Traditionally, if you want quality Vietnamese food in Austin you have to be in the part of town where it’s hard to tell if you are in Pflugerville, Round Rock, or Austin. In South Austin we mostly have the standard Chinese-takeout-style Vietnamese places where you can get a ton of edible food for five dollars. When LuLu B’s trailer opened I loved that I could get a vegetarian bánh mì for 4 and I have long been obsessed with their 6 dollar bún. When the prices on each went up a while back, I stopped going so much. So at first I wasn’t so sure about how often I would go to the even more expensive Elizabeth St. Cafe which is even getting flack from foodies about the 22 dollar pho. But, unlike Lulu B’s it is open at night, has excellent service and has a super cute ambiance so I can see myself returning. It is kind of mind boggling that they could have made the old Bouldin Creek, certainly the cafe I have spent the most time in probably in my life, into such a elegant little place. Someone should make a “Where Have all the Hippies Gone” parody video. Or not.
The menu is definitely happy meat focused but I was gladdened to see that vegan options abound as well. We started with the Ginger Marinated Tofu Spring rolls. Since the peanut sauce wasn’t vegan we stuck with just the sweet chile vinegar and ginger jalapeno for dipping. Even with those sauces, I thought the spring rolls were a little dry, too heavy on the noodles and without enough herbs and vegetables.
I think that the reason I was most excited to try the Elizabeth St. Cafe was in anticipation of their pho. I kind of became obsessed with pho when I lived in Washington and for years I was disappointed by every version in Austin that I tried. Recently I tried a recipe from Terry Hope Romero’s upcoming internationally themed cookbook and I it reawakened all the pho desire inside me. Elizabeth St has two different pho varieties and we went with the miso cauliflower version. It was delicious and I think would be perfect for someone that like the idea of pho but maybe not the Vietnamese version. We’ll call them fusion pho lovers. Next time I will try the tofu, mushroom, radish traditional version for sure. One thing I loved about this version was that it was completely packed with tofu and vegetables. A lot of times it seems like places skimp on all that stuff and just give you a ton of sprouts and herbs.
We skipped the bánh mì since they didn’t have vegan mayo and went onwards to the bún. The grilled tofu was a highlight for sure and there was plenty of vegetables in the bowl, in fact I think there were more vegetables than vermicelli. Everything was fresh and delicious and the vegan fish sauce was good enough, maybe a little tame.
My favorite part of the meal was undoubtedly the bánh xèo (aka the Vietnamese crêpe) even thought it wasn’t on the menu and we had to special order it. Don’t you just love when restaurants are accommodating? The service, overall was great, our waitress was easily able to tell us what was vegan and what we could do special and when she wasn’t sure about the crêpe she checked with the kitchen staff. When the waitress returned to tell us they would make a special vegan version I was, in a word, stoked. This is the best bánh xèo I have ever had, although truthfully it was also only the second. It was coconutty, light and delicious and definitely what I will return for.
It is a fantastic little spot, more expensive, no doubt then, a standard Vietnamese restaurant but with a charming atmosphere and excellent service.