414 University Avenue, Hillcrest
"The Golden Dragon" must never plunge to earth: The neon sign is a historic landmark, so it has to shine on above University Avenue in perpetuity, even while the restaurant below has been renamed, refurbished, and reopened in a wholly different culinary style. The Asian Bistro looks a lot better than Jimmy Wong's venerable chop suey joint did in its final days. All is fresh and clean, with a stone-tile floor and banquettes covered in dark-red brocade. Billie Holliday sings over the speakers. At the rear of the dining room is a wooden sculpture. I expected the standard carving of a modestly dressed smiling woman, hands pressed together in a wai, the Thai gesture of greeting, but when I looked closely, it was obvious that this lady is no modest Thai girl: Bare-breasted, with her arms over her head and her feet afire, it turns out that although she was carved in Buddhist Thailand, she's a figure (what a figure!) from the Hindu epic The Ramayana, proving her marital fidelity by walking through flames.
The menu is an eclectic sampling of the cuisines of China, Japan, and Malaysia -- but with a focus on Thailand, since the owner and chefs are Siamese. If you were one of the many fans of Celadon before 2005, then you've enjoyed Songsri Thammasuckdi's cooking. As executive chef here, she creates many of the recipes and checks in several times a week to oversee the kitchen. Chef de cuisine John Thammasavong's handiwork may also be familiar -- he cooked for 15 years at Royal Thai in the Gaslamp.
Unfortunately, many of chef Songsri's labor-intensive masterpieces (her superb stuffed chicken wings, her lavish pineapple fried rice that's a favorite of the Queen of Thailand, and her Bua Sawan, a.k.a. "heavenly dish") haven't traveled to the Asian Bistro's more casual, pun-filled menu, which includes such dishes as "Thai Me Down" (spring rolls) and "Green House" (house salad). You begin here with "Fresh Start" (appetizers) and "Warm U Up" soups, followed by a new menu section called "Yum!" (a mixture of salads and noodle dishes -- yum means "salad" in Thai). "Greens" includes more salads, some with proteins like Peking duck or seared scallops. Entrées (the standard curries, stir fries and noodles) follow, along with "Royal Treat," the chefs' Thai specialties, mingling with dishes of other Asian nations and some fusionista creations. The menu is still changing every few weeks, so don't be surprised if you arrive to find it revised again, with new dishes and feats of wordplay added.
We didn't try a lunch because we'd heard from several foodie friends in Hillcrest that it was sub-par compared with the evening meals, perhaps because Patty Allen, the owner/sous-chef, doesn't come on line until 7:00 p.m. Instead, we came for a couple of dinners with friends, beginning the first one with the appetizer sampler called "Too Wong Foo." It includes "yummy sticks," satay chix, "money bags," and spicy lettuce wraps.
The spicy lettuce wraps, a.k.a. larb gai, are a salad of minced chicken with onions, peanuts, mint, and ginger in a spicy lime dressing, with an equally spicy cuke-and-onion relish on the side. This hand-chopped rendition is the best version of the dish I've tasted in San Diego. Bearing little resemblance to the grinder-processed or Cuisinarted "chicken sawdust" I've railed at in other reviews, it's complex and spicy enough to tingle. Adding a little peanut sauce when you wrap it up in butterhead lettuce leaves accents the flavors. "Money bags" are shrimps wrapped in wonton skin and fried, served with plum sauce -- crisp and enticing. "Yummy sticks" prove to be crisp vegetarian egg rolls the size of a short, thick cigar with a glutinous sweet-sour dipping sauce. The filling is the standard mixture of cabbage, carrot, and sparse shiitake shreds. We felt that the dish's title overstates the case -- they're just okay. Satay chicken breast seemed rather plain, with no distinctive flavors from a marinade or a smoky grill. The meat was reasonably tender and came with a heavy peanut dipping sauce with the oil starting to separate.
We couldn't resist "Jumping Jarvis," the odd Louisiana appetizer on the menu -- soft-shell crab fried in a light, spicy Cajun-style batter. (The recipe comes from friend of the owner and local chef-around-town Danny Jarvis, ex-Kemo Sabe.) The crab was succulent and sea-salty, with a nice crunch from the thin edible shell and the crisped batter. It's greasy but go-o-o-d. It comes with four little pots of sauce ranging from hot to ha-eee! My partner tasted them each in turn: "I'd rate them 2, 4, 6, and 8," he said. "And I don't know how anyone can eat the 8." He used the number 6, I took the number 4, but we liked the crab too much to use much of them.
Son-in-law's egg is a favorite Thai nosh rarely offered in the U.S., a pair of fluffy, hard-cooked eggs, deep-fried and glazed in vibrant sweet-sour tamarind sauce, set among spring greens drizzled with tamarind vinaigrette. It's pure fun. "Long Time No Sea" is a salad of seafood and greens, garnished with sliced ripe tomatoes, cukes, celery, basil, cilantro, and spearmint (which, unfortunately, tastes very different from genuine Asian mints -- but is evidently the mint that Sysco stocks). The dressing is a delicious lime-chili vinaigrette sweetened with palm sugar, an authentic Thai flavor combination, and just-right spicy. Unfortunately, the seafood tastes as if it's been frozen -- watery scallops, chewy green-lip mussels, and knife-sculptured slices of thick calamari (cut from a huge squid), plus tender medium-large shrimp.
Chilled by the May Gray, we chose a miso soup from "Warm U Up." It was light and subtle, closer to a good chicken broth than to the earthy Japanese version, with a few floating pieces of silken tofu and scallion. It's a miso for Thai tastes, and we gulped it down happily. On a return visit, the Tom Kah Goong (coconut shrimp soup) had a thin broth strongly seasoned with citrus juice, lemongrass, and enough chilies to register about a 6 on the heat scale. It's bracing rather than soothing, another true Thai taste. When the succulent shrimps were gone, we lifted our bowls and drained them to the dregs. Many other soups are available -- in fact, they're multiplying by the week -- including several Chinese specialties (egg-drop, hot-sour, and wonton) made from recipes bestowed by Golden Dragon's last chefs, the Fongs. (The kitchen will also prepare off-menu Chinese entrées like broccoli beef when the Dragon's devotees request them.)
We chose our entrées entirely from the "Royal" house specialties. "Hog Wings" are everybody's favorite -- small smoked pork shanks (from a little luau-ready piggie of about 35 pounds), braised soft and then grilled. They come in two versions: "Atomic Hog Wings" is a Thai-style rendition, sauced with a host of semi-hot fresh chilies in a spicy red sauce made with minced, fresh red small chilies and their seeds. It's not incendiary but rates a solid 4 or 5 on the heat scale. A naked haystack of red-and-white cabbage and carrot slaw is heaped next to the meat. If you're happy with the spicing of the sauce, it makes a good dressing for the slaw, which otherwise can serve as a cooler-of-the-flames. "Asian Hog Wings" are the milder version with a teriyaki and sweet-chili sauce.
"Her Secret" is a winner if you have a sweet tooth. It's shrimp in a thick, gooey tamarind sweet-sour sauce (like that of the son-in-law's eggs), a Coney Island for the mouth. In Thailand, the only times I encountered sweet entrées were at Chinese-Thai lunch buffets laid out for tour buses full of farangs (foreigners). "Her Secret" is, happily, way better than the buffet slop -- the shrimp are perfectly cooked, the flavors bright with the fruity tang of fresh-squeezed tamarind pulp and the dark sweetness of palm sugar. (Incidentally, if you're on one of those "good carb" diets like South Beach, palm sugar's glycemic index seems to be much lower than regular sugar.)
Some of the Bistro's specialties display expert cooking but less-than-fabulous ingredients. "Golden Treasure" offers the same seafood mixture as "Long Time No Sea," here bathed in a blandly sweet, cornstarch-thickened gravy and presented in a pan-fried noodle basket. The crisp noodles are tasty, but unlike the zingy salad, the pallid sauce emphasizes the faults in the raw materials. Our tough mussels had a bitter undertone, the squid tasted like dried scallops, while the scallops had no flavor to speak of. Only the shrimps were nice and shrimpy.
"The Last Emperor" features a roasted half-duck in spicy red curry sauce with cherry tomatoes, grapes, pineapple, bell peppers, and basil. Unlike duck dishes in many other local Thai restaurants, the meat didn't taste old and stale -- the owner buys crisp-skinned Cantonese roast duck "as needed" from a Chinese barbecue in Linda Vista -- but the type of duck isn't very "ducky." (It resembles the defrosted leg-thighs that I buy, cheap, at a City Heights Asian supermarket.) I did like the crisp skin and the tangy glaze. The spicy red coconut milk curry surrounding it was rich but thrown off balance by the powerful herbal flavors of non-Thai spearmint and sweet basil.
"Crying Tiger" suffers from tough beef. At its best, it's made with tender cuts like sirloin. Here it's chewy "ranch round steak," sliced thin, marinated in lime juice and salt, then grilled. It doesn't get much smoky char-broil flavor (in fact, nothing does in this kitchen -- an equipment issue, clearly). Served with a spicy dip, it comes with lettuce wraps for rolling up. If you'd like a smaller sample, the meat is newly available in an appetizer Thai beef salad.
The fried rice was a highlight, a delicate mixture with corn kernels, carrot bits, scallion, peas, and egg, sprinkled with a few black sesame seeds. Un-fried rice topped with the seeds comes automatically with most entrées. At our second visit, we tried an alternate starch, Pad Thai. These were the quintessential "forty lashes with a wet noodle" noodles -- soggy, underseasoned, under-garnished (no dried shrimp, no peanuts, no spice, no life). It's actually the worst Pad Thai I've ever tasted. If this is how local customers like it, Patty oughta rename it Pad Farang. (She, too, prefers the authentic version -- and may even introduce it as an alternative while keeping this one for the paler palates.)
Desserts include interesting house-made ice creams. The coconut ice cream proves similar to Indian kulfi, tasting like a combination of coconut milk and condensed sweetened milk, with an ice-in-velvet consistency. Bits of canned tropical fruits (primarily jackfruit) run through it, lending textural surprise. It comes scattered with whole peanuts and streaked with raspberry sauce -- an exotic treat. We also loved the house cheesecake -- dainty slices deep-fried in a sugared, cinnamon-coated egg-roll wrapper, then chilled ice cold and served with a drizzle of the same raspberry syrup. If the Asian Bistro is all about fusion, its desserts are delightful exemplars of the concept. The fact that you can get them at 3 a.m. is just icing on the cake.
ABOUT THE OWNER AND CHEF
Patty Allen is the high-energy co-owner (with her mother) of the Asian Bistro. After she learned to cook from her grandmother in Thailand, she now spends every evening popping back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room. "I was born in California," she says. "My parents went to USC, but after graduating they went back to Thailand and I was raised there. My dad owned a pretty famous restaurant in Bangkok for about 15 years...I came back to California in 1985, when I was 17, to go to UCI. My dad is still in Thailand, but my mom came here 5 years ago. I moved down to San Diego in 1995. We've been jumping everywhere.
"Opening a restaurant was always in the back of my mind. I grew up with it, and then when I went to college, I waited tables. When I came to San Diego, I worked weekends as a waitress at Taste of Thai. I got my real estate license, but some kind of plan to open a restaurant in Hillcrest was always brewing.
"The Princess of Thailand lived in Del Mar, and I was friends with her daughter. One day her daughter told me, 'I'm not going to see you much anymore, I'm moving to L.A.' And I say, 'Why you're going to L.A.?' 'Oh, San Diego is so boring, nothing to eat after nine p.m.' And I got the idea, if I ever open a restaurant I would serve until late night, because there's nothing here then except Denny's and Jack in the Box." Another realtor alerted her to a new listing for a run-down restaurant in Hillcrest. "I just fell in love with it," she says. "It's really old, so much history. It's a shame the previous owner let it run down that badly."
Even the refrigerator and the ice machine were broken. The remodeling took seven months and cost $400,000 to meet code requirements, about four times what she'd expected. "As a realtor, I think anything can be replaced except location," Patty said, "and this has the best location in town. My mom warned me that the first year I'd work for free -- but for that year at least I'd get to eat every day and my kids wouldn't starve because we own a restaurant.
"I didn't want to make another Thai restaurant," she says. "There are already so many. I wanted to serve a fusion-food where people can have miso and teriyaki chicken, or kung pao, or curry. I wanted more of a variety. But my staff and I are Thai, so we specialize in that...Yet I can't get away from Golden Dragon; we have to make kung pao chicken every night for somebody." The Chinese dishes follow Golden Dragon's recipes, while Patty and her staff wing it on the Japanese dishes (which emerge with a Thai accent).
"I'm in the kitchen every night. I want to make sure that every dish comes out perfect...I try to buy the best ingredients that I can, but of course I'm just a baby in this business...Our prices are very reasonable, because I'd rather have people come twice a week rather than once every two weeks."
Her executive chef, Songsri Thammasuckdi, learned her skills at Thailand's Royal Academy of Cooking and was the longtime chef at Hillcrest's Celadon. She's a favorite chef of the Princess of Thailand, and when Queen Sirikit visited San Diego, Miss Songsri cooked for her and 50 of her guests. She now divides her time between the Asian Bistro and Dara Thai, downtown.
"Miss Songsri wants things a certain way," said Patty. "She trained everyone in the kitchen, and she comes in every couple of days to check up. We can't use canned tamarind, we have to squeeze it from fresh. We do have to use canned coconut milk, mixed with thin coconut milk that comes in a bag from Thailand -- but if she could, she would make us squeeze the coconut milk from fresh coconuts every day. So every morning we have to make everything fresh, all the sauces, which takes a lot of time. I cannot use shortcuts -- otherwise she would not let us use her name.
"But the response has been so much more than I expected. The people in Hillcrest are so nice, and so many people come in late at night and hug me and say, 'Thank you so much for staying open late.' I was surprised how many people want to eat curry at three a.m."