Lin Asian Bar + Dim Sum Restaurant
by Karen O. Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
A long time ago, there was a little town called Austin. It was quaint and funky and served tasty barbecue and Tex-Mex. But that’s about all. It didn’t have much culinary diversity, and it certainly didn’t have much Asian food. But then the little town grew up, and people started moving here from all over the world, like chef Ling Qi Wu, from China’s Fujian Province. And like so many Austin transplants, she helped transform our sleepy brisket-and-breakfast-taco hamlet into a bona fide culinary destination with her global culinary talents.
Chef Ling’s restaurant, Lin Asian Bar + Dim Sum Restaurant, is undoubtedly one of the most popular restaurants in town right now. Open just a year, it has been packing them in since day one, perhaps because the chef/owner’s stellar reputation preceded her: She helped develop the enormously popular dim sum program at Austin hot spot Wu Chow. Prior to that, she spent more than 15 years at Ronald Cheng’s Chinatown restaurants. But after years of cooking in other people’s kitchens, Ling decided to strike out on her own. And although it’s her weekend dim sum that put her on the map, her other sophisticated Chinese dishes draw equally enthusiastic crowds at lunch and dinner throughout the week.
Dim sum, the Cantonese morning meal of bite-size foods, is frequently a cacophony of banging carts piled with greasy, tepid offerings. But at Lin, it’s a civilized affair where you order à la carte from a menu, thus ensuring your dim sum arrives hot and fresh.
If there’s a signature dish at Lin, it’s the soup dumplings. These tender steamed morsels burst with an unctuous broth and savory pork filling. Drizzled with a touch of ginger-infused vinegar, they are eyes-roll-back good. Lin also offers a single, Texas-size seafood soup dumpling filled with pork, chicken and duck broth and scallops, lobster and shrimp. It’s a tasty and creative option, but I prefer the original.
My other dim sum favorites include the flavorful basil chicken dumplings, the simple and sublime shrimp har kaw, and the exceptional sticky rice, each glistening kernel like a shiny pearl. Don’t overlook Lin’s vegetable offerings, like the refreshing Szechuan spicy cucumbers and any of the seasonal sautéed greens, like Chinese broccoli, snow pea leaves or bok choy. Although the full dim sum menu is served only at weekend brunch, several items are offered throughout the week at lunch and dinner, including the legendary soup dumplings.
Lin’s lunch and dinner offerings are just as buzz-worthy. The dinner-only Seafood Delight with Bird Nest is an Instagram star and tastes as good as it looks: a mélange of sautéed shellfish and vegetables cradled in an edible basket made of latticed taro root. This stunning dish turns heads when it’s delivered to your table. The crispy jalapeño shrimp is another popular choice, and the sautéed seasonal vegetables with tofu is one of my go-to orders: a garden-fresh medley of vegetables sautéed in a delicate sauce and garnished with silky cubes of fried tofu. It’s a dish that could be mundane but instead is ethereal. There’s also smoked duck offered nightly and roasted Peking duck on the weekends. Lobster tail and Angus beef with foie gras are other elegant selections.
Located in a vintage West Sixth Street bungalow, Ling and her team, including her husband, Jimmy Ng, transformed a former pizza joint into a charming Asian boîte, with whimsical lighting, hand-drawn murals, an open kitchen and a shaded outdoor dining patio. There’s a welcoming little bar that mixes some impressive cocktails, and Lin’s trademark logo is stamped on all the custom serving pieces, from the traditional Chinese tin cups to the wooden dim sum baskets.
It’s a new era in Austin. When I moved here 20 years ago from California (yes, I’m one of those), I bemoaned Austin’s lack of culinary diversity. But now, with the influx of restaurants like Chef Ling’s, I’ve got nothing to complain about.