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Lunar New Year at Asia Cafe

Written by , published January 26, 2012

Illustration by Christopher Jagmin

For Chinese New Year, Year of the Dragon 2012, my daughter Lucy, my boyfriend David and I celebrated with dinner at Asia Cafe in Austin.  Asia Cafe serves Sichuan (or Szechuan) Chinese cuisine, known for its hot and spicy seasonings.  The Chinese food here is by far the most authentic I’ve had in Austin—both in taste and presentation.

Asia Cafe is simple and casual: walk up to the counter, grab a menu and place your order. The number of items listed start at 115 and go through the 800s!  Luckily, I had a few dishes in mind: Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce (which I had on a previous visit: succulent and flavorfully spicy), House Special Green Beans (Chinese long beans), and Sesame Tofu.  The entrée portions are generous, in keeping with the Chinese tradition of serving dishes family-style, so for the three of us, this was plenty.  Drinks (water, tea and soda only) and utensils are self-serve, along with small bowls—not plates—for sharing (another touch of authenticity: in Chinese households, meals are typically eaten from bowls).

As it turned out, the Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce had already sold out, as this dish is considered “lucky” to eat for the New Year. So we went with a similar entrée on the specials board, House Whole Fish with Garlic and Peppers. When our meal was ready to be picked up at the counter, the fish arrived on an enormous platter, ringed with copious amounts of soft garlic cloves (the mild taste and texture reminded me of miniature new potatoes) and tiny cherry peppers in a piquant peppercorn sauce.  The tasty long beans had that just-right crunchy-yet-tender texture, and the delicately-seasoned sesame tofu was firm, with a crispy coating.

As expected, Asia Cafe was buzzing on this New Year’s night. A couple of private rooms off to the side hosted festive gatherings (and brought their own wine), and the line at the counter was continuous but quick.  As in most “authentic” Asian restaurants, groups of Chinese diners were in attendance, but I also saw many non-Asians, possibly those from other cities who’ve had a taste of China and craving the real deal.

Asia Café is a bit of a trek from my home in south Austin, but well worth it.  Next time I won’t wait until Lunar New Year (2013 is Year of the Snake) to get my Chinese food fix.

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