A new era in Asian fusion? 

Lemongrass pork, pasta and Cajun chicken wraps at Sandra Rice & Noodles

A couple of decades ago, before “fusion” implied Thai pizza with cilantro pesto or barbecued ribs with wasabi and ginger, you might have encountered a curious melding of cuisines at your local Asian eatery. Still today, restaurants featuring Vietnamese, Korean or Thai may feel the need to play a little bait and switch routine by padding their menus with more familiar foodstuffs of the Pacific rim — namely Chinese or Japanese. Worried Americans won’t go for whole fish fried with the fins or lightning-hot curries, some restaurateurs are all too willing to water down their native dishes with sushi and, alas, General Tso’s chicken.

But times are changing; even provincial Indianapolis palates are more informed and discerning. Indeed, the outskirts of the city, the most uncharted culinary districts, seem ripe for authentic ethnic eats. Lucky for the residents of the Lawrence/Geist area, Sandra Rice & Noodles is providing some of the most interesting Asian cuisine to hit the area in some time. And very little of it makes excuses for being authentically, deliciously Vietnamese.

Sure, they’ve got sweet and sour chicken, as well as shrimp pad Thai and beef fried rice. But the comparatively small menu offers a well-edited selection of Vietnamese classics like lemongrass beef and lettuce wraps and, most surprisingly, sandwich wraps, pastas and salads. Where else can you get authentic rare beef noodle pho, one of Vietnam’s most characteristic dishes, alongside fusili with peppers and onions and a Buffalo chicken wrap?

Perhaps because it’s the first tenant in a spiffy new strip mall on Pendleton Pike, Sandra has few of the trappings of typical storefront Asian restaurants. You definitely won’t go home smelling like the food! Walls bathed in rich gold tones, well-chosen art and comfortable tables decorate the cozy eatery. Bathrooms are immaculate. Weighty flatware, stylish — and matching — china and cloth napkins make your meal a decidedly more elegant experience than you’d expect. Music could help, but we were happy for the absence of blaring TVs.

The friendly staff, at least the owners, will soon make you feel like you’re part of the family. Be sure to ask for recommendations. Part of the point of their smaller menu is to serve only what’s fresh that day, but they’ll be glad to suggest things that aren’t on the menu. Sensing our indecision about appetizers, one of the amiable owners, the mother of Sandra, for whom the place is named, put together a tasty but not overwhelming sampling for us.

Soft spring rolls ($3.75) included very fresh vegetables and vermicelli rolled in rice paper with a delicious hoisin-based sauce with peanuts. A bit more basil or shrimp might have been nice, but these compared nicely to other ones around town. In lieu of crispy shrimp wontons, fried shrimp were fairly straightforward but came with a delicious and slightly spicy dipping sauce. But nothing would top the lettuce wraps ($4.95), a delicious plate of tender chicken in a slightly sweet oyster sauce, served with leaves of butter lettuce. Asparagus and crabmeat soup ($3.75) was a delicate, not too viscous elixir with quite fresh, crisp asparagus and a good hit of pepper.

Coming in, we’d passed a giant pork chop on a nearby table, and we had to order it. Fragrant with lemongrass and quite smoky and charred, it didn’t disappoint. Though accompanied simply with rice, at $6.25, it was a steal. The beef salad ($8.25) came with a surprisingly fresh mix of field greens with plenty of tender beef clearly rubbed in spices, spiked with lemongrass and topped with a shower of chopped peanuts. With a very light dressing with a hint of fish sauce, this was a quite light, tasty supper. Unfortunately, the whole fried sole was both a little bland and overpriced at $12.95. A sauce with plenty of fresh chilis couldn’t save the almost leathery fish.

Even for the most adventurous diners, Asian desserts can often disappoint. But while the menu lists only fruit smoothies, a request for dessert sent the owners rushing into the kitchen to whip up some surprises. Fritters with bananas, coconut and caramel wrapped in wonton skins were fantastic, light, crispy and just sweet enough with the wonderful richness of that caramel. A concoction of yam, yucca, dates and tapioca cooked in coconut juice and garnished with seaweed definitely caused some textural dissonance around the table. But we came to appreciate its flavors, and we left feeling we’d been served a Vietnamese meal with some fresh twists that lost nothing in its suburban strip mall translation.

Sandra Rice & Noodles
10625 Pendleton Pike

Hours: Monday - Saturday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Food: Four stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars
Service: Three and a half stars

Nonsmoking, Handicapped accessible

Recommended dishes: Lettuce wraps, lemongrass pork chop, beef salad, banana wontons

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