If you saw my previous post on Sichuan Cuisine (Houston), then you know what a rabid fan I am of this regional style of Chinese cooking. It is hot, truly spicy and when done correctly, a wonderful alternative to the usual Americanized Chinese fare slopped up by most restaurants in this country. I just found the place in Houston a couple of weeks ago, then, my pal Mick, who writes reviews of Asian restaurants for the Austin Chronicle, told me about this little place in the back of an Asian food store on Hwy 183. He didn't know anything about it, except that Chinese grad students he knew kept talking about it. Ok, then I sent him my long report on Sichuan Cuisine in Houston, and immediately thereafter, he discovered from one of those students that this little hidden place served Sichuan-style food.
That did it! I had to try it! But a looming deadline for the magazine I write for kept me away for 24 hours, and what a painful wait that was! But I used the treat of this new place as a reward for finally turning in my November column...albeit about 2 weeks late...
Anyway, upon completion of said column, I hopped into my car and sped down 183, luckily traveling against the rush hour traffic. The place is located on the SW corner of 183 and Spicewood Springs in a little strip center which also features Sambet's Cajun whatever.
And here's what you were looking for: It's in the Asia Market, but it's formally, maybe for legal reasons or something, as Asia Cafe. Here is the info: 8650 Spicewood Springs Rd #115 (at 183)
Austin, Phone: 512-331-5780.
Folks, it is now my Number One choice for Chinese food in Austin. Now I won't have to drive all the way to Houston, or fly to NYC or Calif. for a hit of Sichuan "ma la" mouth-numbing specialties. This little joint does a pretty decent job of this unfortunately hard-to-find cuisine. Though I've never been to Sichuan, I have to think this is pretty "authentic", very close to the same dishes I've had in other Sichuan places in the USA. Lite on the cornstarch-thickened sauces and heavy on the red chile oil.
Okay, to the chow: My first visit had my head spinning...what to order? what to order? But the answer was really easy. I had to start with the Twice Cooked Pork which is one of my favorite Sichuan dishes, featuring, as it does, the glorious belly meat of the oh-so-regal pig. Is there really any other meat? I mean, really? So you place your order at the counter, pay up, and find a table. But before I ordered, I had to confirm with the woman behind the counter that this dish was indeed made with pork belly and not the usual Americanized version made with pork loin. "Americans not like fatty meat," I've been told in other Sichuan restaurants. Once, at the lauded Grand Sichuan International in NYC I ordered this dish and was served an Americanized version with loin. It sucked. I'd had the real thing there several times and was hugely disappointed. Did I say that it sucked? I asked the waiter and he gave me the answer in quotes above. So you should always specify you want this dish Chinese style, with fatty meat. (Unfortunately the guy was probably right: MOST Americans would probably send back the dish if served with belly, it is fatty, but it is worth every drop of cholesterol!) I also ordered a bowl of Zhong Dumplings (also known as Chengdu Dumplings at some places like SC in Hou), a Sichuan street staple.
The pork arrived first. It looked right, but I was disappointed that this place takes an unforgivable shortcut (in my opinion) by using celery as the vegetable instead of the more common leek. Now I am sure that in Sichuan, using Chinese celery in this is done regularly. But American celery is SO STRONG, and I hate that flavor, so whenever I find it used in Chinese places here, I take off some points. But in this case, the dish still wins---I just pushed the nasty green stuff to the side, and dug into the luscious, tasty pork which was seasoned with lots of chile, Sichuan peppercorn, fermented black beans and sliced jalapeños. Though slightly different from other versions I've had, I chalked those differences up to the chef's individual style and take...as i said somewhere else, there are probably as many recipes for this dish as there are cooks. Anyway, the dish was great, aside from the celery thing. I recommend it.
The dumplings, though, had no shortcomings. They were large, over-stuffed with seasoned ground pork, and very juicy, better than the ones I had in Houston at Sichuan Cuisine. And they were topped with a very hot chile sauce with plenty of "ma la" overtones...that is, plenty of chile, and plenty of the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Addictive stuff, this.
The food was so good, and there was so much more I wanted to try, I had to return the next day for another hit of this almost drug-like food. So I called a friend to go along for dinner, this way we could sample even more dishes. This time we shared four dishes: Water-boiled beef (on the menu as Spicy Beef), Ma Po Bean Curd, Dan Dan Noodles (on the menu as Szechuan Flavor Noodles), and Spicy Wontons (I think these are sometimes called "Long" wontons or dumplings).
Well, we hit 3 out of 4. I was a bit disappointed in the Ma Po Tofu. It was a sort of homogeneous mass of soft tofu, bits of ground pork and too much cornstarch thicker. And the flavor was relative undistinguished. Not terrible, just not as good as everything else we tried.
But the Water-boiled Beef was amazing. As good as any I've had before, and all the better since it is only 10 minutes from my driveway! The beef was amazingly tender, just as it should be, swimming in an incendiary chile sauce, all atop a layer of baby bok choy (I think it was bok choy, but it was very very baby...help on this one, anyone?), perhaps combined with another type of green as well. Oh, and the very top layer is a one-quarter inch layer of red oil, which is the way it is supposed to be served...no, actually the very top is a very generous sprinkling of crushed red chile and Sichuan peppercorn. Damn, it was very good. I want more right now, just writing about it. One thing, though it is very hot, it is not overly so...the flavors are well balanced, but it's still not for the timid.
The noodles were very good, I think as good or better than the Dan Dan I had at SC in Houston, but not as good as the NYC or Calif versions I've had. These lacked the chile sauce at the bottom of the bowl, but the flavors were still wonderful...these are traditional street food noodles and are topped with a spiced ground pork mixture, though I did not detect any of the usually included preserved cabbage. But they were still very good. Will get them again for sure.
The wontons were wonderfully floppy things, stuffed with ground pork and served in a very spicy, very "ma la" sauce which made my mouth tingle delightfully. I think there were at least 10 in the bowl and could easily be shared by 3-4 with a meal. The "slippery" mouth feel of these very light wonton wrappers is one of the sought-after attributes of this style of wonton, and Asia Cafe has done a great job of providing that. Another winner.
I will be going back again soon, probably today or tomorrow, and will report what I find then. Though it's not on the menu, I am sure I saw a fellow eating the Sichuan preparation of shredded potatoes and peppers...I will ask about that. I have a feeling they will take requests, though you might have to give them a day's notice...I'll investigate.
They feature some great looking fish dishes, some promising soups and many other things. Needless to say, the clientele is about 98% Asian, and everyone there seemed to be really enjoying the food. I know I did. Hope you will too!!!! But better go before it gets written up in the Chronicle and is overrun by, well, you know...though I think the place will spook many of those folks... this is for true hounds!
Here is an online menu: