Eating up Southeast Asia
Three cuisines get solid showing at Chopsticks
First there was chop suey. Then came General Tso's chicken and mu shu pork. Immigrants capitalized on the intricately spiced cuisine of their native countries, and Americans warmed to pad thai, green curry, sushi and pho. Without missing a beat, savvy restaurateurs now offer the many flavors of Asia under one roof.
The past several months have seen three such restaurants pop up: the refurbished Wok N Roll Bistro, Pho Thanh Thao and Chopsticks Southeast Asian Gourmet, whose name firmly states its hybrid nature. Blending seamlessly into the jigsaw of affordable eateries and funky shops along upper Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, Chopsticks (not to be confused with the hipster Chinese restaurant-cum-karaoke lounge on East Burnside Street) looks as though it's been there for years.
Innocuous but attractive dŽcor Ñ cranberry walls, unobtrusive paintings, a theatrical ceiling grid for lighting Ñ set the stage for a menu that encompasses Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai specialties. The utensils and nice lacquered chopsticks that accompany every dish drive home the restaurant's multi-culti approach.
As is the standard for any Asian restaurant, the service at Chopsticks is extremely courteous and quick, your bowl of egg flower soup arriving one minute after ordering. Unlike nondescript noodle houses where you go expressly for the hearty, inexpensive food and ignore the cold, sterile atmosphere, Chopsticks is a place for lingering over a couple of Singhas. A drawback to the otherwise comfortable spot is the lack of a foyer, sending chilly blasts of air directly into the dining room.
The Vietnamese portion of the menu is strong, beginning with entree-size salads of lotus stem or papaya. Crunchy lotus stem pairs nicely with grated carrots, cucumber, celery, basil leaves, fried onion and ground peanuts and your choice of chicken (breast meat), shrimp and barbecued pork, shrimp and calamari, or a meatless version. A similar salad that swaps lotus stem for smooth green papaya and sheds a couple of vegetables gets a kick from spicy fish sauce dressing.
Chopsticks' pho selections are tempered for American palates, going so far as to include a vegetarian noodle soup with tofu and mushrooms, a variation of chicken noodle soup and spicy shrimp in lemongrass broth. Even the meatiest pho omits traditional tripe, soft tendon and fatty brisket, instead sticking with eye of round steak, flank and meatballs. No less satisfying, it's a keen way to entice diners to try pho.
A group of chef's specials includes some of Chopsticks' most interesting dishes. Dried garlic green beans Ñ with choice of chicken, pork, beef, tofu or shrimp Ñ are coated in a slick of oil and sweet garlic, seducing diners to tuck into a massive pile of green beans. Pineapple lends Polynesian flair to Hot Pot Rice, a complementary mix of diced pork, chicken, shrimp, mushroom and onion that would be even better if it was less greasy.
The Chinese and Thai options are well above average. Tender chicken breast, a healthful array of crisp vegetables and fat cashews elevate dishes as ordinary as cashew chicken, and the supple Thai curries are neither too hot nor syrupy sweet.
Most remarkable of all for a restaurant of this genre is the dessert list. There's banana cake, a velvety, firm flan and delicious bananas rolled in rice with sweet coconut milk.
Chopsticks is not as sophisticated as Pho Van Bistro or Sungari, but it manages to juggle three distinct cooking styles quite nicely. It offers the rare opportunity to nibble on fried wontons, lotus stem salad and lemongrass chicken in the same meal, a happy new possibility in the evolution of Asian restaurants.