Chinatown – MopacSeptember 2, 2011
Austin, TX 78731
REVIEW – Downtown Location
When I first landed in Austin as a young professor of radio-tv-film at UT Chinese dining in Austin was fairly predictable. Every dish had a number and they all came with fried rice and a egg roll. Most were Mandarin and Cantonese style and they were limited in variety. And then like a thunderbolt out of a summer storm (remember when we used to have those?) came this brash young chef named Ronald Cheng. He introduced cuisine from regions most Austin diners had never heard of, plated dishes in a pleasing and irresistible manner, and single-handedly raised the bar for Chinese and, yes, Asian dining in the River City.
The restaurant is called Chinatown, as it was back in 1982, and Ronald Cheng hasn’t missed a beat since. Chinatown is in my Top 20 and deservedly so. The location has changed to Greystone and Mopac but the talent and creativity that drives this place hasn’t changed at all.
The appetizers at Chinatown are unique unto themselves and totally delightful. The Taiwanese Hot and Sour Seafood Soup is always terrific with searing flavors wrapped around a delicate and precise presentation! Delicious! The Jade Potstickers feature minced shrimp wrapped in doughy goodness. And do get them pan fried. These are without question, the preeminent dim sum in Austin. The flavor with a dab or chile oil and soy to complement is breathtaking. And Fried Calamari done with a Kan Shao sauce is a taste and textural (critical with Calamari) joy. And the Vegetable Dumplings are another recommendation. They are light, almost gossamer, with subtle tastes that will please the most ardent vegan.
The list of chef’s specialties at Chinatown is extensive, and virtually none of these would have been heard of before Chinatown opened. I must begin with the Jalapeno Scallops. Ronald Cheng gets flavor contrasts and when you begin with plump ocean scallops and add fermented black beans, onions and jalapenos in a brown sauce you have first bite flavor rushes that will leave an indelible mark on your taste memory. The Thai Pepper Basil Shrimp has long been a favorite. This is Chinatown at its best: a wonderfully hot and zesty brown sauce with fresh mushrooms, red Thai peppers and garlic. The flavors here keep coming at you until the last, decadent bite. And if you don’t mind a few extra calories, try the Sizzling Honey Pepper Steak. The tender morsels of beef augmented by sautéed onions in a mellow brown sauce is unique to the city and about as tasty a dish in the “guilty pleasure” category as you’re likely to find. And Cheng’s version of Sea Bass, in a light, brothy sauce, is as tender and delicious as one could expect. The fish crumbles at the touch of a fork into beautifully textured bites. And you would do yourself a great disservice not to sample the Lo Mein (noodle) dishes. I’m partial to the Shrimp Lo Mein which just elevates noodles to a new level. The Vegetable Lo Mein is also a delight. The key here is the lack of excessive oil that can plague this dish in the hands of the uninitiated. No such problem at Chinatown.
So please, while the local Chinese buffets may seem endless and economical, do not pass up the opportunity to dine at the real McCoy of Chinese cuisine as it was meant to be. Chinatown Greystone is the definitive torch bearer for consistency, excellence, and innovation.