Sunday, July 8, 2007

Excellence as Custom

(from the Austin Chronicle, August 19, 2005)

Traveling Tien Jin's menu

Chilean Sea Bass at Tien Jin Chinese Restaurant
Photo By John Anderson

Tien Jin Chinese Restaurant
4534 Westgate Blvd. #105, 892-6699
Austin, TX

Monday-Friday: 11am-2pm, 5-9:30pm; Saturday, noon-9:30pm; Sunday, noon-9pm

Tien Jin has been open for 12 years, located in the strip center across from Westgate Central Market, specializing in Cantonese cuisine. The interior is elegant in a subdued sort of strip-center style, with the tables comfortably spaced. At lunch there is a fairly lavish daily buffet (20-plus items, $5.95), or one can order from the list of lunch specials or from either of the two menus. The second menu, the authentic Cantonese version, is why we go there. The other reason is that Tien Jin is quick to cook any combination of their ingredients in any style you prefer: Tell them what you want, and they'll whip it up with a smile.

Any meal should begin with the Potstickers ($4.95 for eight, also available steamed). Nicely browned homemade wrappers enclose a rich pork filling, served with a well-balanced gingery dipping sauce, and Tien Jin's chile oil is one of the few in town that actually has some real heat to it. Pork and Pickled Cabbage Soup ($1.75) is a nice pork stock with shreds of lean pork and pickled cabbage – good, but we expected a more assertive flavor from the cabbage. The Hot and Sour Seafood Soup ($7.95) was excellent: a piquant and slightly sour, not-too-thick stock loaded with vegetables, tofu, fresh shrimp, and sweet scallops.

When we inquired about the fresh bacon and pickled cabbage, we were steered toward a custom dish: Char Siu Roast Pork With Green Beans and Scallions ($7.95). There are copious slices of tender, moist pork loin tossed in a flavorful brown sauce, with the beans and scallions slightly crunchy. Delicious, but the pork belly dish is still on our radar for the next visit. Ta Chien Chicken ($6.95) delivered juicy tender chicken slices in a spicy, sweet, and tart sauce, paired with fresh bamboo chunks and shitake mushrooms.

Orange Flavored Beef ($8.50) was the only dish that almost disappointed: tender beef in a light batter, bathed in a sweet-spicy citrusy sauce. Problem? The sauce didn't bind on the batter, there was no Sichuan peppercorn dusting on the exterior, and no crunchy bits of dried orange or tangerine peel. Still, we ate it all. Pork With Flavored Bean Curd ($7.50) is superb: strips of lean pork and dry, spiced tofu tossed with scallions, cloud ears, and scallion, perfected with a drizzle of chile oil.

Sautéed Baby Snow Pea Leaves ($7.95) are always a favorite, with the texture of greens and a subtle flavor of snow pea (the only way to eat snow peas!). We chose to have ours cooked with garlic and meaty slices of shitake mushrooms and were delighted. Pork Hong Kong Noodle ($7.95) was balanced and satisfying, with vermicelli-thin noodles, shredded pork, sprouts, mushrooms, scallions, and bamboo shoots tossed in a garlic-infused sauce. If our menu choices seem pig-centric, they are: We love pork, and it's the most-used meat in China. Rest easy, both menus are more democratic when it comes to meat, seafood, and vegetable options.

Tien Jin brings you some lagniappe after the meal: a small plate with bits of ripe fruit (orange, melon, cantaloupe, lychee, grapes, and more), just like they do in Asia. Not to worry: You also get a fortune cookie with the bill (even if the fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco by a Japanese garden designer/cook). Their tea is strong and definitely Chinese in origin and taste. Service is so attentive that it can border on smothering, but that sure beats the alternative. Add it all up, and Tien Jin is near the top of our list for South-Central Chinese dining. If you haven't been, you should.