Restaurant Review: UZeat Serves Cultural Mash-Up Cuisine From Uzbekistan
Spicewood Springs eatery offers international fare that's complex, comforting, and delicious
Reviewed by Emily Beyda, Fri., April 20, 2018
Tue.-Fri., 11:30am-9pm; Sat., noon-9pm; Sun., 11am-9pm
"Everything is good," says our waiter, a slim teenager with a bright, toothy smile, who, after seating us and before taking our order, has been busy doing homework at a corner table. "That's what my parents tell me to say. Of course they're the ones making everything, but I think so, too." Our waiter, when he's not waiting or working on his English essay, helps out in the kitchen, prepping ingredients before they open and after they close. He tells us that he chopped the meat for our preordered somsa. The dense dough of the savory pastries, whose caramelized onion and lamb filling is slick and redolent of fat, soaks up the juices, and the ensemble is held in place by an outer layer charred solid in a pan. "Good, right?" he asks. We nod, our mouths thick with flaky dough. They are.
It's our second visit to UZeat, and we came prepared this time, preordering somsa and chebureki, which turns out to be a giant, crimped half-moon shell stuffed with a little ground beef. It has a clean oil taste, and the puffed shell is smooth inside, but it collapses crispy into the savory filling. Many things at UZeat are preorder-only, and with good reason. Our teenage waiter's parents prepare everything themselves, from the appetizers and desserts to the dense chewy bread that comes with most entrées, and the spicy tomato sauce served alongside them. This restaurant is very clearly a labor of love.
UZeat claims to be the first Uzbek restaurant in Austin, a calm mini-mall oasis with two-toned red and orange walls and enormous bouquets of fake flowers in every corner. The main room is decorated with two Uzbek dresses and big glossy photos of national landmarks. Lunchtime conversation is murmured under the Central European travelogues playing quietly on the TV. The family who runs UZeat appears to be on something of a cultural mission, making sure that unfamiliar visitors will understand the new cuisine they're about to explore. And what a cuisine it is. Uzbekistan has a famously diverse cultural heritage, with the Silk Road running right through the middle, and a long history of settlement by Mongolian, Turkic, and Russian people. The food at UZeat reflects that culinary diversity, with a menu of Middle Eastern-esque salads and grilled meats, thick-skinned northern Chinese style dumplings (their fillings seasoned with spices that remind me of my great-grandmother's Syrian meat kibbeh), and cabbage rolls and rice pilafs that wouldn't be out of place at your favorite New York Russian deli.
On our first visit, we started in Eastern European mode, with our waitress suggesting the mixed pirozhki, which came out in about 30 seconds, piping hot on a small dish with sour cream on the side. Unlike the more familiar pierogi of Poland, these felt more like miniature loaves of bread than dumplings – a little chewy and yeasty, with none of the give of a dumpling wrapper. The vegetarian version was super savory, stuffed with mushrooms and cubed potatoes, like something you imagine a rustic woodsman tucking into a coat pocket before a mountain climb. In the meat pirozhki, the meat was finely ground to a paste, seasoned with cumin and allspice.
Next comes palov, topped with lamb, of course, slow-cooked and fatty, melting into the buttery dome of very soft chickpeas and rice, studded with sweet little chunks of carrots, onions, and raisins. My companion is a little skeptical when I insist on ordering stuffed cabbage. It's a beautiful spring day, after all, and the stodginess of cooked cabbage feels out of place. But our gambit pays off. It's my favorite thing we've eaten at UZeat yet, incredibly tender little packages of rice and ground meat, wrapped in cabbage and slow-cooked to sweetness and topped with a sweet tangle of carrots, zucchini, and tomatoes. The flavor is complex and unfamiliar. We sense cumin, we think, maybe cinnamon, maybe dill? It seems strange and comforting all at once. On the side, there's a couple of slabs of the dense, crumbly white bread our waitress says she makes herself. It's perfect for sopping up all that sauce.
On a second visit, at our teenage waiter's recommendation, we try the shashlik lamb. It's a sort of Uzbek shish kebab, with juicy cubes of meat caramelized over high heat. It's paired with rice and the same peppery carrot slaw served with all the other entrées we've tried so far, as well as a thin spicy tomato sauce for dipping. The portions are small by American standards, but after the heavy pastries we struggle to finish the plate between the two of us. Do we have room for dessert? Of course we have room for dessert: nasaf cake and something called sweet salami, both of which are made in-house. The nasaf cake looks like something you'd get in a Victorian tea room, elegant and a little fussy looking. It's cheesecake-based, with layers of creamy filling separated by striations of sandy vanilla cake with a spongy texture that reminds me of a buttery angel food cake. It's topped with an elaborately decorated swipe of whipped cream, slivered almonds, and coconut with a pretty little squiggle of chocolate sauce. We find ourselves wishing it came with more raspberries than the three perched on the edge of the plate because they're perfect with a bite of cake.
The sweet salami is another hard sell. "It's not real salami, is it?" asks my dining companion, a little perturbed, when I suggest we order it. It turns out to be something of a standout, three thick slices of cold layers of cookies and walnuts, embedded in chocolate paste and left to soak up flavor and moisture overnight. It's almost like eating slices of cookie dough. "I wish I could just keep a log of this in my fridge," says my companion, dipping the last slice in the little pouf of whipped cream at the center of the plate. Many things at UZeat are like that, familiar but strange, the kind of dish that, as you're discovering it, you wonder why you haven't been eating this way all along.
UZeat8650 Spicewood Springs Rd. #119
Tue.-Fri., 11:30am-9pm; Sat., noon-9pm; Sun., 11am-9pm