A Foodie’s Guide to One of North Austin’s Strip Malls

Searching for the American dream at the Spicewood/183 Center


Zhao “George” Chen of Chen’s Noodle House has a different kind of noodle (photos by John Anderson)

Strip malls rule. Where else can you spin laundry while sipping pho? Digest dumplings during a mani-pedi? Sell a gold chain in the time it takes to smash a boozy cupcake?

Welcome to "The Strip Club," a series of articles highlighting Austin's growing number of destination strip malls, that beautiful intersection of eclectic cuisine and multitasking, or in this case, the not-so-beautiful intersection of Spicewood Springs and 183. These architectural eyesores are microcommunities and proverbial melting pots, worth-the-drive outposts with cultures and experiences more vital and interesting than anything you might find central – Our New Main Street.


It's hotter than Satan's toenails in this parking lot. There are more than 500 spots and maybe 20 cars. It's an open sea of steaming concrete, and I'm in a full-body sweat the second I step out of the vehicle.

After orienting myself and soaking in it, I have questions. Should I go to Big Lots before or after I hit the bar at Camino Real Mexican Restaurant? If I do venture to Big Lots, should I drive? Because speaking of big lots, it's at least a quarter-mile from where I parked. I decide to work up an appetite.

Needing something cold, I pop into Boba Bites & Tea for a refreshment. Their Cheese Jello topping is Laughing Cow cheese suspended in star-shaped gelatin. Co-owner Tram, who came here 15 years ago from Ho Chi Minh City, reminisces that it was the first cheese the Vietnamese ever knew, thanks to French occupation. They also serve bánh mì stuffed with pork belly, fried tofu, or pâté, but I order the special combination with head cheese, and it's perfection. The bread is exactly like it is in Vietnam – crispy outside, soft inside – and the fillings are copious and copacetic.

Further down, Famous Meats is bright and white. It looks like an emergency room or a place where you might slaughter goats, and they do – milk-fed kid, hearts, kidneys, brains, and tripe fill the case. The Ecuadorian couple working there explains it's a halal Indian butcher. They also have eel, smelt, dehydrated Bombay duck, and to-go Tuppers of fresh curry, which they caution is muy picante. We're speaking Spanish about Indian food, and I'm getting hungry again.

At Chen’s Noodle House, the house chili oil is spectacular: vinegary and spicy, but not too. If George sold it in jars, he could retire.

Speaking of GOATs, Card Traders of Austin has a $7,000 Jordan for sale. Monsoon Dance offers Bollywood and yoga. Graze Craze – a national franchise specializing in charcuterie boards and boxes – is opening soon. Gandhi Bazar is a subcontinental Piggly Wiggly with house curries, fresh pickles, countless varieties of flatbread, endless spices, and warm samosas. And against all odds, Capitol Ribbon and Toner of Austin is still in business.

I poke into Michi Market, a Japanese grocery with a Michi Ramen inside. The shelves are full of dry goods, and there's a small, neglected produce section in the back corner. I browse, then exit without being noticed, because if that's how they treat their veggies, I'll pass on the menu.


Spicewood/183 Center: Not known for its scenery

The line at Chen's Noodle House is out the door. Peering over heads, I see a display above the counter-service window with food pics and a coded menu. People in line are inquiring into what solo diners are eating, followed by nods of delight as they slurp, crunch, and doomscroll. Arriving at the service window, and here to take my order, is Zhao "George" Chen, from the Shanxi province, southwest of Beijing. He's doling out regional specialties including dao xiao mian – handmade, knife-cut, wheat-flour noodles.

After I order six menu items, his tone gets serious. "Too much food for you!" I insist I'll take the leftovers home. He's unconvinced and I change the subject.

"Beer?" He points me to the Circle K across the parking lot, and I return with a six-pack of Stella Artois just as the appetizers arrive.

The green onion pancake is as advertised, but for a dollar more, the far better choice is the leek pie – sautéed garlicky leeks nestled inside pastry dough similar to Indian paratha. Paired with self-serve vinegar-soy dipping sauce, it's fresh, cheap, and hits all the notes. The pan-fried dumplings are copious, but the wrappers are too thick and make me long for proper gyoza or the dim sum you get in plastic bags on the sidewalks of Bangkok. However, the house chili oil is spectacular: vinegary and spicy, but not too. If George sold it in jars, he could retire.

Two lagers later, the mains arrive, and it's oodles and oodles of noodles. Hot Oil Seared Noodle is beef shank seasoned with clove, sliced, and served cold atop the dao xiao mian with baby bok choy, chili sauce, and cilantro. This is a different kind of noodle. It's chewy and dense with a slightly ruffled edge. Imagine a huskier, homestyle, Asian mafaldine. Like most noodles, it's all about what's on them, and these danglers are canoodling with the chili oil in wedlock. The clove flavor is intense, and I realize I'm probably in for more surprises.

The lamb noodle soup is a revelation, with small chunks of mutton floating in an aromatic cumin-y broth, with tomato and more baby bok choy. Cumin? Clove? It smacks of North Africa more than North China.

The pork leek noodle is wonderfully simple, with just three ingredients: ground pork, garlicky leeks, and a spaghettilike noodle. I ask George if it's a rice noodle. "Wheat!" he insists. I like this guy.

When I return, I'll be all over the noodles with black bean sauce; the lamb skewers, kao chuan charcoal-broiled kebabs; and the sesame pockets, which are arepa-like and filled with your choice of lamb or pork with grilled onion.

Walking it off, I spy the dry-erase board at Camino Real.

TODAY'S SPECIAL!


The deceptively spicy stuff mirchi at Aha Indian Restaurant

Chicken Fried Steak

Served with Rice & Fries ($10.99)

Sorry NO SUBSTITUTIONS

Is that a threat? Instead of taking their heart-attack-triple-dog dare, I sit at the bar and nurse a margarita. I'm making a day of it.

On this side of the mall, there's a wholesale bong emporium, a flooring center, and a dealer pushing used office furniture. I suggest to the owner it could double as a remote workspace, and he doesn't even look up from his phone.

On the north side of the parking lot, there's a separate strip featuring the Village Coin Shop, Fur Oak Professional Pet Grooming, Wireless Possibilities, Morrison-Chilton Automotive Manuals, and a closet called Asian Massage with a sign reading: WARNING! THIS IS A LEGITIMATE MASSAGE PLACE!

The door is ajar at Pacesetter Properties. It looks like a vintage store, but the woman inside says it's a real estate office. We talk about the downturn, she asks why I'm wandering around talking to strangers, then says, "Have you been to the flooring store? There's a whiskey bar hidden in the back of it!"

Turns out it's more like a tasting nook, and after some free samples and feigning interest in terracotta tile solutions, I head to Aha Indian Restaurant. There are three young dudes cutely standing shoulder to shoulder behind the counter.

"Is this North or South Indian?"

"Both!" they shout in unison.


Ethan Brown of Cupprimo grew up in a cupcake shop

Our waiter is Trini, the owner's brother. He moved here seven years ago from Hyderabad to study computer science. When I ask his brother's name, he replies, "Mohammedh."

"What's his last name?"

"Only Mohammedh."

"No, what's his last name?"

"Trust me, boss."

I put in my order, and he hands me the YouTube TV remote and tells me I can play whatever music I want. Resisting the urge to blast "Hot for Teacher," I opt for the already queued "Hindu Love Songs" playlist.

The onion pakora profiles as an onion ring and only makes sense with their stellar mint chutney. The stuff mirchi is four jalapeño peppers fried in corn flour, topped with red onion and cilantro. These are tasty, but you don't sense the Scoville number until it's far too late. The Gobi 65 wins. It consists of cauliflower chunks fried in a flour-and-spice mixture whose ingredients are never divulged, but I don't begrudge Trini's secrecy, because this is my new death row meal.

The Gobi 65 at Aha Indian Restaurant wins. This is my new death row meal.

There are similar weekend specials, but today there's an off-menu item: gongura chicken pulao, an earthy chicken-and-rice dish with so much sorrel leaf, green chiles, cardamom, cloves, turmeric, garam masala, chili powder, and cinnamon, it tastes like a spice rack blew up in my mouth. After being instructed to squeeze lemon and spoon raita on top, it's much more palatable, and there's enough to feed four adults.

The delectable Guthivankay curry is eggplant in a coconut peanut curry that's a showstopper of layered, creamy nuttiness. Plain paratha and butter naan seal the deal. They have an Indian cola called Thums Up, which I can't bring myself to order, but my mouth is on fire, so I grab the remaining Stella from the car.

Aha also offers "LIVE Panipuri" (5:30-9:15pm daily), hollow, made-to-order, deep-fried street-food spheres with various fillings that I'll be back for, because while I'm eating, I notice there's going to be a Diwali raffle for customers who spend more than $40. First prize: an iPhone 15 and $100 store credit. I enter to win.

Strolling out with a week's worth of leftovers, I notice Asia Cafe was voted one of the Top 50 Chinese restaurants in America by CNN in 2017. I'm skeptical, and in the name of journalistic integrity, I investigate. The twice-cooked pork is pork belly sautéed in chili oil with celery, jalapeño, and scallion, and it's a salty sow. Snow pea leaves with garlic is fresh and delicious, but way overpriced. The Thai chili fish comes Thai-ish, with soft white fillets bathing in a soy sauce-forward broth topped with chiles, cilantro, and scallions over a heaping pile of bean sprouts emitting the odd hint of green peppercorn. Passable, but there's no way this place is national news.

Dessert? The young guy behind the counter at Cupprimo cupcake shop is an extrovert. He's the owner's son and says he's been helping out there since he was 7. They offer all manner of cupcakes, including vegan and gluten-free options, in tantalizing flavors such as Reese's Ripoff, Dreamsicle, margarita, boozy Sangria, and Longhorn Brownie. My mouth is still full as I mumble, "Hey, is there another strip mall around here?"


Editor’s note: Two more dining options in this shopping center, Himalaya Kosheli and Fat Dragon, were reviewed by the Chronicle in 2019. The brand-new Fat Dragon Sushi Bar is currently in its soft-opening phase.

Boba Bites & Tea

8650 Spicewood Springs Rd., #108, 512/551-9406
Daily, 11am-9pm
bobabite.com

Chen's Noodle House

8650 Spicewood Springs Rd. #127, 512/336-8889
Wed.-Sun., 11am-9pm; Tue., closed
chensnoodlehouseaustin.com

Aha Indian Restaurant

8650 Spicewood Springs Rd. #119, 512/284-8788
Sun.-Thu., 11am-3pm, 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-3pm, 5pm-12mid
ahaindianrestaurant.com

Asia Cafe

8650 Spicewood Springs Rd. Ste. 114-A, 512/331-5788
Daily, 11am-9pm
asiacafetx.com

Cupprimo

8650 Spicewood Springs Rd. #105, 512/335-7746
Mon.-Fri., 7am-9pm; Sat., 8am-9pm; Sun., 8am-4pm
cupprimo.com

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Boba Bites & Tea, Chen’s Noodle House, Aha Indian Restaurant, Asia Cafe, Cupprimo

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