Monday, January 17, 2011

The Height's Most Asked Question

From HAIF to Heights Kids Group to this blog's Facebook page, there is no question I've seen asked more frequently:

Where do you get the best Chinese in the Heights?

Now, I think most people can agree when we talk about "Chinese food" in the Heights, we are talking about Americanized Chinese. No one is under the illusion that this is Bellaire. Some people recommend Happy All Cafe, often with a disclaimer to only get delivery. Some people (like me) are still wary of Happy All... My family used to order from Empire Seafood all the time, then they changed their concept. The question gets asked with regularity, and I don't have an answer.

This is why I was so excited about Height's [sic] Asian Cafe's "Now Open" sign last week! I have been watching and waiting since May, when I posted this photo:

From Coming Soon, May 2010. Notice the sign says "Height Asian Cafe." The current sign says "Height's Asian Cafe." I am still torn as to which is worse...

The building, now reddish and yellow, is literally just a shell of its former self. Inside is clean and simple and no trace, to me at least, of it's previous incarnation.

One thing I automatically liked about the new interior is that it isn't... tchotchke, like a lot of Asian restaurants can be. While this is a matter of personal aesthetics for the most part, it's of practical value for me as a mother of a toddler and pre-schooler. There is very little my children can harm in the clean and simple, yet warm, environment of the restaurant. The table tops are granite, the booths are leather-ish, the floor is laminate. This is the kind of place where I think we can expect tables to turn quickly with messes expected and easily handled.

When you walk in the door on the north side of the building, there are benches and a desk, ready and willing to take your to-go order. Paper menus are available to grab, and you can call ahead. I asked if they would be doing delivery and the manager told me they do intend to, but aren't ready yet. Wisely, they are making sure their operations are smooth and they have the service part down before adding demands on the kitchen. The manager is a long term veteran of Kim Son and seems to be running a tight ship thus far. The fact that I was there twice within a week of opening and both experiences were very smooth is pretty amazing and a testament to the management and ownership.

So, the food. My 1st visit was Wednesday, the 4th day since Height's Asian Cafe opened their doors. I went for an impromptu lunch with my friend, Mairi. We sat in a bright booth in the front of the restaurant, where I was often drawn away from conversation by the traffic moving along Yale. Our waiters (one was in training, I believe) were extremely efficient, bringing drinks as soon as they were ordered and refilling often. Important to note: soft drinks are in a can so you pay for each one, rather than fountain style refills. We started with dumplings. Dumplings are of extreme importance to me as they are one of the only Asian foods my older son will eat without much prompting.

The vegetable dumplings were soft and spongy, filled with noodles and some veg, but not much. They were very flavorful and, my lunch companion happily noted, not heavy on the cabbage. As a matter of personal taste, most of the dumplings I've had lately seem to be more like mushroom dumplings than veggie. I was happy that these were more like the typical American-Chinese dumplings I was used to.

I didn't see on the menu where it said soup was included with our lunch, so I was pleasantly surprised when a small bowl showed up for each of us. At 1st glance, we were unsure of what kind of soup we were being served but one bite was all it took. Hot and sour! It had a nice bite to it and is one of the best h'n's soups I've had in a while!

Lunch was off to a good start, and I was hopeful my main course would be equally as satisfying. While the question to be answered is all about Chinese food, I couldn't help but order from the Vietnamese dishes. Vermicelli is one of my favorite lunches. I ordered the combo: pork, chicken and eggroll.

The chicken was perfectly tender and nicely glazed. The eggroll was crispy and flavorful. The pork was tender, although I didn't like the flavor. Disclaimer: pork is not something I typically order in noodle bowls so this isn't to say it was bad or that there was anything wrong with it; I just didn't like it. Still, it was nicely cooked and not chewy at all. One thing that I thought was odd, not in a bad way, was that the noodles were thick, almost more like spaghetti than angel hair. And there were a lot of them. The bowl was mostly noodles, not as much lettuce. I liked this, while others may not. I would say it's simply a matter of asking for more greens, if that is your preference. I liked having enough noodles to feel like I had a full meal.

Mairi ordered General Tso's chicken, which is also my husband's go-to Chinese. The menu states that all the dishes are moderately spiced so you should order to your preference. Mairi got hers as-is, which wasn't spicy at all. However, she said it was very, very good-- full of flavor and "no weird chicken pieces," i.e. all white meat. The chicken was crispy and the broccoli was fresh and green, rather than cooked to within an inch of its life.

I was extremely satisfied with my 1st experience. Again, the service was spot on, and everyone seemed to be getting their food promptly. No orders appeared to be sent back from the diners around us. While this might not seem like much of a positive, it certainly is for only 4 days open. I've been to (and worked at) much pricier restaurants who couldn't claim the same level of success in their first weeks of business.

Since I had such positive things to say, my husband was anxious to try Heights Asian Cafe out as well. This brought me back to the restaurant a couple days later, this time for dinner with the family. Once again, we started with dumplings. This time veggie and pork. Unfortunately, the pork, Big Boy's guaranteed-to-eat item was a big kid fail. Hubs and I thought they were great but the pork inside was loose, rather than packed, and mixed with spices and minced green onion. This was wonderful from a flavor perspective, not so great from a 4 year old perspective. There was also a brown crust on the bottom, like they had been pan fried as well as steamed. This wasn't an issue for us but is worth noting, especially for parents as many kids have texture hang-ups as well. Ah. Life as a parent...

Since we expected the kids to chow down on the dumplings, Hubs and I ordered Vietnamese spring rolls. They were fresh and flavorful, with cilantro, lettuce, shrimp and your standard peanut sauce for dipping. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Hubs ordered Cashew Chicken for dinner. I thought he would go for Tso's with extra spice... Even after a decade together, I guess I can still be surprised. Once again, a little bowl of soup arrived at the table. This time it was egg drop, which was unfortunately not on par with the hot'n'sour from lunch. It was just ok and, for me, the smooth, silky texture I expect in egg drop was thrown off by slices of water chestnut. It had corn, which I see often, but not enough to seem like a real part of the soup. Three or four kernels seemed to float around almost by mistake. I would order the h'n's over the egg drop every time.

His choice of entree was much better. The cashew chicken, like the Tso's Mairi ordered at lunch, was full of flavor. The sauce was light and in a perfect amount; the veggies were all fresh and crisp. Entrees come with a heaping serving of brown or white rice and a fried egg roll.

That would be my Wee One's small hand reaching in for some brown rice. While Big Boy is ever finicky, the little guy will eat almost anything you put in front of him.

Once again, I veered toward the Vietnamese side of the menu, ordering Pho. A large, steaming bowl was put in front of me and, like my Vermicelli bowl from lunch, it was packed with thicker-than-normal noodles, way more than I am accustomed to getting at other restaurants. This was great for me since I always seem to be picking around the bottom of my bowl with chopsticks, looking for more noodles, only to come up with sprouts instead. Unfortunately, the excitement ended with the noodles. The soup itself was just ok. It really lacked any strong flavor and the meat, while tender, was in short supply. I guess they made up for it in noodles?

I was also disappointed with the garnishes. Only cilantro (which, mind you, is my favorite) and sprouts. No hoisin or fish sauce, no mint (although there were a couple springs in the bowl), no Thai Basil and, most importantly, no lime. Luckily, I had some hoisin left over from the dumplings. I threw that in along with a teeny dollop of Sriracha and dash of soy. This brought the flavor up a couple notches but it was still only ok. Yes, I made it to the bottom of the bowl but I probably won't order Pho here again.

Garnishes for my Pho were plentiful and fresh; there just weren't enough of them.

So, does this re-purposed fast food joint answer that burning Heights question? I think it might. Heights Asian Cafe has solid Chinese food. The ingredients are fresh, and they do a great job of cooking them. The restaurant itself is bright and clean. The staff is friendly and efficient. Is it better than Empire Seafood was? Yes, I think so. Is it better than Happy All? I may never know, but I venture to say "yes." Could it be they are still working out the finer details of some of their dishes? Absolutely!

Unfortunately, Chinese food isn't all they serve and they seemed to fall a little short on the Vietnamese side. Could I have gotten one bland bowl of Pho and every other bowl they ever serve will be tangy and delicious? Possibly. Maybe they were just out of Thai Basil and limes that day? They were actually out of Diet Coke, so it certainly could have been the case. They've only been open a little over a week. Luckily, we do have other options for Vietnamese in the area and they are decent, but in the end may not even necessarily be "better" than Height's Asian.

So, there could be better someday, but for right now, I'm going with "Yes!" It is the best Chinese in the Heights.

Heights Asian Cafe
2201 Yale at 22nd
Serving lunch 11AM- 3 PM, Dinner until 9 PM
Closed Sundays

Delivery Available

1 comment:

  1. Good to know about this place!!! After Empire closed (made me very sad) the whole Heights Asian experience for me disappeared. I haven't made it to Jenni's yet, but am VERY glad you've given this new place a thumbs up. Think I might hit it this week actually.