Restaurant Review: Asia Cafe
The best and most authentic Chinese in town?
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., Dec. 1, 2006
8650 Spicewood Springs Rd. #115, 331-5780
One advantage of working at the University of Texas is that I often mingle with our foreign graduate students, who provide excellent recommendations on international restaurants around town. A friend's lab partner had told us about a Chinese restaurant out north, and on further questioning, she told me it specialized in Sichuan cuisine. That sealed the deal, and plans were made to meet my Sichuan food mentor, Mike, there to explore the menu. It is all that we had hoped it would be as Austin's only Sichuan restaurant: a very casual spot without a trace of stuffiness and with excellent food at very reasonable prices. Here's how it happens: You stand at a counter, usually in a line, and place your order from the bilingual menu. You pay and get a number, go to the end of the counter and serve yourself cold water or hot tea (or both), and grab your utensils and a small bowl from which to eat. After waiting a few minutes, your order is called; you pick up your tray of dishes and dive in. If you're sharp, you've gone to the Web site beforehand to peruse the menu and have decided what you'll order before you get in line. It takes the pressure off.
My first visit left me giddy. We sampled a wide range of dishes among the three of us, and I was ready for a repeat visit by the time the meal was finished. Zhong Dumplings ($4.50) are exquisite: Thick handmade pastry surrounds juicy minced pork, resting in a pool of sweet soy, chile, and sesame oils and loads of garlic. Spicy Wonton ($4) is a large bowl of thin-pastry, long dumplings filled with seasoned pork, sitting upon a portion of pea shoots, dripping with a spicy broth of sesame with scallion. They have the proper slippery mouthfeel for which the dish is prized. Asia's roasted chile oil condiment on the tabletop is incendiary and loaded with ma la (Sichuan peppercorns), a tingly, mouth-numbing relative of our prickly ash tree.
Water-Boiled Beef ($7.95) is a bowl of tender beef slices resting on a bed of brothy Napa cabbage with mung sprouts and scallion, topped with red oil, roasted chile, and ma la: a superb version. Pork With Garlic Sauce ($7) is a cold dish of thin slices of pork belly with a sweet-spicy sauce of hot bean paste and garlic. Stir-Fried Chicken With Hot Chile ($7) is cubes of marinated chicken with slices of garlic, lots of ma la, peas, carrot cubes, and celery. It was the least impressive dish of that visit but was much better when eaten later on, cold. Twice-Cooked Pork ($7) is made with pork belly, jalapeño slices, black beans, and celery, as well as roasted chile and ma la: so very much better than what you've been led to believe this dish is, although more traditional leeks would be better than the celery.
Ma Po Tofu ($7) is the finest version around: a large bowl of soft tofu with minced pork, in a thick sauce of hot bean paste, garlic, scallion, with red oil and ma la. Dry-Cooked Green Beans ($5.50) are superior, as well: nary a trace of oiliness, with a rich minced meat and onion coating. Shredded Potato With Green Pepper ($5.50) is a mound of julienned potato with shredded green bell pepper, the potatoes tasting like they had been blanched in a rich broth.
Trip two started with two cold dishes, similar but different. Sichuan Spicy & Hot Rice Jelly ($3.50; rice jelly is thick batons of rice starch stirred with a coagulant and water over heat: translucent and soft-textured) is in a sauce that is salty and spicy and loaded with garlic, a textural treat. Chicken Delight ($7.50) is a bowl of moist, bone-in, steamed chicken slices flavored with a sauce of minced garlic and peanuts, scallion, ma la, soy, sugar, and sesame oil. Wonderful!
Pork With Dry Bean Curd ($7) was a favorite of that meal: a mound of slivers of sweet, juicy pork and nutty, dry-spiced tofu in a light garlicky sauce with soy and scallion. Eggplant With Garlic Sauce ($6.50) is the best version in town: a perfectly balanced rich, sweet-sour sauce loaded with garlic, the Asian eggplant chunks just-cooked and still purple. Steamed Pork Leg With Dates ($9.50) is luscious: a huge chunk of pork leg in a rich broth loaded with small Chinese dates. The meat falls apart from the silken skin, and the flavor is infused with the rich sweetness of the dates.
There it is: two visits of many dishes and praise from all concerned. We proclaim this Austin's best and most authentic Chinese restaurant in town (and the only pure Sichuan spot). You have been notified, but this is really the kind of place we would like to have kept a secret.
We persuaded a friendly Chinese couple at a neighboring table, Bonnie and Yen, to translate the Saturday-morning-only breakfast menu for us in return for stereo-equipment and landscape recommendations. Saturday mornings at Asia Cafe are pretty busy, with lots of Chinese families dropping in to shop at the market and enjoy a traditional breakfast. The dry-erase board offers a list of 14 different choices, with prices ranging between $1.50 and $6 or so. We didn't get to taste any of these because, at the time, we had no idea what they were, but all of the dishes going out of the kitchen looked amazing, and Bonnie and Yen proclaimed them great and authentic. Here are the offerings:
Breakfast at the Asia Cafe
Steamed Pork Bun
Fried Chinese Pancake
Bowl of Hot Soy Milk (to be eaten with the crullers)
Vegetable and Pork Steamed Buns
Sticky Rice Balls
Flower Tofu in Ginger Syrup
Baked Curry Rice With Hong Kong-Style BBQ Pork
Shrimp Wrap (wide, clear noodle style)
Fried Shrimp Balls
Hong Kong-Style Sausage With Sticky Rice