Celebrate Chinese New Year with these dishes from five of Austin's best Chinese restaurants
George Chen was serving knife-cut noodles from his tiny restaurant off Spicewood Springs Road probably before Elon Musk could identify Austin on map.
And when Chen opened his Chen’s Noodle House in 2006, Tina Chen (no relation) had already been serving Sichuan specialties a few hundred feet away at the cafe in the back of her Asia Market for more than half a decade.
The two restaurants have anchored a shopping center that has since grown to become home to arguably the densest concentration of Chinese restaurants in Austin. Five restaurants serve everything from Sichuan chili-spiked fish to stir-fried noodles, crunchy turnip cakes to supple soup dumplings. All five are persevering through the pandemic, keeping their dining rooms closed but serving takeout (and in some cases delivery) to regulars and first-timers.
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We popped into all of them the week before Chinese New Year, Feb. 12, to grab dishes for a picnic at the nearby Tanglewood Park. The wooded respite a few blocks from the strip center at 8650 Spicewood Springs Road serves as the perfect spot for al fresco dining if you don’t want to wait until you get home to eat. Here are five dishes, among the hundreds served at possibly Austin’s tastiest retail center, where you can also savor Asian cuisine at Himalaya Kosheli; shop for Indian cooking staples at Gandhi Bazar; get a taste of Cajun country at New Awlins Cafe; explore Eastern European dining at Uzbek restaurant Bowl Menu; and, yes, find Tex-Mex at Camino Real.
Dry pot chicken at A+A Sichuan
Ji Chen is the newcomer to the strip mall, but her standout restaurant is familiar to Austin diners. She relocated the restaurant she purchased 6 years ago to the Spicewood Springs strip in July, where her takeout operation shares space with the Lighthouse Cuisine and Kitchen owner Phillip Toney, who has helped Chen feed their community with free boxed meals during the pandemic. Even though it’s takeout, you can still get excellent dry pot chicken. The potatoes and meat, which you can request on or off the bone, stays crispy, the vegetables crunchy and the Sichuan peppercorns fierce. Open 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily, except Sunday, with online ordering available. 512-258-5445, aasichuanchinaaustin.com.
Spicy fish at Asia Cafe
It’s an eerie hallmark of the pandemic to enter the silent dining room that before last spring was so often bubbling with activity. While some things have changed, the fantastic spicy fish dish remains: fragrant, herbaceous and singing with vegetal crunch countering soft, ample hunks of fish. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Call to order, as online ordering is temporary unavailable. 512-331-5788, asiacafetx.com.
Spicy Sichuan beef noodle soup at Asia Market Eatery
Eric Yi and his wife, Jenny Chen, daughter of market founder Tina Chen, revived my favorite Chinese restaurant in late 2019, reopening the cafe in the back of Asia Market that serves everything from dumplings (you can also buy them frozen) to salt-and-pepper ribs. Supple hunks of beef and springy noodles are bathed in a perfumed, scarlet broth that buzzes your lips. Call to order for curbside pickup. Open noon to 7 p.m. daily, except Monday. 512-383-5009, asiamarketeatery.com.
Stir-fried lamb with noodles at Chen’s Noodle House
Lanzhou native Chen takes the plump, knife-cut noodles served in his soup and tosses them with stir-fried ground lamb, the meat’s pungent flavor tempered by subtle notes of peppercorn in the savory, chive-studded dish. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, except Tuesday, with online ordering available. 512-336-8889, chensnoodlehouseaustin.com.
Mapo tofu at Fat Dragon
This restaurant is known for its array of dumplings — they even serve a chocolate variety — but also expands beyond China with ramen and even a nod to Mexico with a carnitas bao. The woody funk of fermented black beans subdues the chile’s electricity in mapo tofu, packed with silken cubes of tofu and bits of ground pork. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (and until 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday). Online ordering available. 512-258-7587, fatdragonatx.com.
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