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.
For a Vietnamese entrée, we chose “360 beef” (a.k.a. shaking beef), served with rice. The beef (probably tri-tip) was suitably tender and decently seasoned — but it lacked the smoky, caramel depths and greater tenderness of the same dish made with sirloin at Del Mar’s Le Bambou or, a block away from Chow, made with filet mignon at Saigon on Fifth. It came with a ramekin of salt and black pepper mixed together, an authentic garnish, but the pepper seemed to be bottled fine-ground, not coarse fresh-ground, as it should be.
By now, I’m sure you’re picking up a pattern. With farang (non-Thai) cuisines, Chow’s renditions are edible and pleasant but neither authentic nor optimal. For any dish you might try here, a better version can be found at other restaurants dedicated to that ethnic cuisine. But since Chow’s owner runs two of the top Thai restaurants in San Diego, how does the kitchen do on his native cuisine?
Bad news. Chow is not Celadon or Rama. It’s also not Lotus Thai, or any other reasonably good Thai restaurant in the area. It proves to be one of the least authentic, most deeply compromised Thai kitchens around.
The first problem is an evident indifference to quality. Take the satays. The skewered beef was not only cardboard tough but uninteresting. The chicken was overcooked and underseasoned. The dipping sauce was cloyingly sweet. A food-vendor with a sidewalk brazier on any alley or temple courtyard in Bangkok would be out of business in three days with skewers like these. No Thai would try them twice, and there aren’t enough dumb farangs in the whole country to support them.
Second problem: In its version of an often spicy cuisine, Chow — attempting to please all tastes — defaults to just about no heat at all. (This is silly. Patrons who dislike spicy food have three other nations’ milder dishes to choose from.) Instead of cooked-in chilies, you receive a condiment tray holding dried red peppers, pickled red peppers, pickled green serranos, and Sriracha sauce. Help yourself. The problem is, throwing hot chilies onto food that’s already cooked creates a harsher effect than introducing the spice from the start, so that it has a chance to mellow and blend with its fellow ingredients. Here’s an example: With no built-in chile, Chow’s som tum (green papaya salad) is tart and vaguely pleasant but shallow tasting. None of the table-condiments mirrors the typical Thai preparation, which begins with pounding garlic and fresh hot chilies in a mortar to a rough paste. You can’t fix it at the table with sprinklings of condiments — you don’t have the raw materials or the tools. In contrast, when my Isaan-born friend Tuy in Nan Yang (on Phuket) makes som tum, she assembles it (except for the last-minute chopped nuts) the night before she serves it, so that all the flavors can make friends (including a fair amount of hot pepper — she is from the spiciest culinary province of Thailand).
Finally, Chow substitutes sweetness for fire. Take the nightmarish pad thai. To borrow from Sweeney Todd, it’s got to be “the worst pad thai in London” — or anywhere else. Rename it “Dentist’s Yacht” — it’s got enough sugar to rot your molars in three bites. In Chiang Mai, the noodles, barely sweetened by a light sauce, are an excuse on which to hang a riot of pungent dried shrimp, fresh shrimp, dried radish, and fresh vegetables. At Chow, the heavy, glutinous sauce tastes as if it wandered off from a Thai wedding dish called mee krob (made with deep-fried “exploded” rice noodles and about 40 other ingredients, which is why you don’t see it often in restaurants). At weddings, maybe all the sugar is appropriate.
Another evening’s “drunken noodles” (large, soft egg noodles with seafood in coconut-based curry sauce) were not really drunk — they were on a sugar high. From white sugar, I’m sure — Thai palm sugar doesn’t taste as sweet, and it doesn’t come granulated but arrives in solid blocks of various shapes. (The ones in my cupboard look like suntanned seashells.) You have to laboriously grate off the amount you need — a process that automatically breeds restraint. Cooks in Thailand tend to use palm sugar as a seasoning, one flavor among many. In America, Domino makes sugar dominant.
We did find one truly pleasing Thai dish: Tom Yum, lemongrass noodle soup. Far less fiery than usual, it revealed an unexpected soothing side to its personality. The tender shrimp in the broth were perfectly cooked. By now, however, Chow may be serving a different, beef-broth version with short rib meat. (I’d gladly try that, too.)
Our final Thai entrée was green curry. Since the new menu draft seems to offer it only with chicken, rather than seafood, that’s how we had it — encountering another flurry of dried-out breast meat swamped in a sauce so lackluster, you could do at least as well at home with a quarter-cup of bottled Thai Kitchen green curry paste and a can of Chao Kuo coconut milk.
In fact, you’d probably do it better, since you’d probably toss in some vegetables (how about Japanese eggplant?), and you’d take better care of whatever protein you were using. One of my tablemates at the second dinner has lived her life in a small town in Wisconsin, without much experience with Southeast Asian cuisine. “They seem to use an awful lot of meat and starch and not a lot of fresh vegetables,” she commented, picking at the drunken noodles. The rest of us burst into a chorus about how atypical Chow’s food is compared to more authentic restaurants (especially in its Vietnamese dishes), much less compared to the veggie-rich cooking of the four Asian nations it covers.
Over an excellent dessert of sticky rice with mango, posse-regular Sam looked thoughtful. “Does it seem to you that all of this food has been heavily adapted for gringos?” “The Thai word for ‘gringos’ is farang, but yes,” I said. “Hard to believe the same owner owns Celadon and Rama,” said Mary Jo. “Lower price point here,” said Sam, “lower ambitions.”
Nevertheless, while Chow’s cooking doesn’t have the light, wholesome balance of authentic Asian fare, if you navigate carefully around the menu, you can get a tasty, inexpensive dinner without reservations or forethought. It’s the globalized, So-Cal equivalent of dear old Hong Hing and Hong Fat, the Mott Street hangouts that fed my generation of impoverished Manhattan hipsters — but unlike those institutions, it’s not greasy or cockroach-scary but clean and pleasant. If I were in the neighborhood and short of funds, I’d eat at Chow again in a New York minute — but I’d eat there with lowered expectations.
Jazz lovers, take note: Jason Weber, the sax player whose soaring music distracted me from my “review dinner” at Anthology, returns to Anthology this Sunday, January 6. (No cover, $15–$20 minimum.) n
Chow Noodle House
540 University Avenue (at Sixth Avenue), 619-269-9209.
HOURS: Open daily 11:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $5–$8; entrées, $8–$11; desserts, $3.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Noodle dishes and rice bowls from Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Japan. Solid, adventurous wine and sake lists at reasonable prices, plenty by the glass, plus sake martinis.
PICK HITS: Potstickers (pan-fried pork dumplings); shrimp tempura; Tom Yum (Thai noodle soup); Japanese fried chicken; curries, desserts.
NEED TO KNOW: No reservations accepted except for large parties. Small parking lot on Sixth Avenue, north of University (or use Rite-Aid pay lot on Robinson). Music on sound system gets louder and heavier as evening progresses. Kiddie menu available as of January 1. Many dishes high-carb, with sugary sauces over starch.