6800 Westgate Blvd. #112, 416-9888
Monday-Thursday, 11:30am-10:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30am-11:00pm; Sunday, 11:30am-10pmwww.nghouse.net
The first hint that this is a New York-style Cantonese Chinese restaurant is the bowl of complimentary chow mein noodles and side of sweet-and-sour sauce that arrives with the menu. The owners relocated from upstate New York to the northwest corner of Westgate and William Cannon, and though the name sounds strange, the NG stands for Nice people and Good food. They live up to the claims.
The place can seem stark and small at first glance, but it's impeccably clean. Forget the ambience and focus on the menu. Our first visit set the pace for later meals. The Pan-Fried Dumplings (eight for $4.25) are superb: a thick, handmade pastry properly browned on the bottom, containing a plump, well-seasoned, coarsely minced pork filling, accompanied by a perfectly balanced sauce. The Coriander Beef and Tofu Soup (quart, $4.95) is a huge bowl of rich stock, minced beef meatballs, soft tofu cubes, and egg thread, with cilantro flotsam. It's a study in richness and texture. The flaky Scallion Pancake ($2.50) suffers a common flaw: not enough scallions. But the things are damn good, especially when dipped in NG's excellent smoky-fiery chile paste.
A dish on the specials board sucked us in: Beef Shank With Tofu Stick and Mushroom Hot Pot ($9.95). What arrived was a crock holding an unctuous Chinese-seasoned beef reduction, chunks of meltingly tender shank, pieces of nutty tofu skin (the layer that forms on top when tofu is made), and chewy shittake mushrooms. Sublime. We paired this with Chinese Broccoli ($6.50) that was flash-sautéed with tons of garlic and a bit of stock. Perfect. Ma Po Do Fu ($6.95) was a near miss: delicious, but not made with fermented hot bean paste, the Szechuan seasoning that makes the dish authentic.
Another visit started with the Hot and Sour Soup (pint, $1.25). Wonder of wonders! It's made with pork stock and chunks of minced pork, and it's hot, and it's sour! No concessions here for the vegetarian crowd they make it correctly. The Black Pepper Chicken ($7.95) arrived perched on a bed of garlic-tossed water spinach, the chicken extremely tender and napped with a zippy brown sauce that says black pepper assertively (with maybe a hint of Szechuan peppercorn). Every molecule was devoured with gusto.
The next trip found us eating Crispy Tofu ($3.25): perfect little crispy golden cubes of soft tofu with hoisin sauce to dip into. Spicy Wonton ($3.95) brings a bowl of meaty dumplings with thin pastry wrappers balanced atop a pool of garlic oil kissed with vinegar and garnished with sesame seeds. These are very, very good. Jalapeño Flank Steak ($7.95) is tender beef slices tossed with fresh chiles in a rich brown sauce another keeper. General Tso's Chicken ($7.95) is tender chicken chunks lightly battered, tossed with a spicy orange glaze and crunchy bell pepper squares. This is a dish that most places manage to screw up. NG nails it.
Every time we've gone, the service has been attentive yet unobtrusive. All of the folks working there are very friendly and remember what you had the time before. They make sure that you like what you ordered but let you eat in peace.
NG serves lunch specials daily (11am-3pm, with some blackboard items added to the mix), giving you some 32 choices in all. The regular menu is loaded with categories and selections, including house specialties and chef-recommended authentic dishes. It's a menu that invites exploration. One of NG's more endearing qualities is its fine hand with the sauce ladle: sauces are light, finely crafted, and never overapplied. Forcemeats are hand-minced and not mechanically ground. Vegetables are just-cooked. As if this weren't enough, they're in South Austin, and they offer free delivery!
NG House is a blessing to Chinese food aficionados in Austin, especially South Austin. It's not the classiest place you'll stumble across, but it doesn't pretend to be something it's not. NG's staff just cranks out excellent Chinese fare at very reasonable prices with big smiles on their faces. You'll smile back.
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