My grad school friends quickly parted ways after graduation this May. It's a weird feeling being the lone person sending people off on their way to redefine their life post-school. This summer is marked by a succession of goodbyes. In my planner, that means finding the proper Austin restaurant or choosing dishes to prepare for pot lucks that will be missed by the departees .
Surprisingly, no one has picked BBQ, Tex-Mex, or Mexican thus far! The winning cuisine seems to be pan-Chinese. One friend asked for a hodge podge of Chinese food reflective of the pot lucks she helped host throughout grad school. Another asked for Taiwanese food, and yet another suggested Asia Cafe, in her opinion the best Chinese restaurant in Austin.
I say "pan-Chinese" rather than "pan-Asian" or simply "Chinese" because of a conversation I overheard at Asia Cafe a couple of weeks after my friend's farewell dinner. A first-timer to Asia Cafe was waiting in line to place his order. He told his date that he has to order the fried rice here because that is how he measures the food at Chinese restaurants. Although you'll be hard-pressed to find a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. that doesn't serve fried rice, unfortunately for him, Asia Cafe is known for its Sichuan dishes, and not for fried rice, which is more of a staple in Cantonese cuisine. The odds are, the fried rice he ordered wasn't great. Being a nosy diner, I looked for the plate of fried rice at his table. It looked more like steamed white rice with meager specks of scrambled egg and scallions.
I can't blame the guy though. For my friend's farewell dinner, some of us were too worried that the food might be too spicy, so we ordered more southern and coastal Chinese dishes like stir-fried water spinach, salt and pepper squid, and beef shank stew with daikon. The one Sichuan dish we had that night was the restaurant's famous spicy fish. Lesson learned: don't bother with non-Sichuan food here! Forget about your fear of spicy food. It's not intolerably spicy anyways. I suspect that they tone down the heat for Western palates.
Stir-fried Water Spinach
Salt and Pepper Squid
Beef Shank Stew with Daikon
I knew better the second time around, and ordered the amazing seafood combination pot ($13.95 for a tub of seafood!). If you order this, don't order the spicy fish. The pot is full of the same spicy fish as the stand alone dish plus squid, beef, bok choy, shrimp, and two or three pieces of pork intestine. Don't worry about the spice level. It's quite tame when paired with a bowl of rice. I also ordered a famous Sichuan cold noodle dish that's served with green bean strips and shredded chicken. It's actually cucumber strips, but the menu says "green bean." The only non-Sichuan dish that I ordered that day was the house special green bean with garlic, which turned out to be the best stir-fried green bean dish I had in Austin.
House Special Green Beans with Garlic
Seafood Combination Pot
Check out the red pepper flakes that had been hiding underneath the greens!
Cold Noodles with Cucumbers and Shredded Chicken