Feb. 10 2010 12:00 AM

Spice up your life at Asia’s Finest



Try Asia’s Finest this weekend if you’re hungry for some Chinese. Or Thai. Ever had Vietnamese? They have that, too.

But even if it’s not Asian cuisine you’re craving, get to the little south Lansing restaurant for excellent food that belies its location in the middle of a strip mall.

Owner Mary Ann Le has kept busy operating Asia’s Finest since 1993. She opened it after moving to the United States in 1989 after a brief stay in the Philippines as a Vietnamese refugee. She took classes at Lansing Community College to learn English, worked in a few local restaurants, then opened shop on the south side. She cooks, cleans and manages — the typical busy life of an independent restaurateur. After seven years in business, it’s safe to say her food has given her some success.

“We’re very famous for our Vietnamese and Thai food,” Le says. “Thai food, spicy food, is very popular in Michigan. Hot flavors in cold weather.”

The Chinese menu is popular and filled with the usual culinary suspects: lo mein, fried rice, General Tso’s chicken, etc. The Thai menu features spicier fare, and the pad thai — sautéed meat with stir-fried noodles, bean sprouts and green onions — is oft requested. But for a taste of authenticity, go for a Vietnamese soup.

The Pho Dac Biet soup ($7.25) is layered with flavors. A combination of rice noodles, green onions and beef slices — tender folds of rare and well-done meat, alongside firmer morsels of meatball — is the foundation, served in a bowl large enough for two.

With the soup, a small salad is served, only not the type of bagged lettuce concoction you might expect: This salad is meant to swim in the soup.

Bean sprouts, sprigs of basil, tendrils of cilantro, a couple slices of jalapeño and a wedge of lime allow each connoisseur to flavor the dish to his or her heart’s content. Pluck the basil and mix it in for its distinctive piquant flavor; bites of jalapeño provide a sniffle-inducing kick, bean sprouts give the soup a crunchy dimension; and a squeeze of the lime adds a pinch of acidity and lively burst of freshness. Pour in a few drops of sweet hoisin sauce, served in a bottle on the side, and the dish brims with flavorful complexity.

A popular, as well as beautiful, appetizer is the goi cuon, or fresh spring roll (two for $3.50). Translucent rice paper is wrapped around shrimp, cilantro and rice noodles. Unlike its deep-fried counterparts, these cold spring rolls are quite refreshing, somewhat akin to a chewy roll of sushi in texture but miles away with a milder flavor, accented with hoisin sauce mixed with crushed peanuts, spicy pepper and slivered carrots.

The Vietnamese menu is full of soups, salads, stir-fries and rice plates. If you haven’t had enough flavors by the time you’ve finished a meal, the ice coffee is fantastic.

“It’s not something you drink with a meal,” manager Thuy Dinh advises. “It’s more of a dessert drink.” Hot water seeps into grounds and through a metal filter affixed atop a small glass. Dark brown drips of coffee fall onto a thick cushion of condensed milk. A bit more hot water is added, the milk and coffee are stirred together, and the mixture is transferred into a tall, thin glass of ice. The result is a quite strong, quite delicious drink reminiscent of coffee flavored ice cream sans the shocking cold.

Owning a restaurant has been a lot of hard work, but Le says she enjoys it.

“We want to make customers happy, that’s the point,” she says.

She spends a lot of time in the kitchen, keeping things clean and prepping for the rushes. But what really matters is making sure people come back for her three cuisines, and flavors don’t invent themselves.

“I like to enjoy food,” Le says. “I go everywhere, I try everything.”

Asia’s Finest

6443 S. Cedar St., Lansing 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday noon-9 p.m. Saturday and closed Sunday (517) 393-1688 SF, TO, $$