Austin Vietnamese restaurant Hai Ky
opened on the Drag recently, making this their third location (along with their presence on Oltorf and Bee Caves Road).
Hai Ky aficionados will find the menu familiar, although this location features a whole page of vegetarian – and mostly vegan – menu items, no doubt owing to its crunchy location near UT, right next door to presumed competition Veggie Heaven (and, further down, Pho Thai Son). Despite the dark windows and lack of prominent signage, when I went in for lunch at 11:45am on a weekday, the place was already buzzing. Hai Ky doesn’t seem to be striving to be something it’s not (the way many feel Crave, just up the Drag, is), and it’s more a café than a restaurant; ceiling fans whirred near high, open windows, the floor hadn’t been swept before the lunch rush, your typical Austin overpriced amateur art was on sale, and the soundtrack was predominantly reggae. It’s the type of place with slightly sticky tables, which can sometimes be a good thing; we’ll have to wait and see whether Hai Ky proves to be more of a Star Seeds Cafe type of sticky table place, or a Veggie Heaven type of sticky table place, if you know what I mean.
The lunch menu had a whole page marked “Veggie”, which is always a good sign, and some items were specifically marked as vegan – an even better sign, especially in an Asian restaurant (pesky fish sauce!). I was pleased to see their sidewalk sandwich board, which has beckoned to me for several weeks with its cry of “HUGE vegetarian menu!!!!!!” had not been exaggerating. Hai Ky has two vegan appetizers (spring rolls and edamame), six vegan vermicelli bowls (ranging from lemongrass to jalapeno), and four vegan noodle entrées. Not bad.
The spring rolls (two for $2.95), while clearly freshly made, and stuffed with fresh greens (including a lot of cilantro), were not really a stand-out, and the peanut sauce, while a much larger-than-usual helping, was less deep and complex than at other Austin restaurants, and had a distinct jar-0f-peanut-butter taste.
Though the restaurant wasn’t yet full by any means, by server did rush my order just a bit, and it was difficult to choose, me being unaccustomed to having more than one dish to pick from a menu. I chose the lemongrass vermicelli bowl ($6.99), with tofu (the menu was unclear as to whether it came with tofu), and when I asked the waitress for “crispy tofu,” she looked thrown off and said, “I don’t think they really do it to order, sorry.” During my whole 45 minutes in the restaurant, I had four servers, who were mostly a bit on the curt side, and not overly friendly; the check was also brought less than halfway through the meal. I’d call the service adequate. Anyway, I hate soft tofu.
Turns out, the tofu was magnificient. Thrown in a wonderful, rich sauce over a heaping bowl of noodles and stir-fried veggies, the strips were fried to perfection – not too crispy, still soft in the center – and had a pleasant, slightly smoky flavor. The sauce was fantastic, if a bit light, considering how big the bowl was; I was hungry, and managed to take enough home for a full two meals of leftovers. A huge, huge bowl of food:
Overall, it was a pleasant lunch experience. I sat in one of the two-person booths in the big front window, and enjoyed people-watching over a piping hot bowl of noodles. I’d call that a success. I will definitely return to try some of their other dishes, too; my omnivorous colleague went there for a later lunch and was very impressed. On the whole, while I might not come back for the vermicelli bowl, I will come back for the tofu.
Cross posted from The Vegan Tree House.