Driving north on Lamar Boulevard several miles away from downtown Austin, you'll pass a seemingly endless parade of taco trucks and tire shops. Then Chinese-style facades appear out of nowhere. The large sign facing traffic announces your arrival at "Chinatown Center: Your Passport to Asian Cuisine and Shopping." Established in 2006, this shopping center strives to be the self-styled nexus of Austin's small Asian community, hosting a popular Lunar New Year celebration each year.
Chinatown Center has a sterilized mall feel instead of that crowded, crumbling charm of, say, Manhattan's or San Francisco's Chinatown. It's full of travel agencies, jewelers, retail shops, a large Asian grocery store, and, most importantly, several restaurants. Don't let the name "Chinatown" fool you—most of the businesses are Vietnamese, and there's even a decent Korean restaurant. Of course you can find these cuisines in other neighborhoods, but this shopping center likely has the highest concentration of Asian restaurants in Austin.
Austin already has plenty of trendy and/or upscale restaurants doing Asian-inspired cuisine, and they seem to get all of the attention. Do the humble spots at Chinatown Center get overlooked because they don't have perfect logos or fancy interiors? I don't have the answers. But after trying every restaurant in Chinatown Center, I'm convinced that Austin has some legit contenders for good and authentic Asian food. There were even some unique finds like pâté en croûte, homemade durian ice cream, and barbecue beef tendon. I still wouldn't advise out-of-state visitors, or even Houstonians, to seek out Austin's Asian restaurants while visiting. But for those of us who live here, there are some excellent choices if you take the time to look.