The first Chinese food I remember eating outside of La Choy from a can was sweet-and-sour pork from Chow Soon in the Fort Worth suburb where we lived when I was kid. It came in a domed serving dish, batter-fried balls stuck together with syrupy orange sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds.
The Americanized Chinese food experience hasn't changed a lot. At a West Lake Hills Chinese place last week, I watched my daughter grill beef sticks over the flame of a pu-pu platter while I ate orange beef in a sauce as sweet as melted Sugar Babies. We needed fuel.
Fuel or feast. It's amazing how often eating out is a choice between the two. That's how Billie Dixon put it. He was a waiter at the Backstage Steakhouse. He worked there the night it closed in September, along with chef Raymond Tatum and the crew, which included me that night. The next day, we got together at Asia Cafe for a combination wake and postgame show.
For people who know food, who cook it, who serve it, who make a living at it, Asia Cafe is a feast, not fuel. Yes, there's sweet-and-sour this and General Tso's that, but you come for the elemental jolt of Szechuan cooking in dishes like stir-fried pork intestine ($9.50), a toss of vegetables and husky peppers and musky tabs of meat spiked with tiny buds called Szechuan peppercorns, with a flavor-break somewhere between cardamom and hellfire.
I'm not offering that dish as a stunt to show how adventurous I am. Tatum taught me how to appreciate Asia Cafe. He eats here twice a week, this ageless Austin outrider who cooked at Jeffrey's for 12 years. At his table the first time we met for lunch, we had salt-and-pepper squid ($9.25), beef shank stew with daikon radish ($9.50), beef with cumin sauce ($9.50), mapo tofu ($7.95) and spicy fish ($9.50).
Every dish had an edge. The squid was coated in knobby batter with garlic and jalapeno, as salty and crunchy and compelling as popcorn. Tender slices of cumin beef exploded with that spice, which you love or hate for its organic funk, and the beef shank carried as much inedible connective tissue as meat in a redeeming broth rippling with star anise.
Mapo tofu made me rethink my ambivalence about its main ingredient, this time rendered in cubes as part of a bubbling, chile-red lumberjack stew with black beans and ground pork. Everybody who knows about Asia Cafe will tell you to get the spicy fish, batter-fried and plated with chile flecks like armor. Listen to them.
Asia Cafe started in the back of the Asia Market grocery store in a shopping center that a colleague once called ‘Hands Across the Strip Mall' for its diversity: Texas barbecue, Mexican food, a Cajun deli, two Chinese restaurants, an Indian market, even a Brazilian martial arts studio. About a year ago, the cafe moved into its own space, the former home of a comics and gaming shop called Thor's Hammer.
You order at the back counter from a menu light on description and loosely divided at best. Noodles, soups, seafood and veggies get their own categories. You'll find all the meat under ‘poultry,' from shredded curry chicken to pork elbow to duck. Hot tea is free, and you can bring your own beer. Then sit and wait for your number to be ... called. On a busy day, the air is hot with shouted numbers. It's an impatient torrent, jangling and insistent, like a honk at a red light. If you order five dishes, you might have to listen for your the man to shout your number (thirty-fiiive!) four or five times as the food comes out.
Pork with special garlic sauce (thirty-five!). Thin-sliced pork belly ($8.75), like dry-cured grocery-store bacon, is served cold in a pinwheel pattern over cold cucumber, with an electric-red sauce radiating sour-sweet garlic enflamed with prickly-ash oil. Stir-fried frog legs (thirty-five!). They live in that limbo between land and water, less like chicken and more like catfish, with a scrappy and wiry texture ($9.95). Was it the nature of the beast or its preparation that turned me off? One thing: When the menu here says ‘boned,' it doesn't mean ‘deboned.' It means ‘so many bones.'
Crispy duck (thirty-five!). This is a simple roasted duck, most of a whole bird, roughly chopped with a side of stir-fried broccoli and bell peppers for $10.95. Simple flavors and a great value. Pan-fried shrimp with crushed pepper, mustard greens with pork noodle soup (thirty-five!). Not everything can be a revelation, but the shrimp ($10.95) was properly cooked and the soup ($6) was a filling opener for the more challenging flavors ahead, and it gave my kids something to eat.
I got lucky with Asia Cafe, to have Tatum and the guys from Backstage to share the table. Family style. It's one thing that works best with Chinese food, Americanized or not.
8650 Spicewood Springs Road, Suite 114A. 331-5788, www.asiacafeaustin.com .
Rating: 8.6 out of 10
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Prices:Appetizers $2.50-$4.99. Cold dishes $2.99-$8.75. Soups $5.50-$8.75. Main dishes $6-$13.95.
Payment:All major cards
Alcohol:None. BYOB allowed.
What the rating means:The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value, with 10 being the best.