Pan Asian fusion several years later
A few years ago, pan-Asian fusion cooking seemed so exciting. Would it bring us unusual, creative dishes? Would it draw out new flavors we have never tasted?
Now Houston has many pan-Asian restaurants in not-so-Asian neighborhoods with not-so-Asian crowds. Pan-Asian restaurants tend to fall into the middle market -- not too cheap, not too pricey.
As for the food, the results are mixed. Some pan-Asian cooking is little more than watered-down, Americanized dishes with less flavor. But some pan-Asian cooking is a real improvement over the standard Chinese-American menu.
These three pan-Asian dishes typify some of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre.
1. Jenny's Noodle House: Art Car Curry
The best thing Jenny's Noodle House ever did was move. Its first location, near Kim Son on the outskirts of downtown, drew unfortunate comparisons. You could go to Jenni's for a mediocre, inauthentic vermicelli bowl and pay around $8, or buy the real thing in nearby midtown for $3 less.
Then Jenny's moved to Shepard at West Alabama. Now it has little competition from cheap, authentic Asian restaurants. Plus Jenny's new hippie/granola theme fits right in with the neighborhood. So do its vaguely Asian/health-food fusion dishes.
I like Jenny's Art Car Curry. It is a soupy green curry with far more coconut milk and far less spice than a real Thai green curry. As a Thai waiter told me recently, Thai restaurants find that Americans prefer curries with more coconut milk. This sweetens the dish, and waters down the heat. Jenny's mild curry has interesting textures, with potatoes, tofu, mushrooms, and carrots.
Sure, Jenny's curry tastes more like Whole Foods than Vieng Thai. And it would be improved by much more spice. But it is a tasty, warming soup that feels good in the mouth, especially on a cold day.
2. Dragon Bowl's Special Pan Fried Rice
At first, Height's Dragon Bowl seemed too inauthentic, too unfocused. But I have since become a fan, enjoying many of their fusion rice and noodle dishes.
Still, I don't know why I ordered DB's Special Pan Fried Rice. Inevitably, fried rice in American-Chinese restaurants is too greasy, too Americanized.
But DB's fried rice was remarkably good. It had a mix of meats -- chicken, Chinese sausage, decent quality shrimp. It also had a huge mix of vegetables, some of which rarely appear in traditional fried rice.
Despite this maximalist, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach, the dish had a refreshing ungreasy, toothsome texture. And every bite was unique.
3. Bamboo House: Pad Thai
My favorite of these three restaurants is Bamboo House. This soothing fusion restaurant on Waugh near Allen Parkway is in a peaceful setting. Soft, New Age music wafts through the minimally-designed dining room.
The minimalism also extends to the food. Most of Bamboo House's simple Japanese, Thai, and Chinese dishes are very good. I especially like the vegetarian Monk's Delight, Shimeji Udon, and Singapore Noodles.
But Bamboo House goes a little too minimalist with their pad thai. Today, it arrived as a brown bowl of noodles sprinkled with brown peanuts and a single cilantro leaf. I searched around the bowl in vain for a lime.
The noodles had a lovely texture, almost like risotto. The dish achieved a marriage of the soft, traditional noodles with broth.
But something was missing. Unlike really good pad thai, this dish did not smell like the elephant cage at the zoo. It had little aroma at all, probably because it did not use fish sauce. And the flavor was not the careful balance of sweet sugar and sour tamarind. The noodles tasted of a slightly savory stock, with perhaps some garlic and soy. But when I closed my eyes, I barely noticed the dish was Asian.
There was nothing wrong with the dish. But it was less than real pad thai.
When fusion works, when it doesn't
Fusion chefs should feel free to play with traditional dishes. It is possible to improve them, or at least create variety.
But fusion does not work as well when chefs subtract flavor. You can add new ingredients and make a good fried rice. But pad thai loses something without fish sauce and tamarind. And curry loses something without all the spice.
We Texans are international sophisticates. We have learned to like stinky fish sauce and sour tamarind and hot chili peppers.
Don't take away those strong flavors and treat us like scrod-eating Yankees.