On a wet Saturday afternoon that was brightened by a sea of delicate pink-hued blooming cherry blossoms around the Monuments and the Tidal Basin area, I met up for the first time with two Facebook friends that were in town for the Reason Rally, a confluence of Atheists in the Mall marching for their beliefs and cause (they should have at least consulted a Weather God before setting their date). It was a rather impromptu meeting, and with a quick decision to be made, I decided to take them to one of my regular haunts.
I have been going to Cafe Asia ever since it opened its doors in the 18th Street location in 1991. My former roommate and I stumbled across this 3-storey townhouse restaurant after working out in a gym, and ever since then, we have been paying regular visits to the place. We got to know the owner, who hails from Hong Kong, and forged a close long-term friendship. Ever since then, they have moved to their new locales on I St downtown and Rosslyn, Va, just across the river from DC. It was to this last location that I decided to bring my newly made friends.
Since my Jamaica-born and China-born friends were not familiar with the menu, they left it to me to make some suggestions and order for all. One of my favorites is the Crispy Fried Calamari. This is not your regular fried calamari that appears in most menus. Here, they are tender pieces of squid that have been coated by a well-seasoned batter that is amazingly light, crispy and nearly greaseless - according to the owner, the secret is the use of Asian squid that provides that level of tenderness. The Thai sweet chili sauce on the side provide the perfect foil of sweetness and spice to the mild pieces of seafood. I have friends that swear that this restaurant’s rendition is the best in town, and my Jamaican friend was devouring so much of it that I was afraid that the former Pentecostal was going to get up and speak in tongues, or even worse, roll down the aisles in ecstatic joy.
Since my other friend was from China, I decided to order the Spicy Chinese Ravioli. They are basically boiled wantons with a pork stuffing and submerged in a tasty sauce made with soy sauce, black vinegar, chili oil, and sesame oil. The stuffing was quite tasty, but the sauce took these dumplings to another level with its soy brininess, the vinegar dark acid notes, the chili heat, and the sesame oil nuttiness. My Chinese friend seemed to be enjoying it and I insisted that he finished the last one in the bowl.
For the mains, I thought that my friends would enjoy some of my favorite dishes. The first is Curry Laksa, a Malaysian dish that I grew up on and was regularly cooked by my maternal grandmother for our weekly Saturday lunch gatherings. It comes in a huge bowl filled with a sea of a light coconut milk curry broth, a flotilla of fried tofu squares, little islands of chicken and shrimp, all hiding a huge mound of egg noodles and rice vermicelli noodles. My friends exclaimed that it was interesting as it tasted like a lighter version of Thai food as they expected a richer creamier dish. But it has to be this light since it is basically a noodle soup, thus the large quantity which would be difficult to finish if it were richer. That day’s serving was lacking enough lime juice which is necessary to cut through the richness. But I still enjoyed it thoroughly which made it the perfect dish for a Saturday afternoon, much like during my childhood – it nearly made this former Catholic want to praise one of the Saints for this bowl of heaven.
Another main that I chose from the menu was Nasi Uduk, an Indonesian staple. Surrounding a mound of rice cooked with coconut milk is Rendang beef stew, chicken satay, cooked vegetables with peanut sauce, spicy pickled vegetables, fried dried fish and peanuts, fried fish chips, and a fiery chili paste. This is truly a Southeast Asian smogarsbord of different flavors and textures: the fragrant rich coconut rice, the spicy and aromatic beef stew, the smokey grilled satay, the irresistible fried dried fish and peanuts, the addictive fish chips, and the mouth-searing chili paste. The sides of cooked vegetable salad and pickles provide a relief from the richness and spice-heat in the other elements. This kitchen delivers a good rendition of this dish, and we were all picking through all the different parts of the platter.
The last main dish was a Singaporean/Malaysian favorite – Gway Tio. Wide ribbons of rice noodle are paired with chicken, egg, crunchy fresh beansprouts, large pieces of pungent scallion, all brought together by a thick soy sauce with its slight caramel-like sweetness along with some soy saltiness. Pieces of green chili provide a kick of heat that elevate the dish to another level. Some serious hot wok searing has contributed a level of smokey caramelization that is the key to success in this dish as it adds a depth of flavor to the rice noodles. My Chinese friend seemed to enjoying it the most by his constant stabbing at the dish with his chopsticks. He was probably silently thanking Confucius or Mao for this soulful bite that pays its tribute to the dish’s Chinese roots flavored with Southeast Asian seasonings.
On a previous occasion, a dining companion had the Salmon Teriyaki as part of his meal. It is a fillet of salmon that has been seared on the grill and slathered with teriyaki sauce. The fish was still moist from the cooking, and the sauce provided a sweet and salty element to the protein. The side of tasty Asian cabbage slaw was the crispy and cool contrast to the fish. The piece of salmon is usually very generous here, and it is well-cooked with the right amount of seasoning in the sauce without being cloying sweet. The restaurant truly delivers on this Japanese seafood dish.
On this same visit, we were “rewarded” with some Asian ice-creams – the perks of being friends with the owner and as long-term customers. One portion was made with Red Beans, and the other made with Crystallized Ginger. The red bean version is an acquired taste, which I grew up on, with its, how can I put it, “beaniness” and distinctive flavor. The crystallized ginger one would appeal to most palates with its slightly biting yet sweet flavors. These made the perfect ending to the meal, especially after a few spicy and rich dishes.
Cafe Asia is a Pan Asian restaurant that has been very successful in the DC area for a many years now, and it is consistently rated highly by online readers for its quality and value. This is what I know: Facebook friends do exist and they will show-up in real life when planned; Cafe Asia delivers consistent and well-cooked Asian dishes that you can always rely on; and that my Atheist friends have a great sense of humor and will forgive me and will meet me again after reading this blog (I’m counting on my lucky stars this time for this!).