"Asian Spice hopes to sell Beech Grove area on fusion-style Asian cuisine
Driving home from my dinner at Asian Spice at South Emerson and I-465, stuffed, buzzing a bit from big flavors of shrimp curry and basil beef, I was overwhelmed with a single, euphoric thought: It’s a good time for Asian food in Indy. Sure, we’re still overrun by egg roll houses and buffets padded with lo mein and bland fried rice. Too many people continue to derive their ideas of East Asian cuisine from the free samples they snatch up at mall food courts or the overgeneralizations their American waiters feed them at Asian-style chains (“Soy sauce is Asian salt!”).
But in almost every direction, in every part of town where there are hungry people, a dedicated chef is keeping his wok well-seasoned with the knowledge of his country’s most revered dishes and the skill to prepare them with just as much care and flavor as they do all the way on the other side of the planet. He may get some stiff competition from the pile-it-high takeout up the street, but his “Open” sign will glow in blue and red neon until the people who appreciate quality and authenticity come clamoring to taste the difference.
The latest case in point is Bee Vang, one-time manager of Noblesville’s impressive pan-Asian eatery Asian Grill, who just this spring set out on his own in what, by any estimation, is a humble strip of shops just inside the I-465 loop near Beech Grove. His aunt might run one of Indy’s best — and quite busy — alteration shops next door, but trying to sell Southsiders on even a toned-down version of the cuisine he helped bring to diners at his former employer is a definite challenge. Already, Vang has been told his portions aren’t big enough (they’re very generous and affordable), and he’s considering adding bourbon chicken (a food court staple) to his menu. Business, of course, is business.
But you’ll want to go for the purity of the flavors and the freshness of the preparation in Vang’s Thai dishes, which would be worth a drive twice as far. A native Laotian, Vang has a clearly sophisticated aptitude with Southeast Asian recipes, and it shows in dishes that are light but complex, full of crisp vegetables and tasting not of cloying sauces but of the innate flavors of the constituent ingredients. A simple egg roll ($1.50) is stuffed not with mushy cabbage here but with delicious white meat chicken. You can get packets of duck sauce, but these also come with a much fresher, more flavorful peanut sauce. Light, airy dumplings ($2.50) with just the right crispness come with a kicked-up sauce one diner in our party called “angry red.” But it was mellow enough not to punish our tongues.
Soups ($1.95) are clearly homemade, from the thick, sinus-clearing hot and sour to a very delicate, almost too mild egg “flower” soup (Vang’s version of egg drop with bigger pieces of egg and without the typical viscous heft). But the most bright and flavorful soup is the Thai coconut, a version of tom gah kai familiar at other Thai restaurants with a lovely, pristine coconut milk broth, chunks of tender chicken and a garnish of lime leaves. It comes in Styrofoam, but it’s truly four-star soup.
Thai entrées, particularly curries, definitely emphasize the “spice” in the restaurant’s name, but they’re clearly made to order with discernible vegetables like snappy green beans, crunchy baby corn and sweet peppers. Meaty, flaky tilapia ($6.99) that’s not overly battered is fried and served in a light treatment of a rich, medium-hot red curry sauce infused with basil. Shrimp in green curry (we requested it — Vang made it) has a perhaps earthier and sharper undertone but also with a richness that doesn’t overpower surprisingly large, tender shrimp.
Basil beef ($6.50) is also a hit — aromatic, only slightly chewy, and the mildest spicing of all our main dishes. Pad Thai ($6.99) is a revelation here, with perfectly toothy flat noodles, a judicious portion of juicy chicken, green onions and just the right balance of sauce and egg — no sticky, gloppy pad Thai from Vang’s kitchen. A sweet, milky Thai iced tea ($1.75) helps wash it all down and temper the taste buds. Vang currently offers no desserts — he’s still working on the entrees, after all — but he is considering offering cheesecake.
His place is definitely cozy — fewer than a dozen tables. And diners order from a menu on the wall above a counter. But this informality is allowing the savvy Vang to expand his offerings as he adapts to customers’ demands, which hopefully will lean toward his super-fresh Thai interpretations as much as toward fried rice and sweet and sour chicken.
4030 S. Emerson Ave.
Monday-Saturday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Food: Four stars
Atmosphere: Three stars
Service: Three and a half stars
Nonsmoking, Handicapped accessible
Recommended dishes: egg rolls, dumplings, Thai coconut soup, basil beef, pad Thai, green shrimp curry