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[Austin] Chinese restaurants for a Chinese palate


Kent Wang
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One sees a lot of Asian clientele at Sea Dragon, Tien Hong and Marco Polo, too, but it doesn't necessarily mean the quality is good. Well, Marco Polo is the best out of those three but it's definitely no Din Ho or T&S. In fact, T&S has a lot of non-Asian clientele.

Bummer about TC Noodle House.

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I went to TC Noodle House for lunch on Thursday. The decor is very Western, open, even with upscale touches like (faux?) granite table tops. Like I said about First Chinese BBQ next door, it's like an upscale Starbucks.

I ordered the shiu mai, which arrived as a quarter-pound piece of shiu mai filling placed in a cup of soup, served with a gigantic you tiao. Extremely bizarre. I don't know where in China this is called a shiu mai. The you tiao was strange as well as it was so thick that the inside dough was still soft and chewy, instead of crisp and airy like a proper you tiao. Nevertheless, both the "shiu mai" and "you tiao" were pretty tasty -- just not what you would expect.

Also had the "teo chow" marinated meat. You choose three meats, so I selected the pork intestines, pig ear and beef tendon. Terrible. First Chinese does the exact same dish but much more competently. The marinade is a basic Sichuan pepper, star anise, soy sauce blend. The beef tendon was really just a large slice of beef that happened to have a few strips of tendon in it.

The pork dumplings were OK.

Each item was $4 or less, which is a pretty good deal.

Overall, you get what you pay for but I think First Chinese BBQ is not much more expensive and is much higher quality.

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Por favor, where exactly on Airport is Chinese Palace? I used to traverse that street every other day while coming in from Lockhart to drop off the kids at MDO, and I've totally glommed by it, apparently. Have pity on an ol' Houston gal just trying to get her authentic Chinese on...... :smile:

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Austin Chronicle is your friend: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Gu...ation?oid=47264

Remember that if you don't look Chinese you'll have to ask for the secret traditional menu. Yimay, it's interesting that you had to ask. I've gone with white friends and the hostess immediately starts speaking to me in Chinese and gives us the traditional menu. I love these opportunities to measure how Chinese you are. :raz:

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  • 4 weeks later...

Austin Chronicle's Mick Vann just reviewed Asia Cafe this week. Restaurant website.

I went on Friday and had the twice-cooked pork and zhong dumplings, as recommended by the review.

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The zhong dumplings ($4.50) were terrific with handmade skins and very loose, fluffy filling.

The pork ($7) was really bacon. It was sliced like store-bought bacon and had a smoky taste. Pork belly is certainly used in Chinese cuisine but bacon is not native. Nevertheless the dish was quite tasty with copious amounts of meat.

Based on this single visit alone, I must say that I agree with Vann's review. Quality food, especially considering no one else is doing Sichuan cuisine in Austin. I definitely want to return many more times to try out the rest of the menu.

Most of the employees there were speaking Mandarin, though I don't know the Sichuan dialect well enough to know if they were from Sichuan.

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I went to Asia Market this afternoon and ordered eggplant with garlic sauce, Zhong dumplings, regular pan-fried dumplings and ma-po tofu (the vegetarian version) for myself and family as a to-go order (they threw in a large carton of white rice). We liked everything except the pan-fried dumplings, which my wife hated (they came without sauce and she had to make her own, and even then said they were the "second worst dumplings" she'd ever had, next to another neighborhood restaurant which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty). We were particularly impressed with the eggplant, which was cut into large cubes with vivid purple skin intact, yet the whole, as per Vann, was soft and flavorful. The tofu and Zhong dumplings would be extremely spicy for a palate not used to Szechuan/Sichuan food (even considering a clientele of Texans), though I love the sinus-clearing qualities of the chile and red oil.

If it hadn't been for this post, and the Statesman review, I would have never found this restaurant, although it's only about two miles from my house and is in a strip mall I visit frequently for one thing or another! (It's a funky, downscale mall whose anchor store is a Big Lots, and also includes Sambet's Cajun Deli and a huge gaming/comics emporium called Thor's Hammer.) From the outside it looks like a standard Asian supermarket; the cafe is in the back, and almost all signs are in Chinese only. If this is, as Vann says, "Austin's best and most authentic Chinese restaurant in town," so be it! I look forward to sampling the chicken and spicy wontons on my next visit. Love these kinds of places. (How can you tell it's authentic Chinese? No fortune cookies, for one thing...) :biggrin:

I went on Friday and had the twice-cooked pork and zhong dumplings, as recommended by the review.

gallery_36558_3077_126253.jpg

The zhong dumplings ($4.50) were terrific with handmade skins and very loose, fluffy filling.

The pork ($7) was really bacon. It was sliced like store-bought bacon and had a smoky taste. Pork belly is certainly used in Chinese cuisine but bacon is not native. Nevertheless the dish was quite tasty with copious amounts of meat.

Based on this single visit alone, I must say that I agree with Vann's review. Quality food, especially considering no one else is doing Sichuan cuisine in Austin. I definitely want to return many more times to try out the rest of the menu.

Most of the employees there were speaking Mandarin, though I don't know the Sichuan dialect well enough to know if they were from Sichuan.

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Hmmn... What my husband neglected to mention was my specific objection to Asia Market's pan-fried dumplings: they both smelled and tasted like acrid tobacco. In a word, horrible. At the same time, there was none of the usual good stuff I'd expect in a dumpling; the only positive comment I can make is that the skins were nice and light and the filling was heavy-handed and dense. Unfortunately, they were so godawful that I literally wound up spitting the last one out. If that means I've got an uneducated palate, so be it (though I don't think so)--but this place is definitely not among my favorites.

An odd alien wench

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  • 2 weeks later...
Austin Chronicle's Mick Vann just reviewed Asia Cafe this week. Restaurant website.

I went on Friday and had the twice-cooked pork and zhong dumplings, as recommended by the review.

The pork ($7) was really bacon. It was sliced like store-bought bacon and had a smoky taste. Pork belly is certainly used in Chinese cuisine but bacon is not native. Nevertheless the dish was quite tasty with copious amounts of meat.

Two things:

I've had twice cooked pork at Asia Cafe at least 6-7 times (just had it an hour ago---was there for vann's review meal too) and I've never had a smoky flavor to the pork. Ever. This meat has a tinge of skin left on it as well. at least every time i've had it it has. It is not store bought bacon, or never has been in my experience. Maybe you caught an off night. It is the same meat used in the cooked pork with special garlic sauce, an amazing dish, served cold, the flavor of that pork is pure and definitely not bacon. they blanch a chunk of unsliced belly, then slice it before the second cooking, thus twice cooked.

2) Indeed bacon, or smoked belly is used in Chinese cooking. I've seen it for sale in Austin, and eaten it in many restaurants (not in Austin). It is common in Hunan cooking and that has drifted into Sichuan as well. Sichuan Cuisine in Houston and Grand Sichuan in NYC both serve a smoked belly dish with leeks and it is highly recommended. The smoky meat and the sweetish leeks make a wonderful combination. Fuschia Dunlop has a recipe for something like this in her upcoming cookbook which is devoted to Hunan cuisine (got a copy from AmazonUK where it's been out since summer and worth the effort). She even uses regular bacon in the recipe since it's easier to get than Chinese bacon.

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Señor Sambamaster, I will defer to your analysis on that dish. You are much more experienced with this cuisine than I am.

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The ma po tofu was wonderful, very soft tofu. I wonder if I can buy that tofu to cook at home.

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Sichuan-style duck, though I think this is an inaccurate translation. Dry and crispy, quite the opposite of greasy Peking-style duck.

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Señor Sambamaster, I will defer to your analysis on that dish. You are much more experienced with this cuisine than I am.

Sichuan-style duck, though I think this is an inaccurate translation. Dry and crispy, quite the opposite of greasy Peking-style duck.

This duck is usually referred to as Tea-Smoked Duck. Or Camphor Smoked...

My experience with it at AC has been uneven. Once it was wonderful, another time a tad dry...

And regarding the above post about the fried dumplings...i've never ordered them there and probably never will...they are not part of the sichuan tradition, so, get 'em in another place that excells with this sort of thing...stick with the Zhong dumplings, the spicy wontons...they've never failed to impress and never anything weird tasting about the filling...always wonderful. As I said in my Chowhound post about this joint, stick with the things they do best and you'll get the best Chinese in town, stray toward the ordinary and you'll get ordinary...ambiguous? Read my post on that other site for details...or I can post it here too....long....

I've had some mediocre dishes here for sure...all in the name of science!!!

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  • 4 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

My recent favorite dishes from First Chinese BBQ:

"Special sausage". This is really pork intestine. Their are two preparations, the "crispy" one is deep-fried.

Pork blood and Chinese chives. I don't think anyone else offers this in town.

Edited by Kent Wang (log)
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"Special sausage". This is really pork intestine. Their are two preparations, the "crispy" one is deep-fried.

is it breaded at all? is it served with salt and pepper?

din ho has deep fried pork intestine, but it's been dipped/dredged and then deep fried, not crispy throughout. soft in the center. i'm looking for the deep fried to a crisp, served with salt/pepper. (jiao yian fei tsang)

Edited by yimay (log)
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It is not breaded, the edges are very thin and crisp. No salt and pepper -- I'm not sure what that would be like. Do you mean that you want the whole thing including the center totally crispy? That's definitely not the case at First Chinese and I'm not sure if that would even be possible considering how thick the intestines are. I do think overall, they did a good job frying to the proper doneness.

T&S also has pork intestine stuffed with ground shrimp. It was good when I had it a year ago but I don't remember the details.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Yimay and I had dinner at T&S Seafood last night. We picked all the exotic dishes that we can't order with American friends. Photos were taken by yimay which, I must say, are much better than what I'm capable of.

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Fish maw soup with small bits of shrimp, squid and other seafood. Fish maw was OK, not as crispy as I've had elsewhere. Quantity of fish maw was also a little stingy but a good deal considering the price of $6 for four bowls.

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Pork intestine stuffed with ground shrimp on bed of pickled cabbage. I'm not sure why the crust is orange. The texture of the ground shrimp works nicely with the intestine. Pickled cabbage was drizzled with a bit of chili oil but unfortunately cooled the intestine down very quickly. They should have instead served the intestine on a warmed plate.

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Duck feet with black mushroom hot pot. Duck feet is delicious as always, along with the huge pieces of shitake mushrooms. Duck feet was cooked to proper doneness so that the skin could be easily removed. The sauce, unfortunately, was very plain, just soy sauce, sugar (Shanghai-level quantities -- strange considering T&S is Cantonese) and garlic. It could've benefited from (more) fermented black beans, ginger, oyster sauce, cooking wine and other ways to add depth.

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House special bean curd on sizzling plate. A pretty conventional stir fry with seafood, veggies and baby corn (yimay hates those). The tofu, though, was superb. Extremely soft on the inside, fried to a crisp on the outside. It also doesn't have the somewhat foul odor and aftertaste common with store-bought pre-fried tofu. I wish they would cut out out all the other ingredients and just fill the plate with more tofu. This was also quite expensive at $9.

Overall, it was a decent meal, fairly representative of T&S quality -- though dim sum is another matter entirely. Cheap ingredients, stingy quantities of proteins, limp sauces, relatively high prices, expert frying, terrific soft tofu. I used to go to T&S a lot but I think I prefer Asia Cafe, Pao's and maybe even China Palace and First Chinese over it.

Nevertheless, T&S still has one of the best dim sum, second only to Pao's in my book. They also stay open until 1 am. My favorite (non-exotic) dishes are fried soft-shell crab with salt and pepper, walnut shrimp (yes, very untraditional) and double lobster in scallions and garlic (two lobsters for $40, sometimes $30 on special).

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  • 3 months later...

Asia Cafe. 26 May 2007.

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Zhong dumplings. Great as always.

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Pork viscera with spicy sauce. "Viscera" is intestine. Interesting treatment here, the intestines were salted and lightly stir-fried so that they have a bit of crisp texture and a small burst of saltiness.

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Home style sea cucumber. Generous portions of tender sea cucumber with ground pork and bean sprouts in a mildly spicy sauce. Most sea cucumber dishes are very bland and sea cucumber is nearly tasteless so the spicy sauce was a good treatment.

Another terrific meal at Asia Cafe and I still have many more interesting dishes to try!

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  • 1 month later...

Shanghai opened recently. It was started by some of the people that used to work at Marco Polo. The address is 6718 Middle Fiskville, near Highland Mall.

I recently went to their dim sum (photos and report in my eGfoodblog). It has become my new favorite, better than T&S and Pao's. This is surprising as I've always found Marco Polo's dim sum to be mediocre.

My current dim sum rankings:

Shanghai

Pao's Mandarin House

T&S Seafood

Marco Polo

Tien Hong

One thing T&S will always have that others won't: salt and pepper shrimp.

I'd like to try Shanghai for dinner sometime as well.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Their regular menu, aside from dim sum, is just all American dishes, none that I would try. I did order their salt and pepper soft shell crab and found that to be on par with T&S, though T&S uses more coconut oil.

The story that I've heard is that the chef that was in charge of dim sum at Marco Polo started Shanghai, so the non-dim sum items are not his forte. Then again, the Shanghai dim sum is much better than it was at Marco Polo -- maybe he now has better control over his kitchen.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Mick Vann of the Austin Chronicle has reviewed Shanghai:

"Shanghai Restaurant is our new favorite for dim sum in town. If the name sounds familiar, it's because the Yim family helped introduce Austin to dim sum at the original Shanghai (1980-'96, at the corner of Koenig and Guadalupe) and at Marco Polo before they sold it five years ago."

Looks like he found some good non-dim sum items:

"Crabmeat and fish-maw soup ($5.95/$8.95)

Ma-po dofu ($7.95, soft tofu with pork)

Salt-and-pepper scallops ($12.95)"

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  • 3 weeks later...

Yimay and I had dinner at T&S Seafood last night. We picked all the exotic dishes that we can't order with American friends. Photos were taken by yimay which, I must say, are much better than what I'm capable of.

Kent,

I took my husband to T&S for his birthday. It was one of his favorite lunch spots when he worked in the neighborhood. He seemed pleased. I was appalled. Terrible service, I finally had to point to a picture to order because the waitress (college student) couldn't tell me anything about the non-pictured dishes. Then, they brought me something totally different (I think it was a honey walnut shrimp) it was gooey and cool. My other complaint is totally my own weakness, I can't take the permeating fish tank smell.

We both like many of the other places you've recommended, will have to try those on the list we aren't familiar with. Hubby is more into a traditional menu.

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  • 1 month later...
  • 3 weeks later...

Another meal at Shanghai.

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Jalapeno stuffed with shrimp, greens, duck.

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Pork belly.

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Zhong zi. When we made these back in China when I was a child, it was just a small piece of pork in the middle and the rest was rice. I don't know if that's the only traditional way to make it or if it was because my family grew up through the famine times. But traditional or not, this version is certainly more delicious. The best zhong zi I've ever tasted.

Make sure you're sitting down when you see this next photo...

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Xiao long bao, aka Shanghai soup dumpling, the greatest food ever invented (Cook-off and discussion). They only started making these a few weeks ago and they're the only restaurant in Austin to do so. Austin is now truly a world-class city. The quality is so-so, but I'm not going to complain.

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Rice flour pastry with sesame seed filling. Another new item, very tasty and quite traditional. The green color is a little artificial, though.

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      Chinese food must be among the most famous in the world. Yet, at the same time, the most misunderstood.

      I feel sure (hope) that most people here know that American-Chinese cuisine, British-Chinese cuisine, Indian-Chinese cuisine etc are, in huge ways, very different from Chinese-Chinese cuisine and each other. That's not what I want to discuss.

      Yet, every day I still come across utter nonsense on YouTube videos and Facebook about the "real" Chinese cuisine, even from ethnically Chinese people (who have often never been in China). Sorry YouTube "influencers", but sprinkling soy sauce or 5-spice powder on your cornflakes does not make them Chinese!
       
      So what is the "authentic" Chinese food? Well, like any question about China, there are several answers. It is not surprising that a country larger than western Europe should have more than one typical culinary style. Then, we must distinguish between what you may be served in a large hotel dining room, a small local restaurant, a street market stall or in a Chinese family's home.

      That said, in this topic, I want to attempt to debunk some of the more prevalent myths. Not trying to start World War III.

      When I moved to China from the UK 25 years ago, I had my preconceptions. They were all wrong. Sweet and sour pork with egg fried rice was reported to be the second favourite dish in Britain, and had, of course, to be preceded by a plate of prawn/shrimp crackers. All washed down with a lager or three.

      Yet, in that quarter of a century, I've seldom seen a prawn cracker. And egg fried rice is usually eaten as a quick dish on its own, not usually as an accompaniment to main courses. Every menu featured a starter of prawn/shrimp toast which I have never seen in mainland China - just once in Hong Kong.

      But first, one myth needs to be dispelled. The starving Chinese! When I was a child I was encouraged to eat the particularly nasty bits on the plate by being told that the starving Chinese would lap them up. My suggestion that we could post it to them never went down too well. At that time (the late fifties) there was indeed a terrible famine in China (almost entirely manmade (Maomade)).

      When I first arrived in China, it was after having lived in Soviet Russia and I expected to see the same long lines of people queuing up to buy nothing very much in particular. Instead, on my first visit to a market (in Hunan Province), I was confronted with a wider range of vegetables, seafood, meat and assorted unidentified frying objects than I have ever seen anywhere else. And it was so cheap I couldn't convert to UK pounds or any other useful currency.
       
      I'm going to start with some of the simpler issues - later it may get ugly!

      1. Chinese people eat everything with chopsticks.
       

       
      No, they don't! Most things, yes, but spoons are also commonly used in informal situations. I recently had lunch in a university canteen. It has various stations selling different items. I found myself by the fried rice stall and ordered some Yangzhou fried rice. Nearly all the students and faculty sitting near me were having the same.

      I was using my chopsticks to shovel the food in, when I noticed that I was the only one doing so. Everyone else was using spoons. On investigating, I was told that the lunch break is so short at only two-and-a-half hours that everyone wants to eat quickly and rush off for their compulsory siesta.
       
      I've also seen claims that people eat soup with chopsticks. Nonsense. While people use chopsticks to pick out choice morsels from the broth, they will drink the soup by lifting their bowl to their mouths like cups. They ain't dumb!

      Anyway, with that very mild beginning, I'll head off and think which on my long list will be next.

      Thanks to @KennethT for advice re American-Chinese food.
       
       
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