Plonk! I went into Ace Eat Serve hoping for a nice casual meal, but soon feared that one of the hundreds of ping pong balls around would sail right into my drink. That didn't happen, thanks to some deft wrist work, but Ace is definitely the place to expect the unexpected. Ace comes from the team who created an instant hit next door with Steuben's, and though much of its space on 17th Avenue is taken up by table tennis courts, the food and drink strive to be taken seriously. Happy hour is served forehand and backhand five days a week from 3 to 6 p.m.
Ace is fun, fun, fun all the time, and after three years in business it doesn't have to try painfully hard to entertain. Besides the pong, there's the great patio, the vintage steel, chrome and neon accents, and the VW bus that folds out into a bar. There's a reason Ace was Westword's Best First Date Restaurant in 2014 — the atmosphere can amp up the excitement, or provide for a convenient distraction.
The happy hour menu is cute — a short preview of the modernized Asian cuisine cooking in the back. The best features are the cheap highballs ($5), an Ace signature. Pair a basic liquor with a special homemade soda (cola, black cherry, etc.) for a nice, simple mixed drink. Ace's bitter lemon soda with vodka was an unusual yet satisfying tipple that paired well with the menu's international scope. The Vietnamese coffee shots ($4) — spice-infused Patrón XO Café with coffee — are also a good bit of fun. Plates of food arrived mere minutes after I placed my order, which at first was exciting — until Ace served a couple of drop shots.
Three types of buns are available, and the char siu pork belly and trumpet mushroom ($3 each) seemed the most promising two. The veggie option boasted deliciously fried and meaty 'shrooms, along with kicky marinated bean sprouts that rebut a dozen old hippie jokes. But where was the promised sambal chile sauce that the filling desperately needed? Oh well, my fault for not taking advantage of the chile oil on the table (which won our Best Tabletop Condiment award this year). But the bun was room temperature, bordering on cold — and so was everything else I was served that night. The sauce on the pork bun — what I thought was intended to be a Thai chile sauce — was molasses-dark like hoisin and had congealed into a thick mess, while the pork itself was disturbingly dry. It seemed like a failure of execution rather than intent, as that sauce kept my lips smoldering until the meal was over with.
The dim sum section offers three types of dumplings for $1 apiece: chicken, veggie potstickers and pork gyoza. The chicken and vegetable snacks are in fried wrappers, almost tasting identical but for distinctive notes of spice here and there. The gyoza, however, is a welcome Chinese/Japanese fusion, stuffed with lemongrass sausage that's quite rich for a small bite. "Tiger Style" chicken wings are also a dollar each, and they come out fragrant and crispy on a bed of cellophane noodles. Their sweet and sour coating aspires to the famous fish sauce wings at Portland and Brooklyn's Pok Pok, but they're just a bit too bland to measure up.
And here we confront the uncomfortable reality of happy hour dining — turning over these miniature bites, especially near the end of an afternoon happy hour, can lead a busy kitchen to overlook quality control. But there are enough distractions and good cheer to power through, not to mention compelling dinner, lunch and bar menus. Ace will keep on bouncing and bouncing; happy hour is just one dented ball out of many.
Perfect For: An all-night party. Ace's big space works well with private events, and the happy hour drink menu is a good time to kick things off, with everything from the aforementioned highballs to 17-ounce. cans of Tiger beer and $4 shots of sake.
Don't Miss: Keep a close eye on the daily specials at Ace. Tuesdays offer $1 wings and $5 whiskey, Wednesdays bring special ramen from the mind of the chef, and the end of the work week brings Whole Fish Fridays.