by Mike Corrigan
The philosophy of simplicity that is fundamental to Asian cuisine is reflected in the d & eacute;cor of the Asian Restaurant (on top of the Sunset Hill), which is Spartan and unpretentious. The main interior space is divided into black vinyl-upholstered booths and freestanding table areas. Though it could use a little updating and is remarkably dark (even with daylight pouring in from the windows in the front), the dining room was tidy and clean. When we first walked in, we experienced a moment of please-wait-to-be-seated or seat-yourself confusion. After about 30 seconds, without an acknowledgement of our presence, we opted for the latter, found a nice, round table near a window and sat ourselves down. The sparkly Formica tabletops brought on an acute '60s flashback.
The Asian Restaurant has a separate menu for lunch (which is served Monday through Friday from 11 am-2 pm). Here you will find an assortment of Chinese dishes (reminiscent of the American-influenced Cantonese you find elsewhere around town), Thai dishes and American fare (three burgers, grilled cheese and chicken strips). The prices are very reasonable. The Chinese combination lunch specials -- pork chow mein with pork fried rice and either a sweet and sour meat, almond chicken or egg foo young -- are all just five bucks. The Thai combinations ($5.50) looked very much like the Chinese combos with a rice noodle dish replacing the ubiquitous pork chow mein.
We decided on the $5.50 Pod-Sa-Iue (rice noodle, beef and broccoli), the $5.50 Pod-Rum-Mit (mixed vegetable in Thai sauce) and the $6 chicken curry from the Thai menu. All that Thai is fine and dandy, but sometimes the only way to truly gauge the quality of a Chinese (or in this case Asian) restaurant is with a good old-fashioned Chinese combination plate. Thus one of our group opted for the No. 3 ($5) -- almond chicken with pork fried rice and pork chow mein.
Our very helpful and attentive server let us add tofu to the vegetable dish (this can be done with any order for an added $2) and asked us how hot we wanted the Thai dishes on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. In my experience, the star scale goes something like this: 1 star = baby-mouth bland; 2 stars = comfortably warm; 3 stars = hot enough to elicit sweat; 4 stars = hot enough to maim; 5 stars = trip to the hospital. We stuck with twos and threes.
Our orders arrived very quickly and were obviously made, as advertised, fresh on the spot. They were generous, too, considering these were lunch portions at reduced prices. The food itself, almost without exception, was on the bland side of tasty and packed hardly any heat at all.
The aroma of Thai curry alone is usually enough to knock you out of your seat. Yet I could only detect a hint of the pungent spice and just a fraction of the anticipated burn in the chicken curry's very watery sauce. The overwhelming component of the dish's flavor profile, in fact, was lemon. A nice, refreshing flavor, to be sure, but not at all what I was expecting. The rice noodle with beef and broccoli was also quite tame and while the noodles and broccoli were pleasant, the beef itself tasted a little -- I don't know how else to say it -- "off." Our tofu-vegetable dish was very good, with firm, seasoned tofu and an assortment of colorful, crunchy and tender Thai veggies.
The Chinese combo looked promising from the get-go. Too often, almond chicken means weird cuts of dark meat, connective tissue, bone and other disturbing things. Fortunately, this was all-white-meat chicken breast, dredged in what appeared to be cornmeal, covered in brown gravy and sprinkled with toasted almonds. The coating was a mixed blessing. While it was a welcome change from the thick sleeping bag consistency of most almond chicken batter fry, the chicken itself was more tough than tender. The fried rice and chow mein both seemed to be lacking something -- salt (remedied with a liberal application of soy sauce). The sprouts in the chow mein were fresh and full of flavor -- you could actually taste the nuttiness of the mung bean in each sprout. It was subtle but appreciated.
In fact subtlety -- along with attentive, friendly service and Asian food on the cheap -- was the theme of this trip out west. Fresh-cooked tastes (even for tender buds) are frequently worth such a journey.
Guests should be aware that the Asian Restaurant does not accept checks.
Publication date: 11/13/03