An international flavor trip
As a cook-turned-sailor stopping at ports of call throughout Asia, Nang Thai was on the lookout for details that defined the cuisines he encountered. And now, as the owner of Asian Grill on Gibson, he’s more than happy to stand by your table and tell you about his various epiphanies. Like that time in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when he first ate beef cooked with pineapple: The way the fruity sweetness interacted with the slices of beef made an impression on him. That’s why it’s on his menu, which is a selection of some of his favorite dishes from the Eastern Hemisphere.
It’s clear from the sparse decor of Asian Grill’s large, clean dining space that food is the priority. Other than a television tuned to a sci-fi channel, there’s little to distract from the business of eating. Thai has taken an interesting step to streamline this process. He keeps a tally of how many times each dish on the menu has been ordered, and he posts the top sellers on a dry-erase board by the door. In addition to helping diners see what other customers like to eat, this information also helps Thai adjust his menu to better suit his clientele, an eclectic mix of air force personnel, hospital employees, travelers on their way to and from the airport, Asian nationals of all stripes looking for a taste of home, and the occasional restaurant critic and his friends.
The Taiwan-style flounder is breaded with panko flakes, a reflection of how many Japanese ingredients have worked themselves into Taiwanese cooking. The large filet, easily enough for two, is drenched in a sweet red sauce and garnished with an array of veggies. Carrots, bell peppers and onions are cooked just to the point of losing their crunch. Underneath the crispy coating, the fish is moist.
Vietnamese specialties are a strong suit at Asian Grill, which isn’t surprising given that Thai comes from a Vietnamese family. The spring rolls are rolled so tightly that, after biting off an end, you can use them to suck up dipping sauce like a turkey baster. Inside the roll, shrimp are clean tasting and veggies are crisp and fresh, with basil that tastes faintly of licorice.
While many of the recipes are carefully regional and authentic, there are also a few plates that are experiments in fusion.
While many of the recipes are carefully regional and authentic, there are also a few plates that are experiments in fusion, such as the ahi tuna steak. Pan-seared and thin-sliced, Japanese style, on a bed of greens, the tuna is served with ginger sauce and a pile of fried rice. The idea, Thai says, is to balance the natural sweetness of the tuna with the savoriness of the fried rice. The ginger sauce is strong and simple, and it successfully bridges the dish’s components.
Upon request, a caddy of homemade chile sauce will be brought to your table. The sauce is salty, hot and oily, and it recognizes no borders in terms of the international dishes it livens up. I spooned a healthy dose onto a plate of chow fun, stir-fried wide rice noodles, with pork. I’m a certified wide-noodle fanatic, and these noodles were perfectly cooked, carrying the house brown sauce very well.
And the pineapple beef, as Thai had promised when he recounted his trip to Chiang Mai, was spectacular. Thin, crispy-fried slices of beef perfectly supported the pineapple-sweetened sauce. Like many of the dishes at Asian Grill, this one seeks a balance of contrasting flavors—and finds it.
• Ahi tuna steak
• Pineapple beef
• Taiwan-style flounder
5303 Gibson SE, 265-4702
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Friday. Closed Saturday.
Price range: $3.25 (spring rolls) to $10.95 (special garlic shrimp). Lunch specials are $6.50 to $7.50.
Vibe: Clean, attentive, not a drop of nonsense
Vegetarian options: Good