In the January issue of Texas Highways, Senior Editor Lori Moffatt uncovers a link between a no-frills north Austin Vietnamese restaurant called Tam Deli and Austin celebrity chef and restaurant entrepreneur Larry McGuire, whose dining empire includes the French-Vietnamese restaurant Elizabeth Street Café, Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue, Perla’s Seafood, the new Clark’s Oyster Bar, and the highly anticipated reinvention of Jeffrey’s, long regarded as one of the city’s first and finest upscale eateries.
The connection? It’s that as a teenager, McGuire often dined on noodle bowls and banh mi (Vietnamese French-bread sandwiches) at Tam Deli, and that some of the dishes at the upscale Elizabeth Street Café are homages to dishes served at Tam, such as the sweet-potato fritters.
“My favorite dining places tend to be family-run joints, often no-frills places that focus on cuisines from Mexico, South America, India, and Asia, because the food can be so inventive and delicious—and affordable, “ says Lori.
“My favorite ‘restaurant row’ in town is an admittedly unattractive stretch of Lamar Boulevard north of 183, where you can find dozens of interesting restaurants serving Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Pakistani, and Indian fare.
“Just a few blocks north of the Lamar/US 183 intersection, on the west side of the street next to a Korean Presbyterian Church, is Tam Deli, which is famous for its banh mi and vanilla custard-filled cream puffs—dishes that are culinary reminders of Vietnam’s long French occupation. Drive north a quarter mile or so, and on the west side of the street, and in two strip malls between Peyton Gin Road and West Rundberg Lane, you’ll find an interesting assortment of options for adventuresome diners, including Mariscos Los Jarochos, a Mexican seafood joint with a menu in Spanish; a tiny, hole-in-the-wall Korean place called Together that serves a great smoked mackerel and beef bulgogi; two fascinating Indian grocery stores; Shalimar Indian restaurant (skip the buffet and order from the menu) and a Vietnamese place called Thanh Ni.
“Cross Rundberg going north, and you’ll find yet another mash-up of ethnic influences jammed together in a spiritless strip mall, including Agha, a narrow and spotless place that serves Indian and Pakistani smoothies, ice-cream desserts, and fruit juices; Lucky Bakery, a Hong Kong-style bakery that makes killer curry buns and does a brisk business in birthday cakes; the Cuban Sandwich Café; and Nyuy Vietnamese restaurant, where I rarely resist the fabulous marinated beef lettuce wraps from the appetizer menu. The waiter brings you platters of beef, romaine, mint, basil, cilantro, shredded carrots, sliced cucumbers, jalapenos, and bean sprouts, and you make your own spring rolls at the table. Nyuy changed its name recently from Le Soleil, because evidently people were mistaking it for a French restaurant.
“Across the street from all of this wonderfulness, next to a huge disco called Rodeo and a Japanese karaoke parlor, is a tiny Indian grocery story called Taj Grocer and perhaps my favorite Indian restaurant in Austin, Swad. You must forgive the plastic cutlery and greenish lighting, and instead marvel at a menu of Southern vegetarian Indian street food. My favorite thing there is the onion and potato dosa—a giant crepe made of rice-and-lentil batter, stuffed with onions and potatoes—all for less than $5.
“Keep going north, and on the west side of Lamar, about midway between Rundberg and Kramer Lane, and you’ll find a place called T&S Chinese Seafood. I learned about T&S a few years ago, and back then the rumor was that chefs often visited T&S late-night after their own kitchens shut down. I don’t know if that’s true, but the food is really good here, and it’s open late. For dinner, I like the salt-and-pepper shrimp, but be sure to order a vegetable dish as well; I like the mushroom-and-Chinese broccoli combination. The dim sum on Sunday is also fun.
“Finally, continue just a few blocks north, and on the east side of Lamar, you’ll find Chinatown Center. This is a shopping complex anchored by Austin’s largest Asian grocery store, MT Supermarket. I love going to MT for crazy greens, unusual fruits, and condiments from around the world. MT also has a huge selection of housewares, ranging from monstrous plastic bowls for preparing noodles for a crowd, rice cookers, pretty sake sets, and all manner of ladles, spoons, strainers, and other interesting items. Some of my vegetarian friends come here to stock up in the frozen-food section. I also like MT’s selection of Chinese and Japanese ice-cream products; in particular I’m addicted to these popsicles made of red beans; they’re sweet and great for dessert but also have 6-7 grams of protein.
“Other interesting shops in Chinatown Center include a Chinese herbalist (the dried ginger here is terrific); a salon dedicated solely (pun intended) to Chinese foot massage; a dessert and sandwich shop called Short n’ Sweet (try the durian yogurt if you’re feeling adventuresome—it smells like a locker room but tastes delicious); two banh mi shops called Lily’s Sandwich and the Baguette House; a Korean barbecue place called the Korean Grill (go with a group and cook your meal at a tabletop grill); and a highly regarded Vietnamese noodle place called Pho Saigon.
“Drop me a line if you go to any of these places, and let me know what you find!”