Diners who see their plates as half empty rarely venture into a hole-in-the-wall eatery to discover what it might offer. Those of us with a more optimistic bent, however, regard every tiny, off-the-beaten-track spot as a potential pearl.
One such lucky find: Moongate Asian Grill, a very small (six tables) place stuck at the end of a strip mall off Quebec Street. The tiny, bright room (two sides are windows) is packed with tidy little metal tables and chairs, a teeny Zen fountain, artsy cutouts of people, several plants -- and often a crowd of Asian-food fans. The only server I've ever seen is quiet and reserved but gets the job done, and while the food sometimes take a while to arrive, it's definitely worth the wait.
The offerings include dishes from Thailand, Japan, China and Vietnam, all made fresh, with fresh ingredients. For the crispy spring rolls, an extra-thin rice wrapper was rolled around shredded bok choy, carrots and scallions, then deep-fried. The wrapper was so thin that the oil -- likely a top-quality safflower or sunflower, because it had the taste and texture of a cleaner, purer liquid -- permeated the shell and soaked into the vegetables, which wound up half-fried, half-steamed; a sugar-sweetened soy sauce that came on the side proved the perfect dip. Another ceramic bowl, this one filled with a chile-sparked mixture of lime juice and soy sauce, also slightly sweetened, accompanied the Vietnamese egg rolls. The sauce lent just the right spiciness and zest to the pork-filled rolls, which were packed inside a thicker rice wrapper but still slicked with good grease.
Moongate Asian Grill
745 Quebec Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
4:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Crispy spring rolls: $2.95
Vietnamese egg rolls: $4.50
Chicken satay: $4.75
Steamed dumplings: $4.95
Vegetable tempura: $3.95
Fish filet: $10.95
Shrimp teriyaki: $9.95
Pad se lew: $6.95 Moon Harbor: $7.95
18121 East Hampden Avenue, Aurora
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday
11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
4-9 p.m. Sunday
Appetizer combo: $5.75
Chicken with broccoli: $7.60
Fried rice: $5.25
Happy Family: $8.30
Combination lo mein: $4.25
Beef with snow peas: $7.85
Sesame chicken: $7.65
Moongate's status as a grill was established with the chicken satay, a Thai starter featuring fowl crisscrossed with gentle grill marks. The flesh was charred just enough for flavor, but not so much as to black out the tender meat's tangy marinade. The steamed dumplings were soft, pliant bundles filled with ground pork, perfectly pan-fried until the bottoms had just begun to brown. Moongate's tempura was another inexpensive, filling appetizer, covering assorted veggies (the green peppers, carrots and eggplant were the best of the seven possibilities) with a thin, sweet tempura batter and then frying them up in that high-grade oil.
On Moongate's menu, several of the entree descriptions include an exuberant "must try!" and a few exclamation points, just like a movie ad. But even though these comments had been made by an in-house critic, most dishes lived up to their rave reviews. For the fish filet in black bean sauce, for example, a thick piece of cod had been quickly grilled and then covered with a garlic-enhanced black-bean sauce with just the right amount of sweetness. And the grill was again put to good use for the shrimp teriyaki: The crustaceans' char-crispy edges, made tastier by more tangy marinade, provided a savvy counterpoint to the well-crafted teriyaki sauce -- not too sweet and just the right thickness.
Even dishes that normally wouldn't go near a grill benefited from time on Moongate's. An order of pad se lew included the wide rice noodles, soaked with a sweetened soy sauce, that are traditionally associated with this Thai dish, but the broccoli, egg and tofu had all done time on the grill for an extra boost of flavor. And a simple Moon Harbor stir fry became something special after the kitchen sautéed fat strips of chicken with grilled red and green peppers and plenty of garlic; fresh basil thrown in at the last minute added a sweet touch that emphasized the peppers' grill-induced caramelized taste.
Soy far, soy good. Buoyed by our success at Moongate, we ventured into Little Panda, an often-bustling eatery jammed into one of the many plazas that now line Hampden Avenue near Tower Road. Every expense had been spared: The space was lined with booths on either side, but there were no posters on the walls, no condiments on the tables. Actually, the only extras we spotted at Little Panda were the scraps of food left on the tables by previous diners.
Whether you eat in or out, all of the food is served in those little metal-handled takeout containers; the cups are Styrofoam, the silverware plastic. After placing our order on the kitchen side of the operation -- the cashier takes the orders, pours your drinks and then steps back a few feet to help cook the food -- we waited, and waited, and waited for our food on the other side. Finally, the cashier delivered our containers, precariously placed on trays, along with a pile of paper plates and napkins. We had to search out our own condiments, rifling through a plastic bin next to the register to find soy, plum and mustard sauces, which were so cheap they were almost inedible (especially the plum sauce, which tasted like the bad fruit fillings in Whitman's Sampler chocolates). And that was too bad, because most of the food was in dire need of something, anything, to pump up the flavor.
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The appetizer combo featured two egg rolls -- giant bundles filled with cabbage and teeny bits of other, nebulous stuff, but mostly cabbage -- as well as two fried shrimp encased in such a thick wad of fried dough that it took several bites to ascertain what was inside, four decent fried wontons filled with cheese, and four wontons allegedly filled with pork but possessing such a strange chemical taste that we abandoned them after a nibble. All of the items were bland and greasy.
While our entrees were more flavorful, most of them were greasy, too. And this wasn't the good grease we'd found at Moongate. The fried rice was so oily it was almost like soup; the chicken with broccoli looked slick and wilted. The sesame chicken wasn't greasy, but it was too sweet, not particularly spicy and coated in a dull, thick batter. But at least the bird was tender, as were all the meats we tried at Little Panda: They'd had the living daylights pounded out of them to tenderize cheap cuts. And no matter what we ordered, the sauces seemed the same. The sauce on the Happy Family tasted just like the sauce on the combination lo mein tasted just like the sauce on the beef with snow peas: salty, meaty, cornstarchy.
Even the fortune cookies were a bummer, because only half of them contained fortunes. But we'd already gotten the message: At Little Panda, your meal may be cheap, but that's because the ingredients are, too.
That's the price you pay for taking a chance on a hole-in-the wall restaurant. Sometimes you'll make a great discovery; sometimes your stomach will have an unpleasant recovery. Still, I'll keep trying them out, because there can be gold in them thar holes.