Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., April 27, 2007
8776-B Research, 451-5051
13945 Hwy. 183 N., 219-5054
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-9:45pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10pm
Back in 1984, Sea Dragon was one of a very small group of Viet eateries in Austin and represented the restaurant where you went to get "real" Vietnamese dishes, meaning anything other than a bowl of bun or pho, or a com dia rice platter. My buddy Vic Jacobs and I used to go there for the duck with leeks, and it was on the regular rotation of favorite restaurants among my group of friends. Sea Dragon moved from the familiar long, dark narrow space to a much larger, more open spot in the same shopping center on the southwest corner of Ohlen and Research and then hatched Twin Dragon on North Lamar (although we always considered it the lesser twin of the pair). Twin Dragon disappeared, and now there is a Sea Dragon II out by Lakeline, but word is they concentrate more on the Chinese side of the menu to accommodate the locals. We realized that with the wealth of Vietnamese restaurants in Austin now, we were due to drop by our old favorite for a refresher course. We're glad we did.
For starters, we tried the Chicken in Hot and Sour Soup ($10.95, small), definitely one of the better versions in town, and the "small" bowl provides 6 cups of loaded broth. The broth is rich, with a perfect tangy balance of salty, sour, and sweet, with mild spice. It is loaded with bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, okra, slices of taro stem, celery, fresh pineapple, jalapeño slices, herbs, and chunks of chicken that are so tender they melt in your mouth. It disappeared rapidly.
We had the Three Course Beef ($10.95), which is their abridged version of the famous Beef Cooked 7 Ways (Bò Bay Món). The three you receive are ground beef wrapped around onion slices, beef-stuffed grape leaves (subbed here for ba lot or chaplu leaves), and a "sausage" of beef enclosed in succulent caul fat. Enclose these in rice paper with fresh herbs, sprouts, and chile, and a healthy dose of sauce, and you'll be a happy diner. Be sure to insist on getting some of the pineapple and anchovy sauce (mam nem) to go with it; although they will say you won't like it because it's too strong, it's a perfect match. Once they realized we knew what to order, they suggested the Crispy Cornish Game Hen ($9.95) for the next visit. We'll take them up on that.
Blackened Beef Cubes ($10.95) is their rendition of shaken beef. We loved the flavor but found that the cubes could have been a little more tender. The bed of onion and tomato slices soak up the juices of the meat and soften from the heat, making a nice post-meat salad. Lamb with lemongrass and hot pepper ($9.95) is tender and very flavorful, tossed with garlic, onion slivers, finely ground lemongrass, and thin pepper slices in an aromatic brown sauce. Sliced duck with leek and ginger ($9.95) is as wonderful as remembered: tender succulent duck slices with thick slices of sautéed leek, with a hint of ginger and chile.
Shrimp with black peppercorn ($9.95) is a delight: peeled, perfectly done shrimp in a light batter seasoned with cracked pepper, sitting on a bed of lettuce, onion, and tomato, and topped with a mélange of onion, garlic, scallion, and chile, each crustacean dipped in a dish of lemon juice with salt and pepper. Snow-pea Shoots With Garlic ($8.95) is a large mound of sautéed and wilted shoots with copious minced garlic and a kiss of fish sauce. Predictable and good. Special Chicken and Rice Clay Pot ($9.95) is interesting: top and bottom covered with crusted rice, like the treasure found at the bottom of the rice cooker. The center is a mixture of chunks of chicken and sweet pork sausage with carrot, onion, ginger, shiitake mushroom, and scallion. We only wish that it had been cooked with a bit more chicken stock, so it would be a little more moist.
We sampled their bun vermicelli with charcoal-grilled pork and egg rolls ($5.95) and declared it a winner: smoky, tender pork, crispy and flaky egg rolls, a nice ratio of vegetables to noodles, and an assertive sauce. We loved the grilled Shrimp Paste on Sugarcane ($10.95) fresh off of their citrusy stick and snuggled into a rice paper with fresh herbs before a dip in nuoc cham sauce.
Most patrons prefer the daily buffet ($6.45, 11am-2pm), but we prefer to order from the menu and only look at the numerous Vietnamese options. Why eat Chinese when their specialty is Vietnamese? Whatever you order, we recommend a steaming glass of hot ginger tea, followed by an icy Tsingtao or a Bia 333, if they have any.
Revisiting old friends is a worthwhile endeavor, and we're glad we gave old pal Sea Dragon a visit. Good Vietnamese food, great service, and value for the price. Enough said.
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