Asia Cafe: Just plain good

Rating: four starsPrice: average
Review May 21, 2007

Asia Café exemplifies what food should be: unpretentious, simple, casual, and so damn good you can’t stop shoving it into your mouth.

Located in the back of an Asian market aptly named Asia Market, Asia Café immediately strikes you as a place for serious food. Their walls, like their plates, are unassumingly plain, white, and say, “We focus on the food, not the décor.” The dominant language overheard is Chinese – they first call out your order number in Chinese, then English. When your food is ready, it is sometimes brought out as each plate is done so your meal doesn’t sweat under a heat lamp.

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photo / Veronica Hansen Asia Cafe 

The requisite American favorites make an appearance on the menu: General Tso’s chicken, orange chicken, shrimp fried rice, etc. While delicious, ordering them feels like ordering a salad at a steakhouse. The reason to venture to Asia Café is their emphasis on Szechwan cuisine, which is unparalleled in Austin. Some of their dishes contain Szechwan peppercorns, producing a slight numbing effect while simultaneously enhancing the surrounding flavors.

Most of the menu listings are plain but descriptive. Noodles with ground pork sauce ($5) is noodles, ground pork, pork fat, and spices. Salt-and-pepper shrimp ($8) is fried shrimp with salt and pepper. (Eat the shrimp whole, head and all – trust me on this one.) Asia Cafe’s secret lies in simplicity. By using just a handful of ingredients, the chef not only showcases the robust flavor of each ingredient but creates something greater than the sum of its ingredients.

This is the case with the noodles with ground pork sauce – my favorite dish. It’s what I have always wanted spaghetti and meat sauce to taste like, even though I never knew it. To be fair to the other dishes, I have never ordered anything here that didn’t leave me moaning in delight.

Keeping with their bare-bones approach, Asia Café has counter service and free hot tea. I always try to stretch the generous portions to two meals, but I can’t stop myself from cleaning my plate. It’s as if the law of diminishing returns doesn’t exist within its doors.