In a single day I devoured lamb kidney kebabs in University Circle, beef curry dumplings in Asiatown, and leftover Singapore noodles that had been lingering in the back of my fridge at home. The past couple of weeks has been a dizzying discovery tour filled not only with kebabs, dumplings and noodles, but also buns, soups, stir-fries and hot pots. Welcome to Peak Chinese Restaurant.
If it seems like a new Asian eatery debuts on a near-weekly basis, that's because one practically does. Most make landfall in and around Asiatown and University Circle (Asiatown East?), and though those neighborhoods don't hold a monopoly on the action, one of the newest and best to come online calls Asiatown home: Koko Café, an offshoot of the popular Koko Bakery on Payne Avenue.
For roughly a dozen years, astute eaters have been making habitual visits to Koko for fresh-baked sweet and savory buns, fanciful fruit tarts, cakes and pastries, and lunches of shatteringly crisp pork katsu, all washed down with glasses of sweet, chewy bubble tea. When you already have a loyal and appreciative following, it makes perfect sense to cut a doorway into an adjacent space, plop down some tables and chairs, and debut an extensive menu of largely Cantonese delights.
I've plopped down into one of those 40 chairs on four separate occasions and I've barely made a dent in the offerings. That might be because I can't seem to pull myself away from the steamed dumplings. There are eight different fillings from which to choose, but the Triple Dumplings ($6.95) combines on a single plate varieties starring juicy pork and kimchi, savory and spicy beef curry, and a bright, finely textured vegetable mixture.
Those dumplings are part of a larger array of dim sum-style snacks that are fun to mix and match. Chewy, glutinous rice noodle rolls ($3) – a love it or leave it food if ever there was one – come rolled around fillings like cooked shrimp, dried radish, and beef with bitter melon. There's sweetened soy sauce to go with. Fluffy softball-size steam buns ($3.50) come filled with ground chicken and vegetable, pork and leeks, and the always popular barbecue pork. To more than a billion people, congee is the ultimate comfort food. Here, the silken rice porridge is topped with sliced beef, pork liver, or the classic pork with thousand-year egg ($6.95). If you love the flavor of beef short ribs and don't mind eating with your hands, order the ribs with honey sauce ($7.95). The thin-sliced, cross-cut meat is saucy, sweet, garlicy and chewy in all the best ways.
Noodle soup lovers have a reliable new friend in Koko. The fresh shrimp wonton ($7.95) is a different breed from the clunky versions we grew up slurping at the neighborhood carry-out. In place of thick, doughy wrappers are delicate parcels filled with shrimp and pork. Also bobbing in the aromatic, flavorful broth are heads of bright green baby bok choi and a bird's nest of bouncy egg noodles. There are more than a dozen satisfying noodle soups, including the beefy meal-in-a-bowl brisket and tendon ($9.95) with thick udon-like noodles and bok choi.
It takes a bottomless well of will power to not always order the Cantonese pan-fried noodles with pork ($8.95). Tender shredded pork, plump bean sprouts, thin-sliced pea pods and fat scallions are tossed in a slightly thick, faintly sweet gravy that seeps into the bed of crispy fried egg noodles, softening them up for the kill. Likewise, the curry-scented Singapore-style noodles ($9.95) are always a table-pleaser owing to the addictively thin rice noodles.
Elaborate "Chef's Specials" like squid in XO sauce, salt and pepper pork chops, and a version of Hainan chicken join carry-out chestnuts such as sesame chicken, General Tso's, and beef and broccoli. If roast chicken is considered plain then Hainan-style chicken ($12.95) is downright austere. Poached, cooled, hacked and soft-skinned, the succulent bone-in chicken is paired with punchy ginger-scallion dipping sauce and plenty of rice (though not rice that has been cooked in broth as is typical of the dish).
Desserts, as one might expect, come courtesy of the adjacent bakery, where items like fruity flan, mochi ice cream, mango cheesecake and Korean shave ice keep sweets lovers on a perpetual sugar buzz.
After a handful of meals I've only sampled a small portion of the menu. Not only is the multi-page roster formidably extensive, it seems to change and grow with each visit. I'd like to say that I plan on returning to finish the task, but two new Asian eateries just opened that require some attention.
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