One Bowl Asian Cuisine
Fresh and friendly
by M.B. Lewis
From the March, 2018 issue
After a couple acquaintances commented enthusiastically about One Bowl Asian Cuisine, it seemed time to check it out. More than a year had passed since One Bowl opened in the former Saigon Garden/Saigon Bistro at the corner of South University and Forest. The area's been in constant flux, with streets and buildings under construction, but that wasn't all that had kept me from visiting the newest version of this big-windowed eatery.
I used to occasionally have lunch at Saigon Garden, especially when I craved the tasty cold shrimp and lettuce "summer rolls" with peanut sauce. Attractive in their see-through rice-noodle wraps, they made an appealing light lunch on days I'd be going back to sit at a desk all afternoon. But one day a gruff young server delivered my check with a warning: "This wasn't enough--next time you have to order a whole lunch." That was five years ago, and I hadn't been back since.
The time to let bygones be bygones arrived on a recent wintry day, when a warm meal in a big bowl sounded just right. New owner Unyeon Choi, a native of Korea, has changed more than the name. She's redecorated with cushions and novelty wall art, brightened the signs and printed materials, and diversified the menu, once largely Chinese, to include more Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean dishes. Most important to me, she's created a friendlier atmosphere.
Most of the tables were full for weekday lunch on that first visit, but our group of three was warmly greeted, given our choice of where to sit, and quickly supplied with hot tea and cold water. We started by ordering a seafood pancake appetizer to share; it was rich and addictive, with plentiful shrimp and clam strips in the fried batter and nicely crisped scallions at the edges adding flavor.
The menu is abundantly illustrated, and the photo of a hearty-looking chicken katsu curry caught the eye of one of my companions. She asked
the server about the dark sauce in the picture. Told that it was basically gravy cooked with a few vegetables, she ordered it, and was well satisfied--it was mild but more interesting than its soy sauce color suggested, and a good topper to perfectly cooked rice and crispy chicken.
The spread of "One Bowl Noodles" appealed to my other companion; she ordered the vermicelli and vegetables topped with grilled chicken. It took a while to arrive, and the chicken had an unexpected pinkish color and strong peppery flavor. But the array of fresh carrots, cucumbers, and chopped peanuts on top of the noodles and chicken broth made for a pleasing whole.
Having sipped hot tea and eaten more than a third of the seafood pancake, I ordered only the shrimp summer rolls. I liked the filling even more than I did on that last visit to Saigon Garden, thanks to the addition of fresh snips of mint and basil. Less successful was the piece of chicken lunch meat alongside the shrimp--next time I'll probably ask them to leave it out. The peanut sauce is still wonderful.
Scolding customers is a thing of the past at this now-friendly pan-Asian corner. According to a note on the menu, Choi "has always wanted to make people happy by giving them a warm, homey, cozy place where they can eat and stay to meet friends or read a book." Several pieces of wall art incorporate the phrase "work hard, stay humble," a good message for students, who make up most of the clientele--and settle in with laptops alone at tables.
My second visit a week later had me wondering if the place might be too attentive now--four different smiling servers came to our table in quick succession to offer drinks, ask if we were ready to order, bring my shrimp tempura, and then bring the dipping sauce that the third server forgot. The food was again fine: two big shrimps with just the right amount of crispy coating, plus onions, broccoli, and lots of fresh-tasting green and red peppers. My companion's beef bulgogi didn't arrive until I was half done eating (you can't let tempura get cold), but it had nearly a pound of good-quality meat in the traditional sweet soy-forward sauce. Fresh peppers, mushrooms, and onions again elevated the meal.
The South U area these days has a lot of Asian food, with many places nodding increasingly toward fusion (even China Gate has a sign in the window advertising Vietnamese pho). In this competitive neighborhood, One Bowl has stepped up its game with fresh ingredients (even the vegetables in the lo mein and fried rice) and a friendly atmosphere. With time--and a bit more coordination between kitchen and servers--it could get even better.
One Bowl Asian Cuisine
1220 South University
(entrance on Forest)
Daily 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Appetizers and soup $3.50-$11.50, lunch $9.50-$12.50, dinner entrees $10.50-$17.50.
[Originally published in March, 2018.]
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