First Chinese BBQ is one of the two most frequented Chinese restaurants in Austin, at least for college students. When people are trying to figure out where to get Chinese food, the final two fallbacks are always First Chinese BBQ and Din Ho.
Each has their own unique qualities, but today we will stay focused on First Chinese BBQ. It is some ways north of campus in a small Asian square. It is next to a big Asian grocery store and a number of other small Asian restaurants. Apparently, from what my friends have told me, the restaurant’s origins reside in Hong Kong, but have slowly spread its influence across a number of cities including Austin and areas near Dallas. The restaurant is a good size with about twenty tables varying from small tables for four to big round party tables complete with a glass Lazy Susan.
Our group of five was seated at a round table and were quickly handed menus. We all ordered water (with a couple of us getting warmer temperatures) and the restaurant was very accommodating. My roommate who ordered hot water got a special mug full of steaming liquid and we were all set to decide on what to get.
Looking around the restaurant, the place is very nice. It is certainly not a fancy restaurant, but the grunginess of hole-in-the-walls is cleaned up with some fancy light fixtures as well as neatly framed black-and-white pictures of sister restaurants hanging on the walls. However, a quick survey can also reveal the factory ceiling and very open kitchen. Yet I find the open kitchen a plus because it gives a homey feel and makes the place a dress-up or dress-down restaurant. The only real downside was the lighting, which did not give the ambience the restaurant was trying to make and, though not the restaurant’s fault, the sun shone in rather brightly and can be blinding in the wrong spot.
After due deliberation, our group finally decided on family style of five dishes for five people. We ordered a seafood combination crispy noodle, cai lon (or Chinese broccoli), orange chicken, stir-fried Tofu with veggies, and crispy pepper pork. The wait was a little long since we were starving and had a bit of a time crunch, but the food arrived after about 10-15 minutes.
Mmm, the food was definitely yummy and my friend laughed that we didn’t even say anything in the first few minutes because it was so yummy (or maybe we were just that hungry). Our first dish was the crispy pepper pork, a dish only one of us had tried before. It was yummy with small round slices of pork (with bone) covered in crispy golden goodness and spicy pepper slices hidden underneath to give added taste. I avoided the peppers to keep the dish from being overwhelmingly spicy, but I appreciated the flavor it added. If you are a person who can’t handle hot stuff, it’s more spicy than hot. It was also pretty salty so watch that if you’re on a low-sodium diet.
It was my first time for crispy noodle and it was yummy! My friend, who has her own blog called A Love-Cake Relationship, eloquently explained how the crispy noodles were dipped in just enough sauced to add flavor and soften the noodles slightly while the warm seafood topping gave the necessary flavor to bring the dish into one bite of delightful goodness. I tried it after she cut out a piece for me and it was GOOD! I liked how it was crispy, but had a lot of flavor and was balanced by the soft chewiness of the seafood. The seafood was just subtle enough to add flavor, but let the crispiness of the noodles be highlighted.
Next up are the dishes of cai lon, orange chicken, and tofu with veggies. The cai lon was a classic, good and just like you would get in any other Chinese restaurant. It wasn’t undercooked, which can be a problem in some places, and wasn’t completely drowned in oyster sauce. The orange chicken was also good with a crispy outside and perfectly cooked broccoli. I’ll admit, though, the sauce seemed to be more like sweet BBQ sauce than orange sauce to me, but good either way. Finally, the tofu with veggies may have been the weakest point in our meal. I do like bok choy and crispy tofu, but this dish seemed to be a little lacking. The tofu pieces did not seem very well seasoned and some at the table thought the pieces were too big. The dish was also deemed a little bland and I personally found it quite salty. However, it must be given kudos for the large amount and variety of vegetables that may have fared even better if they had been less drowned in sauce and more fresh.
Inevitably, I will have to make some comparisons with Din Ho and this is left to the last paragraphs. Mostly, I would prefer the food at First Chinese BBQ. However, I will admit that I like the tofu slightly better at Din Ho (though that may have been because of the different dish). In terms of environment, each has their own pros and cons. Din Ho is nice for friends and looks more like a Chinese restaurant does, but First Chinese BBQ is probably best for large college groups with its tendency to be loud and trendier décor. Both have spotty service that could be good or bad depending on your server, but at least they all try. If you’re willing to make the trip, go for First Chinese BBQ, but Din Ho is never a bad substitute.
Rating: 😛 😛 😛 😛 ½ for good Chinese food in Austin and a nice place for groups to eat.