Chef Lau's Asian Tapas Cafe3739B 6th Ave.Hillcrest619-692-41893 Forks
Having the dining room to yourself can get a little lonely. So I wandered up to the counter at Chef Lau's Asian Tapas Café and nabbed a foo dog statue for our table. As I did, a dozen or so "friends of the house" paraded in, showing off a newborn baby. The waitress squealed, happy to see either the infant or the business. People hugged, people poked their fingers into the swaddled little blob, people cooed and laughed and talked baby talk, and plate after plate started rolling out of the kitchen.
The chef stepped out from behind the counter, flashing me a tentative thumbs up as he walked by. With his heavy eyes, his spiked hair and big black tattoo peeking out from underneath his rolled up sleeves, all he needed was a pair of dark sunglasses for that menacing Black Rain look. So I flashed him the thumbs up and nodded, just to be safe.
Later, as we were getting up to leave, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.
"Thank you," the chef said sincerely, before hurrying back to the kitchen.
Chef Lau's is that kind of place. Or as my date put it: "The food was OK. But those people were way cool."
I was a bit more enthusiastic. Yes, the food was hit-or-miss, but there are some dishes that go beyond "OK," and trying to find them won't break the bank. The theme is northern Chinese, challenging the assumption that Chinese food equals fried rice. Chef Lau's menu is dominated by cheap, doughy thrills like wontons, dumplings and noodles.
The generous bowl of soup, for instance, was piled with thick, square, handmade noodles, and the tofu and spinach broth had a satisfying, pan-seared flavor. The dumplings are also hand-made and offered in a variety of mix-n-match permutations: white, wheat or spinach dough wrapped around chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or vegetables, and then steamed or pan-fried. (The dough and stuffing are matters of taste, but I'd highly recommend the extra crispness and flavor of the pan-fried preparation.)
From the smattering of specialty entrees ($6.50-$9), we tried the tea-smoked half chicken, roasted bone-in and skin-on, and basted in a soy-garlic sauce, making the meat both moist and wet. I was hard-pressed to detect the tea or garlic flavors, though. This was one of the few dishes that came with rice-and the thick, starchy grains emphasized the point that rice is not Lau's thing.
Two columns of tapas-"cool" and "warm"-are the heart of the menu. (Don't believe the understatement: "warm" tapas come straight from wok to table, always ready to sear the roof of your mouth.) You can order each individually, ($2.50-$5.50), or get an even better deal on a combination plate of four or six tapas. The sweet-and-sour salad, a large jumble of radish and carrot strings marinated in bracingly sweet vinegar with a hint of cilantro, was a standout. The simple but tasty soybeans and greens salad was reminiscent of any number of (good) seaweed salads. The only "cool" miss we found was the annoyingly ubiquitous (and incongruous) Vietnamese summer roll. As with summer rolls everywhere, the rice paper was flavorless, the stuffing cold and bland.
For warm tapas, we started with mandarin flatbread speckled with scallions. I wished we had something to dip, but whether plain or dipped in the simple soy-scallion sauce, the slightly greasy bread was a treat. At first, we mistook the visually unimpressive fried turnip cakes for-eek!-tofu. But once we dug in, we loved the crispy crust, and the nutty pureed turnip flecked with pork and shrimp. Of course, we found a couple so-so warm dishes, too. The firecracker calamari was almost great, but sabotaged by a gritty flour taste in the batter. And the creamy curry innards of the beef pies got lost in the thick, blandly flaky crust.
But hey, Chef Lau's is brand-spanking new, so I'm willing to cut them a little slack while they fine-tune the menu. Besides, these people-and their babies-are all just so... nice. Oh, and there is the outside chance Chef Lau could kick my scrawny, Western imperialist ass.
Please explain the difference between wontons and dumplings to cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.