I feel ignored, deprived, and somewhat a little disrespected. By this, I am expressing a common sentiment felt by the residents of my county, Prince George’s county, MD, a nearby suburb of Washington DC. As the richest county in the country where minorities make up the majority, PG (as we call it) has not seen as many businesses, investments, and high-paying jobs as in the neighboring Maryland and Virginia counties. In addition, another area that is glaringly lacking is the number of good ethnic restaurants that heavily dot the other suburbs. I always have to trek quite some distance to meet my Friday night dinner group in order to savor good ethnic cuisine in Washington DC, Northern Virginia, or other Maryland counties.
The one and only full-fledged Thai restaurant in PG county has been in operation for quite a few years. However, it is located even further away from me in the neighborhood of Fort Washington, Southern MD. So, when I came across another Thai restaurant that was closer to me (only 15 mins drive) a few weeks ago, I was thrilled and very eager to give it a couple of visits before writing this review. Stumbling across Asian Wings Cafe occurred only by happenstance. I was meeting an old friend of mine, a casualty of the current depressed economy, for brunch at IHOP in his neighborhood during the weekday. After the meal, I was walking back to my car and I noticed a sidewalk board with names of familiar Thai dishes written on it. I quickly stepped in the place, had a quick look at the display menu, and left with a take-out copy. I could not wait for the weekend to head back and check it out.
Sunday came around, and I chose to visit Asian Wings Cafe for lunch with a couple of friends. It is located in the middle of a rather nondescript strip mall just off the Beltway in New Carrolton. Across the street from it are sad-looking all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet joints. It is easy to pass by this cafe without noticing its presence at all, nor does a take-out cafe filled with only four tables brings about the sense of high expectation. With these thoughts running through my mind, I was not very sure what I was going to expect from this eatery.
The menu here is quite extensive, consisting of fried wings, ribs, noodle dishes, hot wok dishes, vegetarian plates, fries and coleslaw, and a good number of Thai dishes. With so much to choose from, I decided to narrow my choices to what the place touts itself for – Thai food, fried wings and ribs.
After a brief discussion with the owner, a young Thai lady who hails from Bangkok, I placed my order upon her recommendations. I started with the Thai Spring Rolls appetizer. It arrived at the table piping hot along with some complementary Garlic Fries, which the owner claims are very popular here. The spring rolls are sheets of thin crispy dough (thank God, not the thick nasty eggroll skin) covering a tasty stuffing of carrots, cabbage, and bean threadnoodle. These nearly greaseless batonettes, served with its usual accompanying sweet sauce, were as good as those I have tasted in larger Thai restaurants. The garlic fries had the similar skilful treatment in the hot oil, and they were covered with specks of chopped garlic and parsley, which elevated them beyond their usual guise. A good start indeed.
A bowl of Shrimp Tom Yum Soup came next. It was satisfactory but not quite as fragrant as I have had in other places, since it seemed to be missing the usual aromatics of lemongrass and lime leaves. The use of fish sauce was a bit too heavy, which the owner said could be easily adjusted in the kitchen. However, the soup had the right spice kick, sweet plump shrimp, and a handful of straw mushrooms, good enough for me to order it on any given winter’s day.
I decided to try the fried wings that the cafe is known for. These small chicken wings, not the Buffalo-sized ones, had a light coating of batter and were fried golden-brown. One bite into them immediately raised my eyebrows. The chicken was crispy on the exterior yet moist in the inside, well-seasoned throughout, and had only a hint of grease to the touch. My dining partner, who has travelled extensively to Thailand, was also amazed by these bites, and he exclaimed that these tasted like those he had eaten in Thailand. The 14 types of dipping sauces come in combinations of Honey, Garlic, Spicy, and Sweet and Sour. For me, these wings were good enough without the sauces, which is a testament of this good eat.
My order of wings came with a side order of Drunken Noodles. The Drunken Noodles were filled with strips of green and red peppers, chunks of chicken, and leaves of fresh aromatic Thai basil peeking through sheets of wide rice noodles. Signs of high heat wok searing were evident on the noodles which added to its flavor profile. The dish had the right heat-intensity (peht) and good amount of garlic, with the noodles well-coated with the salty and slightly sweet brown sauce without any evidence of oil pooling on the plate. This dish was as good as I have eaten in bigger establishments, and I was smiling after a few mouthfuls – I thoroughly enjoyed it.
My friend’s order of Pork Ribs with Honey Garlic sauce shared the plate (well, take-out box) with some Thai Fried Rice. The meat comes on bite-size rib bones covered in the sweet sauce. I must admit that I did not initially find the dish appealing. But upon hearing the complements from him, I tried a couple of pieces and I was slightly taken aback. The meat was flavorful and quite crispy, and the sweet sauce made the ribs quite irresistible. The fried rice, with pieces of egg, carrots, peas, and onions, is seasoned with Thai soy sauce, which with its slight fish sauce flavor sets it apart from the Chinese version. Normally, I would avoid any form of fried rice, especially from a take-out joint, but with this kitchen’s rendition, I could not stop digging my fork into my friend’s plate, which probably annoyed him slightly.
On my next visit, I wanted to discover more of their Thai standard fare. Pad Thai is offered by most Thai kitchens but they have become such common fare, to the point that some of their versions are so banal, sloppy in their treatment, and lackluster in flavor that they taste like the Thai version of bad fast food. So, when a plate of these famous noodles from Asian Wings Cafe landed on my table, I was eager to dig into it due to its high visual appeal. The dish arrived with the noodles cooked with slivers of roast pork, bits of scrambled eggs, large pieces of pungent green onions, topped with a mound of fresh crunchy beansprouts, and crowned with huge sweet shrimps that were just perfectly cooked and not rubbery at all. The noodles had the right amount of the sweet and sour sauce with pieces of sweet pickled turnip (usually missing in other restaurant versions) which added that crunchy sweet salty element that made the dish successful. The sides of crushed peanut and slice of lime on the plate allow the diner to control these extra textural and flavor elements. I must admit that this was one of the best plates of Pad Thai I have eaten in a long time, and I cannot wait to order it on the next visit.
Another dish on the menu that caught my eye was the Crispy Chicken Basil. Pieces of lightly battered chicken are cooked in a spicy garlicky brown sauce with sweet onions and peppers, topped with fragrant crispy Thai basil. The pieces of chicken were not overly battered and remained a bit crispy despite being coated by the wonderful tasty sauce. The fried basil leaves added more to the dish’s crispy element while bringing more fragrance to the dish. I thoroughly enjoyed this authentic-tasting dish along with a bowl of aromatic jasmine rice. The chili heat-level added to its irresistibility and scrumptiousness.
Throughout my meal I was eyeing an order of Chicken and Shrimp Lo Mein that my friend, mentioned earlier, was devouring with gusto. Initially, when he placed his order, I chuckled to myself and thought that this was typical farang (foreigner) fare that Americans would order in an Asian take-out joint. My aversion for this dish is a result of tasting many substandard versions that I have come across in many Chinese restaurants. Due to its visual appeal and the level of pleasure he seemed to have with the dish, I had to try a couple of mouthfuls of the Lo Mein – this version was an eye-opener. The noodles were quite fresh and still al dente, mixed in with tender pieces of chicken and shrimp, crispy and barely cooked broccoli, cabbage, snow peas, and carrots, straw mushrooms, covered in a light tasty sauce that was not thickened like others. I have not enjoyed Lo Mein as much as I did with this order, and it is definitely worth considering in future visits.
A complementary order of Fried Banana Dessert was delivered to my table after I finished my savory dishes. Pieces of sweet ripe banana are wrapped with thin spring roll pastry, greaseless from the kitchen’s usual skilful hot oil frying, and topped with honey and fragrant sesame seeds. These small sweet bites were just the perfect and quite a surprisingly good dessert to end the meal.
Asian Wings Cafe is not your run-of-the-mill neighborhood Asian take-out joint despite its unassuming outside appearance. Its strengths lie in the knowledgable kitchen that is capable of producing good authentic Thai dishes alongside its perfectly fried and tasty wings and ribs. The cafe just celebrated its second anniversary a couple of weeks ago, and it seems to have established itself firmly in the area judging by the friendly customers that I saw coming and going during my visits. I will be a regular customer due to its close proximity to my home and the delectable dishes that I have enjoyed there. Welcome to Prince George’s County, and I am sure that your wonderful food will be the real reason for a long stay in our neighborhood.