Restaurant Review: Old Thousand
Chinese concept rebels with in-your-face food and vibe
Reviewed by Melody Fury, Fri., Feb. 10, 2017
Sun.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm
Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 11am-2pm
Let's make one thing clear: For minorities in this country, the reaction to Donald Trump's immigration ban is not an exercise in manufactured outrage. Many of us are terrified because it echoes the horror of this country's not-so-distant past of refusing to welcome Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany and holding thousands of Japanese-Americans in internment camps. This shit did not happen overnight – it took a collective of people to either support it or to stay silent for it to move forward. The remorseful vows of "never again" faded back into history as Trump stirred up hate, reminding us that we're not as socially evolved as we'd like to believe.
But this threat is really nothing new. And because of it, minority groups have taught their children to keep their heads down, work hard, and not rock the boat. Advice is passed on from generation to generation: You're too easy of a target so try to blend in as well as you can. Definitely don't get angry, even when that is the only sane reaction or when someone is directly challenging your humanity.
For Asian-Americans, the unspoken pressure to be the model minority is ingrained in our genes. While some subscribe to the cultural expectation to enter a handful of parent-approved professions, a small group of risk-takers have always challenged this narrative. Austin's booming modern Asian dining trend is proof. Chinatown's Ronald Cheng paved the way in his signature eccentric fashion, followed by more recent restaurateurs like Top Chef winner Paul Qui and Wu Chow's self-proclaimed "giant Chinaman" C.K. Chin.
Now, Old Thousand (the name is Chinese slang for a cunning hustler or con) joins the ranks of trailblazers that are defining Austin's brand of rebellious Asian fare. And if the unapologetically displayed painting merging Trump's face with Mao Zedong is any indication, these Asians aren't about to bow with servitude. Chefs James Dumapit (Uchiko) and David Baek (Thai-Kun, Uchi) collaborate on a menu that hits the comfort notes that most diners seek in American-Chinese food. Decked with tattoos and an infectious smile, general manager Stephanie Chow runs the floor, expanding on the knowledge she gained from her family's six Chinese restaurants. Along with SMGB Hospitality Co., they have created a new template for what a Chinese restaurant can be.
The eclectic atmosphere blends familiar Chinese elements like Forties-style Shanghainese powder blue floral wallpaper and kitschy red lanterns with updated details like contemporary gold chairs. Cheeky humor dots the space, like the prominent painting of a giant panda dressed like Biggie Smalls. Similarly, the menu remixes elements from a range of regional Chinese dishes – some restrained, others loud. Of the starters, the Chongqing chicken ($8) and the tea egg salad ($8.88) were standouts. The former is like a fancy, grownup version of popcorn chicken, the bite-size meat fried in batter, then tossed in an addictive Sichuan chili oil that gives a lip-numbing "málà" or "icy-hot" quality. The creamy tea-marinated quail eggs brought whimsy and umami to the bed of lightly dressed HausBar Farms bitter greens with crunchy radish slices, puffed rice, and edible flowers.
The pork ribs ($8.88) in a black vinegar glaze were fall-off-the-bone tender and homey. They were boldly smoky and sweet, sprinkled with flaky salt and diced celery. The jellyfish salad ($10) scored high in both flavor (a vibrant málà vinaigrette) and textures (with three types of crunch from the jellyfish, cucumber, and wood ear mushroom). Unnoticeable to my tablemates, the slight grittiness was a rookie slipup.
Between the starches, the rice dishes take the crown. Thinly sliced Chinese sausage and chopped Micklethwait beef gave just the right amount of smoky oil to coat the brisket fried rice's springy granules ($16). With plenty of wok-hei (breath of the wok) and precise seasoning, they elevated this common Chinese-Texan way to repurpose barbecue. The vegetarian sunchoke fried rice ($12) needed a touch more oil, but pickled sunchoke, sunflower sprouts, Chinese long beans, and sunchoke chips added refreshing textural interest. Meltingly tender pork belly, Chinese sausage, and duck confit brought a lavish modern twist to Cantonese claypot rice ($24). They stirred in an egg yolk and chili soy sauce tableside for added richness, but it was missing fan-jiu at the bottom, the quintessential crispy rice crust.
While the rice dishes were cooked beautifully, the noodles fell a bit flat. The dan dan noodles ($10) with crispy tofu, bok choy, and mushrooms, and cumin beef noodles ($12) both packed a punch in flavor. The nutty garlic sauce with mushroom puree and creamy soft egg, and the fiery cumin sauce with marinated flank steak were each distinctly savory and impactful. However, the soft wheat noodles lacked texture and became even softer as they soaked up the sauces.
Restraint was key to the honey prawn ($16) and mapo eggplant ($10), which often tends to be over-sauced. Instead, the prawns were lightly coated and expertly fried, then highlighted with a measured drizzle of citrusy Texas honey curd and the eggplant dressed in an earthy fermented chili bean paste. The same light-handed delivery would have benefited the pineapple beef ($16), where the thick flour dusting on the beef and overly sweet sauce resulted in a slightly cloying dish, even if the charred pineapple added necessary brightness.
Char siu ($18-34), which translates to "prong-grilled" in Cantonese, was a brilliant mash-up of Hong Kong-style barbecue pork served with Taiwanese-style gua bao (fluffy steamed buns), cilantro, and sliced onions. With an even fat-to-meat ratio, the red meat ring and crispy charred exterior were signifiers of skillful grilling.
With three desserts to choose from, the red bean paste-filled fried sesame balls ($3) were a proper nod to traditional dim sum while the dan ta ($6) took a far leap from the Cantonese bakery specialty. The silky, lemony egg custard was set nicely in the crispy tart shell, which was an unusual but reasonable substitute to the original flaky or crumbly crusts.
The flawed but promising cocktail program is in line with their rebellious ethos. The aptly named Nasty Woman ($11) immediately caught the eye. Barbancourt 4-year-old rum, Cherry Heering, St. Germain, and Anaheim pepper gave the cava-topped drink balanced body and floral sweetness. The Bad Hombre ($12) plays on the margarita with Wahaka espadín mezcal, Aperol, and Velvet Falernum bringing smokiness and complexity to the Sichuan salt-rimmed glass. Unfortunately, the maple syrup and tiki bitters overpowered Famous Grouse Smoky Black in the Scotchy, Scotch, Scotch ($11), not allowing anything else to shine through.
Because of all the liquor flowing, the soundtrack of classic hip-hop anthems can overwhelm at times, but the noise seems inevitable in the densely packed dining room. The service was attentive and friendly, managing to juggle informing diners on the menu, weaving through heavy traffic areas, while ensuring that dishes arrived hot and the tea pots were topped up. But don't expect perfection here because that's not their focus. Rather than attempting to replicate upscale Chinese dining, the menu and ambience strives to conjure up nostalgic memories and to create dialogue. Their business reveals how originality and authenticity ultimately win diners' hearts.
And one more thing – take a minute to look around and you will see that the team is made up of all beautiful skin shades. America is great because immigrants have brought their best values, ideas, skills, cultures, and dreams to create a collective strength. But it's irresponsible, even unethical, to merely reap from immigrants' efforts without standing up for their constitutional rights. You cannot simultaneously ask for more culinary diversity while neglecting the personal security of the families that cook your food. Like the food at Old Thousand shows, minority groups will continue to rebel against stereotyping, false perception, and oppression. But the fight can be exhausting. Knowing that we're not fighting alone makes a world of difference.
Old Thousand1000 E. 11th #150,
Sun.-Thu., 5-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 5pm-12mid