind you). Two minutes later he's back and again in another two minutes. He has been to the table three times already, and there's been no mention of drink requests (normally the first thing tackled). We signal that we are ready to order, the order is taken, and the waiter is leaving as we shout out our drink orders to his disappearing back.

No drinks arrive while he chats up the two deuces of low spenders (as he's overheard telling them that he knows nothing about Vietnamese food). The drinks finally appear with the fried pork dumplings ($3.95). If you've ever bought a bag of frozen dumplings at any Asian market then you know how the dumpling experience went: thin, baggy skins; lackluster filling; unexciting dipping sauce with the tiniest hint of vinegar. Not Vietnamese, only vaguely Chinese, and more than likely from a bag.

Next comes a full-frontal assault of all of the other dishes at once. First he arrives with a bathtub-sized bowl of Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup ($12.50), but has to return with two small bowls and a ladle. The soup is fine with the exception that the stock needs a flavor boost, the shrimp is served tail-on (not too dainty for eating soup), and the tomato wedges are actually tomato quarters, requiring that they be cut.

At the same time we get Beef Chunk Steak ($8.95; their version of the superb Viet dish known as "Shaking Beef"), Chicken with Hot Chili and Ginger ($7.45), and Roll Your Own Springrolls with Charcoal Pork ($7.95). The beef dish needs a bit more fish sauce for authenticity -- otherwise, it's good, but the accompanying lemon dipping sauce should be just salt and pepper in a dish with lemons to squeeze over it. Instead it tastes watered-down.

The chicken dish is delicious, with a nice chile zip and a pleasant finish of ginger. No complaints here. The "roll your own spring rolls" concept sounds good on paper. What usually happens, as it did here, is that you get a stack of rice papers that are all stuck together and impossible to separate. Here's a hint: Layer the papers with steamed cabbage leaves or parchment, so they don't stick to each other.

Waiter X has a major hissy fit when we ask for fresh rice papers, and we're having a fit because we didn't get nuoc cham dipping sauce to go with them, nor a fresh salad plate of sprouts, herbs, and lettuce. The pork has a nice caramelized flavor, but when you get noodles, pork, and a solid mass of rice papers the dish suffers greatly.

When we finish the meal, every square inch of the tabletop is covered with dirty dishes, and though we sit for another 15 minutes waiting for a check, it never occurs to this bonehead that we might enjoy having a bit of empty space in front of us. Testing the diner's patience immediately before the tipping part of the experience is always a bad idea.

The second visit is the antithesis of the first experience. We are served very efficiently by a very pleasant woman who knows the food and the menu and also knows how to wait on a table. Her timing is impeccable (proper wait for the taking of the order, drinks handled up front, etc.). We start with Spicy Lettuce Wraps ($4.95), which are delicious chicken-and-pepper-stuffed lettuce leaves.

The Shrimp, Chicken, and Asparagus Soup ($4.25, for two) has a nice texture and a rich but delicate flavor. Just right. Squid Stir-Fried With Garlic and Salt ($8.95) is the Viet take on the classic salt-and-pepper Chinese cooking style. The squid is lightly breaded and perfectly tender, accompanied with a mildly salty sauce of robust garlic and jalapeño, with steamed broccoli on the side. Delightful. Next arrives Beef With Hot Chile Sauce and Lemongrass ($8.95). Tender beef tossed with onions, scallions, and jalapeño in a piquant, citrusy lemongrass sauce. Again, a nice touch. At the proper moment the table is cleared and the check presented, and appropriately enough her tip is much better than the bonehead's.

With the labor market the way it is, every restaurant owner should be watching their staff like hawks. Bonehead's behavior would scare the bejeezus out of me if I were still operating a dining operation today, because it is so easy for one staff member to completely destroy a diner's experience.

Hopefully, the Tea House can get their service problems worked out, eliminate the deadwood, and get some top-notch folks in as staff. The food, with some minor glitches, is nice, and deserves better presentation. Rest assured that, on my next visit, I will know who to avoid when being taken to my table. end story

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