Quick and Awesome: Ninja City Brings Casual Fun to University Circle

Cozy but not cramped, high-spirited and agreeable as hell, Ninja City has quickly wheedled its way into the good graces of countless 20-somethings hungry for an east-side alternative to dreary fast-food chains and pubs peddling the same old grub. This University Circle newcomer appeals to time-strapped, budget-crunched diners — many of them students at nearby universities — thanks to a streamlined system that employs a checklist-style menu of approachable pan-Asian items that top out at $8.95.

Ninja City is a sort of hybrid invention that combines the menu traits of a fast-casual eatery with the bar and service of a full-service restaurant. It also distills down the recipes and wisdom that owner Bac Nguyen has accumulated during his four years (and counting) at Bac Asian Bistro in Tremont into a simplified operation that focuses on efficiency, value and fun.

Step into Ninja City and you enter a fictional world that pays homage to '80s-era kung fu flicks, comic books and video games. That approach runs the risk of coming across as Disney-esque, but a consistent theme, sharp execution and restrained hand combine to create an atmosphere that immediately puts one at ease. Colorful hand-painted cartoon panels hang on the wall, an industrial-size ceiling fan spins lazily overheard, a half-illuminated sign spells "ninja" in Chinese characters and shiny diamond plate wraps the stairs.

In both design and function Ninja City is a bar first and eatery second. The bulk of the real estate is devoted to the lively barroom, which occupies the main floor and extends out the garage door to a small front patio. Seating is of the barstool and high-top variety. An elevated and tight-quartered dining room with tables and chairs is a few steps up in the rear of the space.

Each table is equipped with a utensil holder containing napkins, chopsticks, menus and pencils. Menus for cocktails, beer, wine and sake also are in the tins. The now-familiar ordering system made popular by places like Happy Dog and Barrio makes ordering a meal as easy as filling out the paper chit and handing it off to your server. This approach has the added benefit of allowing the diner to course out his or her meal as desired.

Consider, for example, starting off with a cold craft draft and a handful of "little bites." A dozen snack items — all priced $3.50 a pop — range from a bowl of edamame to some damn fine chicken wings slicked with chili-garlic sauce. Worth trying are the pan-fried dumplings, crispy spring rolls and the refreshing and crunchy green papaya salad. Save some cash by ordering them in groups of three or four, which are presented in a tidy bento box.

The key to Ninja City's winning formula is its lack of moving parts. There are just a handful of culinary vehicles on the menu, onto which various edible options are swapped in and out. There's a ramen noodle bowl that comes with a hot and hearty pork-fortified miso broth or one with a lighter vegetarian broth. That veggie broth comes equipped either with chicken or veggies; the pork is fully loaded with spicy kim chi, thick-cut (and admittedly unwieldy) pork belly and a fried egg, making it the top-of-the-line ride.

If you've ever enjoyed a banh mi sandwich at Bac in Tremont, then you already know what's coming at Ninja City. There's the standard model with roast pork, Vietnamese sausage, shredded veggies and mayo on a warm, crusty baguette. Or, if you'd rather chicken, beef, shrimp or tofu in place of the pork, feel free to substitute. Squishy, adorable steamed buns come in threes and can be filled with Chinese-style BBQ pork — or your choice of protein — pickled veggies, herbs and hot peppers.

The remaining chassis on the menu are rice noodle bowls and rice bowls, both of which are akin to salads, with the brown or white rice, or rice noodles, paired with loads of shredded vegetables, fragrant herbs and flavorful sauce. Hot toppings range from chopped spring rolls to sliced steak and a fried egg. While ample and filling, they also are light, fresh and savory, with the starch and veggies outweighing the meat.

All "big bites" regardless of trim are the same price: $8.95.

Based on a few recent visits, Nguyen and partner Dylan Fallon have fashioned a popular lunch, dinner and late-night concept that, given the right location, is readily replicable. The food and drink are easy to get behind, the atmosphere is sporty and laidback, and the prices couldn't be more reasonable if they tried.

Ninja City

11311 Euclid Ave., 216-860-0510, ninjacity.com.

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Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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