Let’s begin on an upbeat note. There is some fine cooking going on in Asia’s Finest restaurant in South Lansing. The servers flash sincere looking smiles as you enter and leave. They are gracious when folks like me butcher familiar Thai and Vietnamese words.
(Who knew that pho is pronounced more like fuh? Certainly not me.)
And I’ll return to the good news in a few minutes. But first, let us consider tombstones. Tiny, tofu tombstones.
I became a reluctant convert to tofu once Judy introduced me to agedashi tofu — a Japanese treasure of soft tofu, lightly breaded and lightly fried. So, when I saw fried tofu as an appetizer at Asia’s Finest, I was all in.
They arrived as if from an alternate universe — anti-agedashi. These squarish little chunks were a sickly gray-brown in color, heavy enough to be ship’s ballast and tough as — what was it my dad used to say? —boiled owl. The word “tombstones” popped into my head.
So did lyrics from an old Huey Lewis song, “Bad is Bad.”
Across the street, a neon sign
All you can eat for a dollar ninety-nine
Aw, this old stew is the baddest in the land
But one dollar’s worth was all that I could stand.
At $3.95, the fried tofu was overpriced and left on the platter — hopefully bound for prompt burial.
If the tofu had been the sum total of my experience, this would be my most scorching restaurant review ever. But there is a reason we are asked to make at least two visits to each restaurant. On our second visit, we were rewarded.
The hot and sour soup ($1.95) is superior to most I’ve had. It’s a generous bowl with a rich, not overly spiced broth.
I ordered the Pad Kao Pode ($9.95) — fresh baby corn, pea pods, green onion and cabbage cooked slightly al dente and served with a delicate soy sauce and white rice. Delicious.
Judy had C’om Bí Suon Cha Trung ($8.95), a dish as seemingly complicated as its name. It consists of a thin, grilled pork chop glazed in a soy-based sauce, a fried egg, an egg cake (somewhat like a frittata) which had a hint of fish sauce and shredded pork, tossed with a bit of rice flour that had the consistency of corn meal. All served on a bed of rice. Phew.
The combination of flavors made this a stellar dish. Our friend had a similar dish minus the fried egg, and, though he liked it, the food reached the table less than hot.
On separate visits we tried a variety of drinks, dishes and appetizers. The hot tea ($1.50) is a bargain, enough for two or more people. The Thai tea ($2) is sweet and creamy, possibly due to the coconut milk, which is liberally spread throughout the menu. Not my cup of tea, but it seems to be the closest thing to dessert on the menu.
What really stands out are the broth-based meals that come in huge bowls. Judy had the Bun Bo Hue ($7.95) with homemade vermicelli. The rich broth (chicken stock?) was excellent, with finish that was just a little spicy.
My brothy selection was Pho Bo Vien ($7.95). The menu said it contained meatballs. What appeared instead were slices of what may or may not have been meatballs at one time. At any rate, they were tough and virtually tasteless.
What rescued this dish was something on the side — a generous platter of fresh basil, cilantro and bean sprouts. Heap these fresh savories into the steaming bowl of broth and rice noodles. Let them steep for a bit. Soon, the smell and taste sparkle so brightly that you forget about the misbegotten meatballs.
Asia’s Finest resides in a strip mall, wedged between a pizza parlor and a sub shop. Frankly, it doesn’t look like much. But, in what apparently is part of Lansing restaurants’ DNA, looks are deceiving. On our second visit the place was jammed by 6 p.m. Obviously, this place has a following.
During that busy time, service was slow. Yet how can you fault the two servers? They hustled, and that’s all you can ask for short of hiring more help.
I may be having a culinary epiphany (or is it indigestion from the tombstone tofu?) No, the former. What I see over and over again in this town are little, unassuming places like Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant, Good Truckin’ Diner and Asia’s Finest — to name just three — that seem to have found their mojo. Not everything is perfect, and yes, there are bound to be disastrous attempts — like tofu tombstones. But these places care, dammit, and it shows.
Comfort food with a kick
Growing up, I ate a lot of Vietnamese food. When I was about 8 years old, a refugee family moved into my parents’ house with us — a mother and her three teenagers. They were the first in a series of refugees who temporarily stayed with my family. As our ties grew tighter to the growing Vietnamese community in Lansing, my culinary experiences broadened. I remember huge platters of sticky yellow fried rice, studded with spiced pork, green onions and huge leaves of basil. I remember suckling pigs laid out at wedding receptions, their mouths stuffed with apples, the scents of roasting meat and cinnamon heavy in the air. I remember spring rolls — fresh vegetables, noodles and shrimp tightly nestled in a clear wrapping that gave you a preview of what was to come. I remember egg rolls — thinner than the ubiquitous Chinese variety — and, more than anything else, I remember the pho.
Pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a Vietnamese noodle soup. But really, it is so much more than that. The broth alone is a labor of love, and includes parboiling, skimming out the debris, adding aromatics such as cinnamon (a hugely prominent spice in Vietnamese food) and star anise, charring onions and ginger and painstakingly rendering as much flavor as possible from the beef bones that make the backbone of pho.
Rice noodles are used in pho — the long, translucent ones that you almost want to cut into pieces to avoid splattering broth all over yourself. And if you’re going to eat pho the real way, you’re going to be presented with a huge, steaming bowl of broth that must be hot enough to cook the slices of raw beef that are put in right before serving. You’ll be given a plate with garnishes — bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, sliced peppers and wedges of lime — and you can doctor your bowl until you’re satisfied.
Vietnamese food lesson concluded, let’s get to the review. I’ve eaten at least 20 bowls of pho at Asia’s Finest. It is everything I remember from childhood and satisfies even the most raging soup craving. (Please tell me that soup cravings are not unique to me.) Until this assignment, pho was actually the only thing I had eaten there, because — although I always intended to vary my order — I couldn’t bring myself to do it. But to limit yourself to pho at Asia’s Finest, I have discovered, is to miss out on some truly great dishes.
I asked the waitress for her favorite dish after I noticed that literally everyone else in the restaurant was slurping from bowls of my favorite soup. She pointed me toward the Bun Dac Biet ($7.95), a cold salad of vermicelli noodles topped with chopped lettuce, cilantro, peanuts, spiced pork, shrimp and green onions and garnished with a chopped egg roll. Yes, a chopped egg roll. Talk about a baller move. The salad was refreshing, a little bit spicy, and fairly easy to eat with chopsticks. I had enough leftover to take home for the next day’s lunch. The boyfriend chose the Pad Thai with chicken, a favorite of his. When needled a bit by the waitress, (“Don’t you want it just a little bit spicy?”) he declined with, “No, ma’am. I don’t think food should hurt.” He said the Pad Thai ($8.95) was a little bit sweeter than he is used to, which he enjoyed, and I tasted a hint of cinnamon in the dish.
On a return visit, I continued my trip off the phoservation and ordered the Gang Gai ($9.95), a Thai dish with chicken. My sliced, sautéed chicken came in a broth of hot curry and coconut milk with bamboo shoots, green bell peppers, green peas and the ever present basil. I ordered this because a broth of curry and coconut milk sounded too delicious to pass up, and my instincts were on point. The broth tasted like spicy butter with a hint of coconut. In short, it gave me food chills. After eating all of the chicken and vegetables, I spooned white rice into the remaining broth, let it soak, and went back for round two. My compliments to the chef and the entire country of Thailand for inventing such a delicious dish.
The boyfriend had pho. I kid. He had orange chicken ($7.50), beloved by mall food court eaters nationwide. This version was head and shoulders above typical Panda Express fare. The chicken was very lightly breaded, which let the other flavors in the dish come out — especially the sweet spiciness of the orange sauce.
On past visits I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a Vietnamese coffee with my pho. Vietnamese coffee might be more aptly named Vietnamese liquid gold, as the iced coffee is mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Healthy it ain’t, but certainly delicious and a perfect cooling complement to the piping-hot soup.
Between holidays, when Vietnamese friends converge on my mother’s house with platters of egg rolls, crab rangoons and other family favorites, you’ll find me at Asia’s Finest. How for lucky we are that the Lansing melting pot has resulted in so much delicious food.