by Mike Corrigan

Now it can be told: Vina Asian Restaurant is definitely worth a stop. While its generic storefront likely registers as a peripheral blur for commuters whizzing down Ash just below Northwest Blvd., Vina's interior is comfortable, immaculate and surprisingly refined for a strip mall eatery. The spacious dining room features seafoam green tablecloths under plate glass table tops; padded, black-enameled, high-backed steel chairs; and lots of plastic flora (tastefully utilized and arranged, I might add). There are even a couple of televisions suspended in corners for those unable to digest food without an eyeful of cathode rays. I was elated to see that each table came fully equipped with an astounding array of condiments (two kinds of chili sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, S & amp;P and the ever-popular "hot mustard/ketchup") together with various implements of mastication (chopsticks, soup spoons, sauce bowls, napkins and "minty" toothpicks).

The menu is very easy to navigate yet extensive, representing a broad range of Asian cuisine styles, including elements of Cantonese, Hunan, Mandarin, Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese. In addition to the usual meat choices (chicken, pork and beef), there are a number of squid dishes and an amazing number of entrees featuring duck, including a whole roast duck with white rice for $14.99. Of greatest interest to the bargain-conscious lunch trade is Vina's affordable and easy-to-assemble combos. With three price points, diners decide how many dishes they need to tide them over and what those dishes will be from a 15-entr & eacute;e list. All combos come with your choice of either fried rice or chow mein and egg flour soup plus one entr & eacute;e (the No. 1 for $3.99), two entrees (the No. 2 for $4.99) or two entrees and one egg roll (the No. 3 for $5.99). Simple. The combo's entree choices include selections (predominantly chicken-based) from the main menu such as Kung Pao Chicken, Beef and Broccoli and Teriyaki Chicken.

While perusing the vast menu choices, we decided to start with an appetizer, namely the combination platter ($6.99) of barbecued pork, four fried prawns, four fried won tons and two egg rolls. It arrived swiftly, accompanied by tiny bowls of sesame seed, fluorescent red sweet-and-sour and soy-based dipping sauces. While everything -- especially the won ton filling -- was tasty enough, the fried delicacies were overwhelmed with excess cooking oil. The prawns in particular were dripping with it. The barbecued pork was a little dry but, as more than one of us expressed, "That's the way I like it."

For the main course, we ordered a couple of the $4.99 No. 2 combos (one with fried rice plus Mongolian Beef and Orange Chicken, the other with chow mein plus Almond Chicken and Beef and Broccoli) and a small version (for $4.50) of the Roast Duck noodle soup. The latter was served Vietnamese-style with egg noodles, green onions and cilantro in a chicken-based broth, with roast duck portions, bean sprouts and lime on the side. Our "small" version was actually quite huge, generous in terms of both duck and soup. The duck meat had a nice flavor, but was slightly tough and rather fatty. The soup's flavor was excellent, and we enjoyed adjusting the seasoning to taste.

The entrees also appeared quickly. We found them fresh and well prepared, though generally somewhat on the bland side (adjusted to taste with proper condiment application). I say "generally" because there were several notable exceptions. The Mongolian Beef, for one, with tender beef strips mingling in a light sauce with sliced carrot, onion, water chestnut, baby corn and green peppers was very flavorful and packed a surprising amount of heat. The chow mein that comes standard with the lunch and dinner specials was anything but standard, consisting of firm egg noodles and stir-fried vegetables of quality and substance -- the color, texture and flavor of the broccoli florets in particular were exceptional. Also noteworthy was the Almond Chicken, which utilized high-quality breast meat and exhibited actual almond flavor. The Orange Chicken (deep-fried chicken nuggets in a tangy-sweet orange sauce), the egg flower soup and the fried rice were adequate but unremarkable.

From the moment we were greeted and seated right through to meal's end, we received excellent, friendly attention from our server. She also seemed quite knowledgeable about the many menu items and was quick to offer what turned out to be winning recommendations -- notably, the small version of the voluminous roast duck noodle soup.

Vandal Summer Cinema Series

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