January 11, 2007

Lily's Sandwich, 10901 N Lamar Blvd

More exceptional bánh mi in far north Austin, this one tucked away in the brand new Chinatown center near Lamar and Braker. Lily's baguettes are thin and very crusty, and the joint is apparently popular enough that they run out regularly, so watch the late lunches. We had no problem loading up on barbecue pork bánh mi at around 8 one evening, and also tried a random "stuffed rice noodle" dish that arrived with sprouts, fried garlic and standard garnish, plus a few discs of forcemeat that proved to be challenging to identify.

The bánh mi leaned toward the insanely spicy side the night we visited, with copious jalapeños and pickled carrots. The heat of raw jalapeños is often a crapshoot, so who knows how spicy these will be next time around. If you're timid, grab a milk-based bubble tea next door before you order.

Lily's has a good selection of cold drinks but not much else; this is not a full restaurant like Tam Deli. If you can tune out the insanely loud DVD of Vietnamese entertainers on the TV above the drink cooler – or if that appeals to you – you'll enjoy the same kind of pleasant, brightly-lit strip-center ambiance you've come to expect from Austin's best Vietnamese restaurants. Then again, you may want to follow the lead of the majority of the other patrons and get a big bag of sandwiches to go.


Posted by brentbuford at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)

December 13, 2006

Tam Deli & Cafe, 8222 N Lamar

More fabulous strip-center Vietnamese, this in one of those horrific gravel-walled Trammel Crow buildings that was clearly built for industrial retail. Never mind all that, just go inside - you'll find that the glare of fluorescent lights is mitigated somewhat by the coziness of the space and a (literally) mom and pop sense of hospitality. You'll also find some very tasty, inexpensive food.

You simply cannot go wrong with any of the baguette sandwiches - my favorite so far is the charcoal pork, but all of them are dressed with a decadent homemade mayonnaise and a brace of pickled veggies and fresh jalapeños. Served warm, they are so good and inexpensive that you'll be tempted to order a few more to go. You should, because they're even cheaper packaged for takeaway.

Don't miss the spring rolls, which are softer and more delicate than most; the roast chicken spring roll is a welcome change from the usual fillings of shrimp and pork. Finally, be sure to indulge in one of the numerous house-made pastries that grace the glass counter. I haven't dug deep into the pastry selection yet, but I'll update the review when I do.


Posted by brentbuford at 05:09 PM | Comments (0)

July 17, 2006

Le Soleil, 9616 N Lamar

Le Soleil continues the grand tradition of superb Austin ethnic restaurants in nondescript strip centers. Nestled in a corner of the bustling and sometimes sketchy mega-intersection of Lamar and Rundberg, Le Soleil distinguishes itself from the surrounding gaggle of Eastern and Far Eastern establishments with somewhat professional-looking signage and a far nicer big-screen television. I haven't had the occasion to use the restroom yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to find a fresh flower there in place of the usual surfeit of plungers.

Nevertheless, atmosphere this place has not; fluorescent lights just don't dim very effectively, I guess, and you can only squeeze so much comfort out of stacking institutional high-back chairs. Le Soleil is all about the food and, after a few visits, I'm convinced this may be the best Vietnamese joint in Austin.

Le Soleil doesn't do 300 versions of Pho and Bun along with some Chinese throwaways to keep the grandparents happy. Sure, all the standards are here, but the focus is on a larger variety of traditional dishes with simple preparation. I don't know if Le Soleil is really re-thinking Vietnamese, but they are certainly offering up some of the best of what this cuisine has to offer.

Start out with a Vietnamese crepe - I've had the shrimp and chicken twice and can't seem to move on to any of the other configurations. For something like eight bucks, a spread of traditional stuffing, wrapping, and dipping implements is laid out - lettuce, mint, a number of leafy herbs that even our waiter didn't know the English words for, plus fish sauce - all to accompany a hearty, egg-based crepe stuffed with bean sprouts and chunks of shrimp and chicken. Two could probably have this as a meal, but it manages to satisfy without ever seeming heavy.

There is plenty to recommend here, including a cold, tangy Vietnamese beef salad that I could eat every summer day and a rich, deeply flavored beef "cubes" dish whose sauce manages to evoke an almost French heritage (imagine that) in its similarity to a dark demi-glace. I'm uncertain whether a reduction is involved or just a secret alchemy of soy sauce and sugar, but the results are stunning, and the beef is cooked perfectly.

The star of Le Soleil, however, has to be the clay pots. Maybe I'm just a sucker for burnt rice in earthenware (I can never get enough dol sot bi bam bap, whenever I can find a good one at a Korean place), but the clay pot dishes here are an object lesson in dirt-simple yet spectacularly flavorful comfort food. Rice, straw mushrooms, a meat or fish, and some soy sauce and black pepper is about all that goes in here, and it is perfect. Earthy and aromatic, Le Soleil's clay pots will tempt you to gobble them up in minutes, but it's really best to let them site for a little while and develop that wonderful chewy rice "crust" on the outside, then go at it with a spoon. You'll be scraping the sides for the next half hour.

Highly recommended.

Posted by brentbuford at 09:54 PM | Comments (0)