Fed Man 55: Asia Cafe (17)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 17: Asia Cafe
8650 Spicewood Springs Road, Suite 114A. 512-331-5788, www.asiacafeaustin.com.
Hours: 11am-9pm daily.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.23.12
My best day at Asia Cafe came after the last night at the Backstage Steakhouse. Because I’d been part of that bittersweet crew for a closing-night story, I got to join the afterparty wake at Asia Cafe the next day with chef Raymond Tatum and the Backstage gang. We requisitioned one of the private side rooms with a big Lazy Susan in the middle of the table and loaded it with cumin beef, salt-and-pepper squid, pea leaves, stir-fried pork intestine and crispy duck. We spun it like a wheel of fortune, the prizes ordered by number in a dining room with all the echo-chamber charm of a bingo hall. Dishes cost around $8-$14, the hot tea is free and you can bring your own beer and wine.
Tatum — whose Three Little Pigs trailer is No. 54 on the Fed Man 55 — taught me how to eat at Asia Cafe, how to glide past the sweet-and-sour this and General Tso’s that to get to the heart of Chinese cooking. Specifically, the heart kept beating by the Szechuan peppercorn, a spice with a flavor-break somewhere between cardamom and hellfire. The tiny black blossom breathes life into a big steel bowl called House Dry Wok Beef (No. 752), a growling tangle of beef, green onions, bamboo shoots and dried chiles that brought tears to my eyes even as the peppercorns sucked the air from my lungs like a backdraft. Those same peppercorns spike through the earthy musk of stir-fried pork intestine (No. 87) and color the edges of the fried fillets and bitter greens of spicy fish (No. 689).
Asia Cafe is an expedition into Chinese without the hyphen-American suffix. Dishes like “Pork Slices with Special Garlic Sauce” (No. 219), which layers uncooked bacon over cucumber, all of it magnified by a sheen of prickly-ash oil. Or salt-and-pepper squid (No. 675) fried like popcorn-of-the-sea tossed with garlic and jalapeño. And mapo tofu (No.  836), which throws the shy bean curd into a lumberjack stew with black beans and ground pork.
The expedition will take you a few places you don’t want to go, like to a plate of gamey frog legs with more bones than meat or to a sad pile of salt-and-pepper shrimp with inedible shells. But I’ll follow any trail scouted by restaurant people I respect, and the trail to Asia Cafe leads to my favorite Chinese restaurant in Austin.
(TOP: Dry wok beef with Szechuan peppercorns. FIRST INSET: Beef with daikon radish; mapo tofu with minced pork. SECOND INSET: Spicy fish; salt-and-pepper squid. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants