San Francisco in South Austin
Finding dim sum and Cantonese seafood, early birds and all-nighters, at Marco Polo
Marco Polo Restaurant2200 S. I-35, 445-5563
Monday-Friday (buffet) 11am-2pm;
Saturday-Sunday (dim sum) 11am-2:30pm;
Monday-Tuesday 5-10pm; Wednesday-Sunday 5pm-2am
When you consider Marco Polo, it might take a bit of mental massage to ignore the Clarion Inn, to which the restaurant is attached. It's a stigma that the restaurant has battled since its inception. Imagine the motel instead as a strip mall, and half the image war is won. The main thing to remember is that Marco Polo should now be considered the southern alternative to T&S Seafood. No longer do the chefs and kitchen grunts of Austin have to make the drunken late-night drive all the way up to far North Lamar for their early morning fix of top-notch Cantonese seafood.
Owners John and Alice Yim opened Marco Polo in 1991 as a primarily Chinese restaurant that also served menu offerings from the European (and other Asian) repertoire. They were known primarily as a lunch buffet spot, and through the years developed a reputation as a rock-solid example of that genre. We ate at their buffet often, enjoying the offbeat mix of Chinese and quasi-Continental. The food was freshly prepared, the sauces clean and noncloying, and the tastes spot-on.
A year and a half ago, Richard La, originally from San Francisco and with a lengthy stint at Pao's Mandarin House downtown under his belt in Austin, purchased Marco Polo from the Yims. His intent was to make it more like the dim sum and seafood houses of his hometown, while simultaneously providing an outlet for fresh Cantonese seafood to the late diners of Austin. With the entertainment district a few minutes away and an ocean of student apartments across I-35 (and Wan Fu, just down Oltorf, doing mega-late business), it was a no-brainer.
The space makes no grand pretense toward oriental opulence, but it's clean and well-lit, with very comfortable seating. The colors are light but subdued, and one wall is solid floor-to-ceiling glass. The open ceiling with exposed rafters causes the eye to drift upward occasionally, but it ensures excellent acoustics, enabling one to converse comfortably. Just forget that there's a motel attached to one side of the restaurant, and you're all set.
The dim sum offerings are top-notch, served from carts that are constantly making the rounds. We like that the cart servers are knowledgeable about what they present, that the food doesn't stay in circulation very long (and arrives piping hot), and that there aren't very many options per cart ... all criteria essential to fresh dim sum. We also love the fact that the majority of the dim sum crowds are of Asian descent.
At Marco Polo dim sum, the diner can consume at a leisurely pace, taking a nosh from this cart, a nosh from the next. If there's a certain item you want and it hasn't made the rounds, just ask, and when a batch is ready, they'll whisk it along to your table.
We attacked early on a Saturday, around 11:30 (knowing that the crowds can be intense), and we got one of the few remaining tables. Two of us tried a dozen different offerings, armed with several small bowls of chile paste, and with drinks and tax the bill was $35.50 for two (about average for dim sum in Austin). Steamed buns filled with shredded char siu roast pork are superb: a perfect ratio of light, spongy dough to intensely flavored meat (more meat than most). Pork, shrimp, and diced-vegetable dumplings have a nice balance of crunchy texture and savory taste. Shrimp and leek dumplings combine the sweetness of fresh shrimp with aromatic leek. The chicken dumplings are exceptionally juicy and rich. (Perhaps they have added a touch of jelled chicken stock to the mixture?) Marco Polo has a way with dumpling wrappers: They use a proper dough, heavy on the tapioca starch, which produces an almost transparent thin skin that doesn't overpower the filling.
Fried shrimp balls contain large chunks of flavorful crustacean, bound in a light mix of rice flour and egg. Pork with peanuts is accompanied with diced water chestnut and scallion: a great combo. Thai-style fish cakes are impeccably fresh and paired with a rich sweet and sour sauce. Fried baby-back pork ribs are laden with lots of garlic and melt in the mouth. Seafood soup provides a large mixed seafood (scallop, shrimp, and shitake) wonton floating in a vibrant broth of red vinegar and scallion thread. A standout is the Asian eggplant "sandwich": deep-fried, diagonal, thick slices with a splendid shrimp-paste filling. The braised Chinese broccoli with soy and garlic provides the requisite delicious greens. All the items are quite satisfying and the service efficient. The people in line can only watch and drool from the shadows. We left stuffed.
The lunch buffet ($7.95 with drink) is much as we remembered from the Yim days. A huge assortment of options (with a nod to the non-Asian) is nicely displayed. We sampled a rich and tangy hot and sour soup, pan-fried pork dumplings (with tapioca skins, as good as those at dim sum), lightly battered shrimp tempura (great with hot mustard), chunky (and juicy) fried chicken wings, vegetable egg rolls (thin-skin style), and honey-glazed unctuous pork ribs, all from the appetizer section.
From the entrée world, we tried incredibly tender chicken with spicy black-bean sauce, filet of sole strips with piquant garlic sauce and scallion, General Tso's chicken (light breading, subtle citrus flavor, smoky chiles), teriyaki chicken strips (more Chinese barbecue-style than Japanese), spicy fried tofu with crisp veggies, and beef with broccoli (tender and well-flavored). From the non-Asian end, we selected the sautéed mushrooms with sweet onion, the lemon-pepper chicken (thin crust, nicely spiced), dry-cooked green beans with garlic (superb mixed with the mushrooms), fried fish slices (fresh and real we found a small bone), and the rather unimaginative fried potato chunks (although nice with chile paste). Top it off with a dense, gooey brownie and some fresh cantaloupe and orange slices, and you're ready to waddle back to work.
We would like to see a return to the Yims' practice of cooking in smaller batches (they used to have the entrées sitting mounded in a large platter resting in the steam-table half-pans), but we appreciate the fact that fresh fish is used, and items like the fried zucchini sticks are freshly battered instead of a pre-battered product. All in all, Marco Polo serves a superior Chinese buffet.
Dinner unleashes the 180-item, leatherette-bound menu, and it takes a bit of perusal to digest it all. They also have a more pedestrian menu available for the moo-goo gai-pan/sweet-and-sour crowd, but trust us, stick with the real menu. Yet again, we couldn't resist the Pan-Fried Dumplings ($4.25), and they didn't fail. They have the requisite translucent skin (nicely browned on both sides); juicy pork filling; dipping sauce of soy, ginger, and garlic (and a nice touch of a bit of Maggi sauce?); with a large dollop of fiery chile paste. We drooled like Homer Simpson when he thinks about doughnuts.
Next arrived a surprisingly large platter of superlative minced duck with garlic, mushroom, bamboo shoot, and bits of fried rice noodle, elegantly portioned at tableside by the waiter into plum-sauce-drizzled lettuce-leaf cups to be eaten like a burrito ($7.95). Although listed as an appetizer, it made four large "burritos" and is highly recommended.
We were seduced by the sound of the Dried Scallop and Mixed Seafood Soup ($6.95), because the dining companion couldn't be coerced into trying the tempting fish maw soup. A wise choice, this: a very rich broth filled with julienne scallion, ginger, shitake, and bamboo shoot, with lots of toothsome slivers of dried scallop, as well as tender chunks of shrimp, crab, and fish. The bowl provides eight cups' worth of excellent soup, and only two of those cups survived to tell the tale to the inhabitants of our refrigerator.
My only complaint would be the thickness of the porcelain soup spoons; it's impossible to eat from these beauties without dribbling like a bumpkin. We prefer the thinner metal versions, but why quibble when the soup's so good?
Spicy Tofu With Pork ($7.25) is one of our hallmark dishes by which to judge a Chinese kitchen's skills, and this one passes the test admirably: rich and velvety, chunks of sweet pork, with a nice balance of heat, sweet, and sour. I prefer the more authentic version that uses assertively spicy fermented bean paste with chiles and garlic, but Marco Polo's version is a delight. Snow Pea Shoots With Garlic ($9.25) were lightly sautéed and the perfect foil for what came next.
Salt-and-Pepper Cuttlefish ($8.95) arrive around a molded center of steamed broccoli, the cuttlefish pieces lightly coated, tender and scrumptious, and lightly spiced. Dress them with a light dab of chile paste, and they go down real smooth. Razor Clams With Black Bean Sauce ($12.95) are outstanding as good as the razors we had in Barcelona last week, which speaks volumes: tender, sweet razor clams napped in a robust, full-flavored sauce so good that tears well up.
Mr. La is solidly on the right track with his rebirth of Marco Polo. The excellent fresh food, elegant presentation, reasonable pricing, informed and unobtrusive service, and late hours all combine to give Austin a very San Francisco-like option for dim sum, Cantonese seafood dishes, and, yes, even lunch buffet ... and it's South!