Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Battle of the Best Banh Mi in Austin

Lily's Sandwich used to be incredible. The best. I used to just close my eyes and forget about what's in the head cheese and pate they use in their Dac Biet (Special) banh mi, and lose myself in crunchy, chewy, buttery banh mi ecstasy. Now, you take a bite, and you can't escape from the strange hard chunks from the head cheese and an impossible amount of jalepenos. Quality and quantity of the ingredients have taken a plunge. Which led me to my search for better banh mi.

Lily's Sandwiches: Dac Biet Banh Mi
I read the Austin Chronicle review of Baguette House and thought I found my replacement for Lily's. No such luck. Although Baguette House bakes its own baguettes, the bread did nothing for me. I did not hear the satisfying krrrr krrrr krrrr when I bit down, I didn't see small cracks form on the baked surface as I applied pressure, and I did not see bread dust bounce off the surface of the baguette as I chomped. The baguette was too bready. The grilled beef tasted ok. I wanted more lemongrass flavor. It needed to lighten up a bit...perhaps with a bit of lime juice. As is, the beef just sinks into the bread passively. I didn't taste my friend's BBQ pork banh mi, but she signaled a so-so. The pickled daikon and carrots didn't taste very fresh to me. I bought this in the evening, so maybe it's the leftovers from the day.

Baguette House: Grilled Beef Banh Mi and BBQ Pork Banh Mi
The current winning banh mi is Cafe de Bella next to Hong Kong Market! As you can see from the photo, the baguette is nice and crusty on the outside, and yes, it's chewy on the inside. The amount of butter, meat, and pickled daikon and carrots is proportionate to the bread, and the taste is awesome. I was relieved that the meat they use didn't have alot of the stringy fat that occassionally encircles slices of pork. That makes chewing so much easier.

Cafe de Bella: Grilled Pork Banh Mi

Din Ho BBQ vs. First Chinese BBQ

So earlier in my blog, I revealed how we barely like any Chinese restaurants in the U.S. due to the overuse of corn starch, sweet and sour goo, and MSG at most establishments.

In Austin, the only 2 Chinese restaurants that we allow ourselves to visit when we're not in the mood to cook or when we want Chinese BBQ to-go are Din Ho Chinese BBQ and First Chinese BBQ. Before the Chinatown center opened on N. Lamar, we only ate at Din Ho (means "the best" or "the creme de la creme"). This place was the best in Austin until First Chinese BBQ came in to steal its crown.

Ok. First the BBQ. The cha shao is a Cantonese BBQ staple. There wouldn't be Chinese BBQ without this honey-glazed roast pork. This piggy is so versatile, it can be eaten as is, diced and fried with eggs and rice, chopped and stuffed in steamed or baked honey glazed buns, or sliced and put on top of noodle soups or egg noodles. The leaner the pork the better. I hate eating around fat. Both restaurants make pretty good cha shao, so it's hard to compare the two based on that alone. The next BBQ item is the shao ya (roasted duck). The meat has to be moist but the skin has to be mahogany colored and toasty. This comes with the amazing duck marinade. Again, both roast pretty good ducks. The biggest difference for me is that I find First Chinese BBQ less greasy. I know, I know. Some people think it's not good unless it's greasy, but I find that an excuse for the restaurant to sell you less expensive fatty meat.

Din Ho BBQ vs. First Chinese BBQ

The grease factor works its way through the other dishes I've had at both restaurants. Din Ho tends to coat its meat, veggies, and noodle dishes with a shiny veneer of cooking oil more so than First Chinese. The only dish I would pick Din Ho over First is the Flat Beef Noodles. Yes, it's still coated with grease, but when I put a mixture of the noodles, beef, green onions, and bean sprouts in my mouth, it has a complete taste. My taste buds all nod in agreement. The one at First Chinese lacks one thing...a spice I suspect...dunno what it is.

So unless I want stir fried flat beef noodles, I will continue to visit First Chinese as my designated Chinese restaurant in Austin.

The following two photos are from Din Ho:

Beef and Mushrooms Clay Pot and Eggplant Clay Pot

The following are photos from First Chinese:

Hot and Sour Soup

Black Bean Shrimp and Seafood Pot

Black Bean Clams and Kung Pao Squid

Yummy Feast

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Indian Mela Food

Barsana Dham hosted an Indian Mela (Festival) yesterday, and one of my school friends was particularly eager to sample the food at the event. We certainly don't know much about Indian food, and this was a perfect opportunity for us to get a taste of dishes we can't get in Indian restaurants around Austin. (More on my Mela experience on my travel blog.)

The Dosa vendor attracted us because we could relate it to traditions we are familiar with like crepes or Chinese 饼 (bing3). It came filled with potato curry and yogurt paste and a masala dipping sauce. This was fun to eat and had a pleasant crunch on the exterior with a slightly sour soft interior (due to fermentation).

Dosa-filled with potato and masala sauce and yogurt paste

The Masala Wok vendor offered an Indian take on Chinese food complete with fried rice, chow mien, egg rolls with samosas, and veggie balls. This was an obvious attempt to cater to the less versed in Indian food. That's us!

Fried rice, chow mien, fried dough balls filled with veggies, eggrolls and samosas

You know you're in Texas when they serve Indian taco salads at the Mela. Lol. I think it consisted of lettuce, tomatoes, boiled potatoes, onions, and beans. It wasn't bad.

Indian taco salad

I was not keen on ordering the Vada, but curiosity took over us. Unfortunately, the vadas confounded us. It's a savory donut, which is ok, but it was sour...super sour with the yogurt sauce. I can't even describe the extent of the sourness. It didn't help that the sauce seeped into the cake-like dough of one of the vadas. The other vada was filled with spices, one of which is oregano. That vada was ok at first and then the after taste was pretty good. Please, just don't remind me of my yogurt vada experience!


We washed all this food down with mango lassi and rose milk. The mango lassi was thick with a strong mango taste. No complaints. I'm a big sucker for mango anything. The rose milk was surprisingly refreshing. This is probably really simple to make. Just pour some rose syrup into milk and voila.

Mango Lassi and Rose Milk

Overall, this wasn't a meal I see myself eating often.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Rainbow Seafood Restaurant in Hong Kong

Rainbow Seafood Restaurant (Lamma Island, Hong Kong)
When I think of Hong Kong, I immediately think of it as filmed in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. I envision being transported by a small fishing boat and passing by junks like John Saxon's character in the movie arriving in Hong Kong for a martial arts tournament. Well, obviously Hong Kong is an ultra modern collection of islands now and much of that 1970s look is gone. My mom and dad went to Lamma Island, home of Chow-Yun Fat, and ate an incredible seafood meal Rainbow Seafood Restaurant. When I went to Hong Kong with my mom, she was determined to take me there. As we ferried over to the island, I felt an inkling of 1970s Hong Kong as we departed from Kowloon and drifted away from the sky rises of Hong Kong Island.
Rainbow Seafood Restaurant is the first building once you dock on Lamma Island. Pretty awesome when you're hungry! You order the catch you want from the tank, and tell the waiter how you want it cooked. You have the choice of having your order steamed with ginger, scallions, and soy sauce, pan fried with salt and pepper, or braised.

Pick what you want to eat from the tank
Mom said that lai4 niao4 xia1 (pissing shrimp or mantis shrimp) is a must-have here. I love shrimp so I did not protest. However, I just learned from wikipedia, that mantis shrimp is neither mantis nor shrimp...hmmmm...not for the faint of heart. We ordered it pan fried with salt and pepper. Awesome. Just don't remind me that it's not shrimp.

Salt and Pepper Pan Fried Mantis Shrimp
Next we had the steamed South African abolone. Shellfish this big shouldn't be tender, but these babies contradict that rule of thumb-Juicy, firm but not rubbery, sweet, fresh, xian1. Best dish I had in Hong Kong. Best seafood I had anywhere.

Steamed South African Abolone with ginger and scallions
Since we were leaving Hong Kong that afternoon, we decided to indulge ourselves with a huge lunch, and continued with a whole steamed fish. I don't remember what kind of fish we ordered, but the meat was buttery sweet. Always have fresh fish steamed rather than fried, pan fried, or braised. Food this fresh shouldn't be masked by other culinary accoutrements.

Steamed Fish

We ordered lobster while at the tank, but the waiter, the son of the owner, forgot to bring it out, so when we reminded him, he gave it to us free! Wohoo for free live lobster! My mom ordered this steamed, but I would much prefer if we ordered this pan fried to spice up the preparation of our lunch.

Steamed Lobster
I don't think I can have another seafood meal that will top this one. We'll see. I'll be heading off to Miami and the Florida Keys in May. Let's see if Floridian seafood restaurants impress.

Madam Mam's

Umbrellas hanging from the ceiling at the West Gate location
Madam Mam's is another old haunt of my college years. I used to live on West Campus a block behind Madam Mam's on Guadalupe. All the dishes are tasty here, but it really takes your taste buds for a ride on the extreme in seasoning. Almost all dishes are super salty, always flavorful, and the dishes marked by chili peppers are spicy as hell. It's like street food in Taiwan or anywhere in the world. You know it's all bad for you, but you can't help liking it.
The West Gate location is great for me now that I live way south of campus. The parking is much less a headache, and there is no wait because it's huge! The only bad thing is that when you enter, you are greeted by a counter of tchotskies. I wish they would stop trying to sell us stuff besides food. (Same goes with Coco's. I go there for the food, not for the cell phone accessories!)
Anyways, the colorful paper parasols hanging from the ceilings are beautiful. I dined by myself, and it was fun just staring up, though I probably looked stupid and pitiful all by my lonesome.
I ordered my regular, Thai tea, and remembered that the only place that makes Thai tea with the right amount of sweetness is Saigon Pho. Everywhere else I've tried, the tea is cavity-inducing.

Thai tea
Next, I ordered the fish cake appetizer (A5) and then the flat rice noodle with beef (F11). Ahhhhhh...everything was salty, thirst-inducing perfection. I would eat this every week if I were invincible.
(A5) Tod Mun Plad Glai-spicy fish cakes with cucumber sauce
(F11) Guay Teaw Kua Gai-flat rice noodle stirfried with beef, eggs, bean sprouts, and pickled radish

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Mighty Cone = Not So Mighty to Me

I'm totally going to get slammed for this. But this eating experience is seriously an emperor's new clothes moment for me. People rave about Hudson's on the Bend's Chicken Avocado Cones from ACL. I haven't been to ACL yet, so I was super curious. I've also never eaten at Hudson's but always wanted to go. When I read that Hudson's was going to open up a trailer on South Congress (The Mighty Cone), I was excited...over excited.

I ordered the fries and the Deluxe Chicken Avocado Cone and Shrimp Avocado Cone on my first try.

Chili dusted fries

Deluxe Chicken Avocado Cone and Deluxe Shrimp Avocado Cone
When I went in for my first bite, I got a wiff of a semi-revolting smell from either the sauce or cole slaw that was on top of the chicken and ignored it. As I bit into the cone, I was unpleasantly surprised by how hard the fried coating and how dry the chicken were. This was very hard to swallow. The shrimp from the shrimp avocado cone was also super hard. I couldn't even taste the shrimp. Their "special batter" was simply too hard and unimpressive although the list of ingredients sounds unique: sesame seeds, almonds, chili flakes, sea salt, sugar, and corn flakes. The aroma that I intially smelled got increasingly difficult to bear. It hung around in my mouth as I chewed the chicken. This next comment is probably the rudest thing anyone can write about food, but I'm really not trying to be sensational. The sauce or slaw or combination of the two smelled and tasted like vomit. I'm sorry.

I decided to give Mighty Cone another shot with the Cone Dog. Another disappointment. I did not like the texture of the dog, and I've had venison and venison sausage before. I've also had reindeer hot dogs before. None of them disappointed me in texture like this venison dog. On top of the non-descript texture and bland flavor of the dog, the slaw and heavy-handed use of mustard drowned out whatever little taste is in the meat. Utterly disasterous.
Cone Dog-venison meat

Sadly, in all the reviews that I've read, people have expressed that their fries need some work, but to me, it was the only item I could finish without griping with each bite.

Please, can someone explain to me why everyone seems to like these cones????

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mi Tierra in San Antonio

A grad school friend recommended that I eat at Mi Tierra while in San Antonio. Boy am I glad I paid attention! Mi Tierra is a large 24 hour panaderia and restaurant with live music at the convenient Mercado area. I actually live right by a similar Mexican panaderia and restaurant with live mariachi music, which I love. But Mi Terra is ten times the bakery/restaurant by my place in Austin.

Their pastries are so popular that you need to get a ticket and wait for them to call you number. This isn't so bad because the counter of pastries is as long as the line! When we arrived at the restaurant, we had to wait for a table at the restaurant, so we decided to use our time wisely and buy pastries. This led to us eating some pastries before even getting to our tables.

Our stash of goodies

Pineapple empanada and Dulce de leche filled churro

You must buy the pineapple empanada and dulce de leche filled churro. The emapanda is super flakey, and the dulce de leche inside the churro is ingenious.

Good thing we were extra hungry by the time we sat down at a table. The waiter promptly gave us complimentary chips and salsa and took our order.

Chips & Salsa

Mom had the gigantic bowl of tortilla soup with chicken, avocado, and cheese. Absolutely delicious.

Caldo del Mercado-Tortilla Soup with Chicken, Avocado and two Cheeses

Dad ordered the Steak a la Tampiqueña and I tried the baked goat. This lunch was so decadent even if we hadn't started with pastries! The portions, as you can see, are huge, but they don't neglect the quality of their dishes. I hate it when restaurants give you a gigantic plate of poorly prepared food. In that case, they might as well give me a tiny portion and let me suffer through less junk intake. Everything on these plates were good. The steak was especially juicy and flavorful.

Steak a la Tampiqueña- Charbroiled Rib Eye Steak with Chicken Enchilada topped with green tomatillo sauce with Guacamole, Spanish Rice and Refried Beans

and Monterey Special-Cabrito — baked young Goat with Guacamole, Cheese Enchilada, Spanish Rice and Refried Beans

Dad and I could not help ordering sopapillas even though we practically started the meal with dessert. The last time we had honey drizzled sopapillas was at Poncho's in Houston when I got my elementary school straight-A's-report card coupon for a free kid's meal. We hadn't developed a taste for Mexican food at that time, but we all loved the sopapillas. Those were my earliest memories of Mexican food! How could we not order them 15+ years later when we finally love Mexican food?

Dad's eyes lit up when he saw these fried puffs and his hands darted forward before I took a picture. I had to reprimand him into putting the sopapilla back so I could take this photo.