Friday marks the start of the Chinese New Year (also called the Lunar New Year). The Spring Festival, as it’s also known, extends over two weeks, and the Year of the Horse will be celebrated with festivities around town centered on dancing, food and fireworks. The Chinatown Center on North Lamar Boulevard will have its annual celebration next weekend, and Chinatown restaurant off MoPac Boulevard will host a night of dinner and dancing.
The holiday, a time of feasting and strengthening family ties, serves as a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the array of Chinese restaurants in town. When considering Chinese cuisine, some people may imagine Americanized versions of Chinese food (think sticky orange sauces enlivened by high fructose corn syrup), but there are many places in Austin that serve more traditional dishes.
“If you’re willing to go out of your way to search for it, you can find food that is more reminiscent of what you can get in Asia,” said Peter Tsai, a 12-year Austin resident and Taiwanese-American who writes at TheTastingBuds.com. “You can seek out food and should probably ask your friends who are more familiar with the cuisine. And you should always follow the rule that if there are a lot of people who look like they’re from that country eating that food, it’s probably going to be pretty good.”
While many Chinese restaurants in Austin blend culinary traditions of China’s regions, you can find examples of Taiwanese (Tapioca House, CoCo’s Cafe), Szechuan (Szechuan House, A+A Sichuan China) and Cantonese (Din Ho, Ho Ho) cooking.
Below, in alphabetical order, I give a small sampling of Austin’s growing Chinese restaurant scene.
1910 Guadalupe St. 512-236-9398, CoCos-Cafe.com
8557 Research Blvd. 512-833-6588, CoCos-Cafe.com
The bouncy dance music reminds you that you’re just steps away from the University of Texas at this shotgun-style café popular with students. CoCo’s offers free bowls of a hearty cabbage, carrot and egg soup with every meal (only $1 otherwise). The pork (bacon) and rice dish ($6.42) delivers thick russet slabs of belly that fall apart to reveal more tender meat than you would expect from such a firm exterior. A tangy and crunchy side of pickled cabbage gives dimension and contrast to the savory dish. Pork meatballs appear like bobbing bifurcated moons in a steaming bowl of vermicelli ($6.42), with cilantro giving floral notes to the soup flecked with bits of bacon crumbles. Cool your palate with the creamy tannic embrace of milky black bubble tea ($3.47) in a cup filled at the bottom with dark pearls made of tapioca starch.
First Chinese BBQ
10901 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-835-8889, FirstChineseBBQ.com
A line of ducks hangs inside a glass case next to a rosy pig at the entrance of this restaurant located in the Chinatown Center. Start your meal with the snap and tingle of the wine colored hot-and-sour soup with shredded pork before moving onto the showcased duck and barbecued pig ($9.95). Auburn around the edges and moist toward the center, the pork slices have a seductive sweetness that doesn’t wander into cloying territory, and the duck’s crispy roasted skin crackles under fork. Lo mein noodles ($7.95) serve as a bed for copious pieces of chicken and hunks of pepper and bok choy in a savory sauce. The excellent Chinese broccoli snapped with crunch and a slightly bitter brace.
Ho Ho Chinese BBQ
13000 Interstate 35 North. 512-339-9088, HoHoChineseBBQ.com
I entered this restaurant recently with very high hopes after hearing raves from friends whom I trust greatly when it comes to food. Sadly my experience was the polar opposite of theirs at this restaurant that looks like it was built out of a former hotel-adjacent Denny’s. The roasted ducks were on display up front, but their tantalizing looks deceived. The duck’s ($10.95) tough skin covered a layer of gelatinous fat and overcooked meat. The whole fish ($24) sat in a pool of treacly brown sauce and tasted like it had been swimming in a rust-lined aquarium. We could muster only a few bites, same with the gummy steamed dumplings ($5.50). The closest thing to redemption came in the form of pepper beef ($8.20) enlivened by ginger and red peppers.
Rice Bowl Cafe
11220 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-835-8888, RiceBowlAustin.com
One of my favorite Chinese restaurants in town, this high-ceilinged restaurant with a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows has a subtle formality. The pan-fried green onion pancakes ($3.50) had a gentle piquancy with a flaky edge like phyllo dough. The strings of sliced crisp potato ($3.75) looked like zucchini, the cold, blanched strands warmed with pepper and sesame oil. I’ll add it to my list of favorite dishes around town. The hand-pulled noodles of the beef noodle soup ($8.50) were round and springy, and they came in a restorative bowl packed with surprisingly tender stew meat. Another hit, the salt-and-pepper squid ($11), came in thick slices as opposed to little ringlets, the large, tender pieces mounded with fibrous pieces of red and green pepper.
11005 Burnet Road. 512-832-8989, AustinSzechuanHouse.com
Regular readers of my reviews may remember the praise I gave Szechuan House when I wrote about it in November. After a recent mini-marathon of Chinese restaurants, it still holds a place near the top of my list of favorites. That high regard comes from steamed dumplings ($5.95) that release a slippery spill of broth, peanuty Szechuan-flavored noodles ($5.95), twice-cooked bacon ($9.95) in a sauce of fermented black beans spiked with jalapenos, and house special lamb ($15.95), with celery, red chilies, jalapenos and cilantro. I also received exceptionally friendly service in my multiple visits to the restaurant that has spent several months hiding behind construction scaffolding.
Chinatown restaurant New Year celebration
When: Sunday, 6 p.m.
Where: 3407 Greystone Drive
Details: Prayer and offering to the gods, followed by dinner ($80) and a dragon dance and fireworks display
Tickets and more information: Chinatown-Mopac.com, 512-343-9307
Chinatown Center’s annual New Year celebration
When: Feb. 9, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: 10901 N. Lamar Blvd.
Details: Festivities include dragon and lion dance teams, drum and yoga performances, along with fireworks, face painting, a magic show and community resource fair.
More information: ChinatownAustin.com