Sunday, February 6, 2011

“There are Two Ways...

to experience an authentic Chinese restaurant.

“One is to hop on an airplane and fly to China, the other is to go to Asia Cafe inside of Asia Market at Austin, Texas. At Asia Cafe you will not find just Chinese cooking, but rather gourmet Chinese cooking” (from the Asia Café website).

It was the promise of gourmet Szechuan Chinese food that prompted our fifty-mile (each way) journey from San Marcos to the northwest area of Austin. A reviewer at described the restaurant as “Unapologetically and authentically Sichuan, this…is my new favorite Chinese restaurant in town (with apologies to the rest). Lovingly embracing chiles and the mysteriously numbing Sichuan peppercorn, their twice-cooked pork belly, water-boiled beef, and ma po dofu make me swoon.”

It seems that Asia Café began as a small cafeteria in the back of Asia Market. We found instead a large and bright dining room with five small rooms off to one side. These rooms, perfect for large family groups, were furnished with large round tables with built-in lazy susans. Since Chuck and I weren’t a large family group, we took a menu and found seats at one of the tables whose tops were decorated with an Oriental motif. After studying the menu, you go to the counter to order and pay. At this point you are given a card with a number. When your food is ready, your number is called (actually shouted), and you go and retrieve your food.

This may have been one of the longest Chinese restaurant menus I have seen. The number of hot appetizers is limited to Wonton Soup, Spicy Wontons, Fried Veggie Egg Rolls, Fried Egg Rolls, Cheese Wontons, Pan Fried Dumplings, Boiled Dumplings, and Zhong Dumplings (spicy rice stuffed dumplings).

There are slightly more “Cold Dish” starters or small plates that included some items that were new to me. We could have been adventurous and ordered the Szechuan Hot Spicy Rice or the Spicy Honey Comb. But we weren’t that adventurous. There were thirty different items listed under Noodles and Rice, and the lists of seafood, meat, and vegetable options were almost that long.

As we were mulling over the menu, I noticed a mother and son at an adjoining table eating from a giant bowl of something. It looked delicious and I had no idea what it was. And I was reluctant to go over and inquire.

Some help with the menu was provided by the flat screen behind the order counter that flashed photos of various dishes.

We decided to start with an order of Szechuan DanDan Noodle from the “Cold Dish” category. These really weren’t cold. Rather, they came warmer than room temperature, but cooler than steaming. The thin Chinese egg noodles reminded me of very thin Italian capalinni. They were tossed with a sauce of sesame oil and chile flakes and then topped with bits of ground pork mixed with a very generous amount of fragrant Szechuan pepper, which, to quote Wikipedia, “has a unique aroma and flavor that is not hot or pungent like black or white pepper, or chili peppers. Instead, it has slight lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth…that sets the stage for hot spices.” The combination of the chile flakes and Szechuan pepper certainly woke up the taste buds and set the stage for the meal to follow.

Chuck’s meal choice was the Hot and Spicy Lamb--a gargantuan plate of thin lamb slices, stir-fried with shredded carrot, chopped scallion, garlic slices, and Chinese cabbage that was seasoned with Szechuan pepper, chile flakes, and a smoky seasoning that I couldn’t place. Cooking thin-sliced meat like this quickly and on high heat helps the meat stay tender and juicy.

Finally, my curiosity won out, and I approached the woman behind the order counter. “What was that spice in the lamb?”

“Cumin” she replied. Cumin in Chinese food? When I got home and did some research I learned that cumin is often used in Szechuan food.

My choice was the Sautéed Shrimp with XO Sauce (a combination of dried shrimp, dried scallops, garlic, and other seasonings used to enhance stir-fried meat, seafood, tofu and vegetable dishes). The dish contained at least two dozen medium shrimp, cooked to perfection as only Chinese restaurants can do on a regular basis, with scallions, bean sprouts, red pepper threads, and a blossom-topped green that could have been either chives or garlic. This was the least spicy of the dishes, but a respite was appreciated.

At least half of both of our entrees came home with us and fed us dinner that night and the next. This enabled us to re-enjoy our 4.0 Addie meal.

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