I really like some Pan-Asian food. A talented chef can play off of traditional Asian dishes with great results. Consider the excellent Pan-Asian dishes served at some of Houston's best restaurants, like Noe, Bank, and Benjy's. Or the outstanding Pan-Asian dishes at cheaper restaurants like Bamboo House and Mo Mong. These restaurants all incorporate Asian cuisine, but concsiously depart from tradition to good effect.
In contrast, the Pan-Asian food at Dragon Bowl Asian Bistro just seems sort of clueless.
The Dragon Bowl is a new cafe in the Heights on W. 11th at Shepherd. In some respects it is a welcome addition to the Heights, which needs good Asian food. The only other decent Asian restaurant in the area is the excellent Vietnamese Restaurant. Given this lack of neighborhood competition, Dragon Bowl isn't bad. But it also is not worth driving across town to visit.
An obvious misfire is Dragon Bowl's rice. The rice consists of dry, individual, long white grains -- the kind of rice a white American cook would make. They are not the short and sticky grains usually served with real Asian food. The problem with Dragon Bowl's rice is that the clumps fall apart when you try to eat with chopsticks. (Advice to chef: add one third more water to the rice cooker if you want to solve this problem.)
Then there is Dragon Bowl's bulgogi. It also doesn't taste much like the real thing. Real bulgogi is thinly sliced beef with a sweet and spicy hot marinade. See my August 31, 2006 post. Dragon Bowl's version is more like a shish kabob of teriyaki-marinated and grilled flank steak. The meat is too thick, and it is neither sweet nor spicy. But they do add some sweet marinated onions and a bit of Chinese chili sauce on the side. You might call it a "deconstructed" bulgogi if it wasn't so obviously out of touch with the real thing.
Similarly, the Super Udon Bowl is a huge mish mash of udon, large pieces of carrots and bell peppers, chewy tofu, and a few pieces of shrimp. The mild sauce seems to consist of soy, sugar, and a little ginger. It is the sort of Pan Asian dish I would make at home. Of course, I'm not Japanese. Nor was this dish.
On the plus side, every dish at Dragon Bowl is under $10. The portions are generous. The food doesn't taste like a chain restaurant. And there is something about the restaurant that is oddly approachable -- perhaps the fact that you can see them cook behind the counter.
I probably will return to Dragon Bowl. It is kind of fun to watch them massacre traditional Asian dishes, but come up with something fairly decent in the process. The next time I am going to try "Pad Thai', which comes with real "Thai noodles", "a tangy tamarind sauce," and "shitake mushrooms." That should be fun.
UDATE (9/24/06): So I tried the Pad Thai. Although it wasn't the best in town, it was very good. A few minor aspects seemed a bit off. The "tangy tamarind sauce" was a little too tangy, and not quite as sweet, as the perfect Pad Thai. Also, instead of crushed peanuts on top, this Pad Thai was toped with some other sort of crushed granules -- possibly garlic. And the shitake mushrooms, a Japanese ingredient, seemed a little out of place, even if they were tasty. But this dish worked because of the outstanding noodles. When I try to cook Pad Thai, I alway damage the noodles, leaving them undercooked, burnt, or sticking to the pan. Many Thai restaurants ruin Pad Thai by adding too many bean sprouts to the noodles. In contrast, Dragon Bowl's noodles had the perfect consistency, with few pesky bean sprouts added. Even if not completely authentic, this is an outstanding dish for $8 and one of the best Pad Thais in miles.
Dragon Bowl is neither authentic nor creative fusion high cuisine. But the food is satisfying and far, far better than nearest Pan Asian bistro competitor -- Mak Chin's. See my September 16 post. Unlike Mak Chin's, the food at Dragon Bowl is the creation of a real chef.