If you and your eating buddies feel like tasting your way through several Asian countries and are looking for economy fare, then Chow is designed for you.
It’s the latest venture of restaurateur Alex Thao, best known as the young entrepreneur who revived his parents’ original restaurant Celadon before opening the razzle-dazzly Rama in the Gaslamp, which is still San Diego’s finest destination for “royal Thai” palace-style cuisine. With his latest venture, Thao has set his sights considerably lower. His Chow Noodle House offers a mix-and-match menu of noodle dishes and rice bowls from Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Japan. (Don’t know why, but he omitted Singapore and Malaysia.) The average entrée runs $9, which hits the spot during the post-holiday credit-card-bill shock-and-awe period. The simple cooking may also seem a relief after holiday indulgences.
Visually, Chow is the opposite of the low-down, crowded Chinatown noodle joints that sustained my crowd through and after college. The decor is starkly modern in shiny black, white, and chrome, with contrasting red napkins. It’s a little like the inside of a tidy bachelor’s refrigerator — spacious, clean, cool. In fact, the tables nearest the window are chilly on a cold night. If you arrive early, the restaurant’s soundtrack is cool and jazzy, too, but after 7:00 p.m. it starts to pulse and thump with a more trendy rock format.
The staff is so accommodating that one night, when we ordered coconut ice cream and the kitchen was out, a staffer hopped in a car and ran over to Celadon to pick some up for us. It was excellent ice cream, studded with juicy bits of pineapple.
The menu changes often, and has done so as of January 1, while my two visits occurred prior to the switchover. But I was warned of the upcoming change in time for the second meal and mainly ordered items that would carry over into the New Year.
The poser Chow presents is: Can one kitchen successfully prepare four different national cuisines? My posse and I chose dishes from all four to find out. To build up some suspense, let’s visit Thailand (Thao’s own specialty) last and start with China instead. I was surprised and delighted by the pan-fried pork dumplings (a.k.a. potstickers), with their thin, crisped wrappers and well-seasoned filling, a classic balance of sweet and savory. They were not world-shaking potstickers but typical of those served at good Chinese restaurants and came with an appropriate hot-salty-sour soy-based dip.
The Chinese wonton soup we sampled was less successful, partly because it included noodles and dumplings. On the draft of the new menu (emailed by the publicist), the extra pasta will be replaced by vegetables, letting the wontons stand — or float — alone. I hope so, because adding noodles to wonton soup is like garnishing ravioli with spaghetti. The arbitrary addition of tasteless, desiccated bits of chicken breast made matters worse: The reason that wonton soup is typically garnished with char siu, sweet barbecued pork, is not because the soup needs random creature-protein but because char siu contributes flavor. The wontons fell short, too, with doughy wrappers and bland filling. (If it’s the same forcemeat as in the dumplings, it may have turned out less well than usual that evening.) But the ultimate problem was the soup itself, a thin, mild chicken broth with little fat globules on top. It’s missing subtle Chinese seasoning and lacks sufficient body to fulfill that heartening Chinese comfort-food quotient. (I have tasted its like occasionally at ultra-cheap, older Cantonese-American restaurants.) A friend from southern China once told me, “When you taste the soup in a Cantonese restaurant, you’ll know whether the rest of the food will be good, because the same broth will be in most of the stir-fry dishes.” When I tasted Chow’s broth, my inner Last Empress emerged, hissing, “Guei lo tref!”
Japan seems to fare better, or maybe it only seemed so because I didn’t grow up eating in Japanese restaurants. The shrimp tempura are pleasant, in any case. The shrimps aren’t the huge butterflied prawns of the best tempuras, and the batter is not airborne, but if you look at them as generic fried shrimp, they’re tender enough and taste very good with the ginger-spiked dip. Japanese fried chicken (which may be off-menu by now) was also a fun dish. Surprisingly, it was neither the lightly floured, spicy karaage I’d hoped for, nor the katsu McNuggets I expected but closer to “popcorn shrimp” — small deep-fried breast-bites in a crackly cornstarch coating, glazed in a light, sweetish sauce, all in all more reminiscent of Chinese sweet-and-sour pork than anything Japanese.
The Japanese “must taste” dish for me was ramen. Years ago, after seeing Tampopo for the third time, my partner and I slurped through San Francisco’s Japantown, seeking Tampopo-quality ramen at different noodle houses. Don’t know whether we found it (since neither of us had eaten ramen in Japan), but we thoroughly enjoyed several top contenders. Chow’s cha siu ramen (with pork, egg, fishcakes, and a few dark-green veggies) would have come in, oh, second-to-last — although the soup is reasonably tasty and easy eating. But here, too, the broth isn’t quite right — it’s lacking a flavor that I can’t name but miss. The noodles are a little soggy, and the egg is too hard-cooked.
Next stop, Vietnam. Both appetizers from that country shared a serious omission, as Vietnamese cuisine values “do it yourself.” In homes and restaurants, appetizers arrive with a huge heap of lettuce leaves, fresh herbs (mint, basil, cilantro, rau ram, etc.), scallions, and other salad ingredients, and “lettuce wraps” are assembled according to the tastes of the individual diner. If the appetizer is already some sort of a wrap, then the wraps get wrapped. At Chow, this custom is ignored. One leaf of lettuce doth not a salad make.
While spring rolls are common to both Thailand and Vietnam, the version we tasted accorded more closely to Vietnamese recipes, stuffed with plump shrimps among crunchy sprouts, julienned carrot, thin rice noodles, cucumber batons, and basil leaves. For all its freshness and crunch, the filling was a trifle bland, but the plate came with only a single leaf of butter lettuce and two sprigs of cilantro, plus an unimpressive dipping sauce. A Vietnamese crèpe (banh xeo) was overstuffed with shrimp, ground pork, bean sprouts, and shredded wood-ears. Once again the salad wrap (two leaves of lettuce) was a token, and the riot of herbage was sorely missed, especially since the pancake was greasy. Chow’s version of nguoc cham dipping sauce was, to my taste, ruinously sweet.