Lovers of Chinese food in Austin knew in the second half of the previous decade that if they wanted some of the best dishes in town, they didn’t turn to a restaurant. They went to a market.
Tina Chen opened Asia Market at Spicewood Springs Road and U.S. 183 around 2000 and added a cafe around 2004. The first Szechuan dining experience in Austin, according to owners, the cafe was stuffed into the back of the market that offered pan-Asian spices, noodles, sauces and fresh produce often used in making Chinese food. Its popularity grew, eventually breaking through the market’s northern wall and spawning the Asia Cafe. Chen, a native of China’s Yunnan province, operated the Asia Cafe for several years before selling it several years ago.
The absence of the Asia Market's eatery slowed the pace of the grocery, and it started to feel like one of Austin's original Asian markets could be lost to time. But the husband-and-wife team of Jenny Chen (Tina's daughter) and Eric Yi (whose family has ties to Chinese restaurants in Austin like Yunnan Dynasty dating back about 40 years), swooped in late last year to reinvigorate the market and reboot the cafe.
The aisles in the front area of the sparkling, renovated space offer dried mushrooms, noodles common to Chinese and Japanese cooking, soup stocks, pressed tofu and fresh produce for home cooks. The aromas of dried chiles and aromatics gently waft in from the window-lined kitchen in the back of the store.
You can still find Szechuan-inspired dishes, like a bowl of thin, rippled beef swimming in a scarlet broth tingly with red chili oil, dotted with sesame seeds and draped with floral cilantro; a spicy soup filled with springy housemade noodles and hunks of beef shanks, their hefty sized belied by a supple tenderness; and a dish of wok-fried pork intestine popped with peanuts, colored with numbing peppers.
The menu now includes an assortment of housemade dumplings from Cantonese chef Li, who previously worked at dim sum favorite New Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant. The dainty, slippery, steamed dumpling wrappers encase pork, shrimp and crunchy water chestnuts. Oblong dumplings pan-seared to a crunchy finish enclose pork and Taiwanese cabbage fragrant with scallion. Shrimp hide inside the pleated folds of har gow’s glutinous rice wrappers. The Shanghai soup dumplings release a broth rounded out by the faint whisper of gelatinous pork fat. Can’t try everything? Check out the freezer section of the market for a selection of the various housemade dumplings.
Even seemingly mundane dishes offer surprises, like the clean, fried crunch of egg rolls made with taro and a touch of cilantro, and a deceptively complex pan-fried radish cake stuffed with Chinese sausage and tiny fried shrimp.
The expansive menu calls for repeat visits (and dining companions), and while the provenance of some dishes is quite clear, a dish like spicy sweet-potato noodles might be harder to peg. Yi’s not concerned about definitions.
“I don’t care if people say it is traditional or not traditional,” Yi said. “I just want people to decide on their own if they like it or not.”
Asia Market's eatery is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, when it serves Taiwanese breakfast dishes like tofu pudding, sweet rice rolls and fried dough sticks. 8650 Spicewood Springs Road. 512-383-5009, asiamarketeatery.com.