To get a good meal in Northfield, first find yourself a child.
If you've got a rug monkey of your own, fantastic. If not, acquire one. Far be it from me to suggest something as gauche as kidnapping, but the little creatures are often running rampant through the carefully designed streets of the Stapleton development, and most of them are probably hungry.
If you're willing to bide your time, you could make one the old-fashioned way — by going somewhere for a few drinks, making eyes at a pretty young thing across the bar, retiring to the romantic love nest that is the bed of your F-250, waking up hung over, alone and wondering where your wallet went, and then, a couple of years later, discovering a bundle of joy who looks suspiciously familiar on your doorstep with a note pinned to her Winnie the Pooh snowsuit describing how mommy's just fucked off for the Leeward Isles with a professional sailboat racer and left little Suzy One-Nighter for you to raise. Or, if following all the hottest Hollywood fads is your thing, you could always adopt a kid from some ruined Third World country, give it a ridiculous name like Pax or Marmaduke and then use little Marmy as a walking, talking example of your dedication to the oppressed peoples of Myanmar or Kurdistan or whatever address is hot these days — as well as a way to get some decent grub.
Ling 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Sunday
Children's bento box: $5.45
Shrimp and pork dumplings: $7.95
Lettuce wraps: $7.95
Sweet-and-sour chicken: $10.95
Honey walnut shrimp: $14.95
Lo mein: $9.95
Drunken shrimp: $13.95
Bangkok duck: $15.95
Failing all that, you could do what I did: Find a friend who'll let you borrow his kid. Many people with three- and four-year-olds are surprisingly willing to let their children go off with marginally respectable characters like ex-cooks and restaurant critics. Often, they won't even ask when you're planning to bring their precious little nose-pickers back — so busy are they eyeing the front door and the clock, calculating exactly how much of happy hour they can still catch if they take a quick shower and don't waste time putting on underwear.
However you go about acquiring the child, once you have him, take him directly to Ling & Louie's Asian Bar and Grill. Grab a table, flag down a waitress and get the kid whatever he wants — dan dan noodles, crabcakes, a couple of rum-and-Cokes, a big bowl of candy, whatever — because you're going to be eating his official lunch: the children's teriyaki beef bento box.
The bento box is the perfect lunch or light dinner, the ideal expression of the comfort and convenience of Asian fast food, upscaled here for three-foot-tall Americans spoiled by excess and doting parents. The beef is tenderloin, seared quickly, tender as anything and tossed in a good, sweet/sour teriyaki glaze. The rice, mounded in its own compartment, is fluffed and just a little sticky. The chilled orange slices are a nice tease for the appetite, as are the fried noodles, cordoned off beside their own little compartment of sharp, vinegary, chile-spiked dipping sauce that tastes like Vietnamese nuoc mam without the fish. And every bento box comes with a full-sized bag of M&M's, which, when dinner is done, can be used to lure your rented child (by now probably all freaked up on sugar and menacing the other toddlers with a knife) out the door.
The bento box is the brainchild of owner Randy Schoch, who introduced it when what would grow into Ling & Louie's was just a small chain of restaurants with a couple of locations in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Southern California. Looking at his demographics and his competition, Schoch realized that kids and families were underserved in the market, so he kinked the company's focus in that direction — at young, quote-unquote adventurous eaters with a taste for Asian flavors who wanted something better than Happy Meals and cheeseburgers when they went out to eat. And it worked. Ling & Louie's, which opened in Northfield last year (at an estimated $2 million), is full of families, full of kids. The dining room seems constructed entirely of long, sensuous curves and live bamboo, the kitchen sealed behind an indoor waterfall tumbling down across pebbled glass. And not only is that bento box killer, but you can wash it down with a Mai Tai. Or four.
The story of Ling & Louie's could be used as an object lesson for college students studying immigration, population and demography. Schoch is an American-born industry brat and former surfer who was raised in Hawaii, surrounded by Asian cuisines and schooled in the kitchens and on the floors of restaurants around Waikiki. After graduating from college, he owned a couple of restaurants in Honolulu, then sold them, and he and a partner, Paul Fleming, went to work with Ruth's Chris. After Schoch bought him out, Fleming went on to found P.F. Chang's — the 800-pound gorilla of upscale Amerasian big-box dining. Schoch eventually sold his interest in Ruth's Chris, too, and entered into a joint partnership with Roy Yamaguchi, bringing his fancy-pants Pac-Rim concept to Arizona and California back when nobody thought it would ever fly. When Schoch sold his three Roy's restaurants to Outback Steakhouse in 2002, he founded Desert Island Restaurants and started opening Thaifoon restaurants, featuring the flavors he'd known since his surfing days in Waikiki. But the name proved limiting, since he wasn't opening Thai restaurants. He was opening Asian restaurants, and, more to the point, very American Asian restaurants, with echoes of both Yamaguchi and Fleming as well as floor tricks picked up from Ruth's Chris — a chain restaurant sired by chain restaurants.
So one day, Schoch decided to rename his Thaifoon location in Irvine, California, and as soon as the Ling & Louie's sign went up in 2005, so did the numbers. The place did one of its best weeks ever. He renamed another in Newport Beach, and the same thing happened. Denver's Ling & Louie's is the first to actually open under the name, and every customer who comes through its doors serves as a proof of concept for Schoch's Pac-Rim, mutt-Asian, family-friendly immigrant fusion — a niche market within a niche market.
Schoch's executive chef is Garrett Cho, a Korean-Japanese cook who's also from Hawaii. His menus are Thai, Japanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese and even Malaysian and Vietnamese — but most of all, they're American. The dishes are the naturalized grandchildren of dishes with their roots in southeast Asia, now given goofy names like "Evil Jungle Prince Chicken" (a Thai green-curry preparation) and "Black Orchid Ahi Tuna" (named after a restaurant Schoch once owned in Honolulu). Families are lured in by the promise of pad thai and sweet-and-sour chicken in the hopes that they'll move on to tom kha gai soup and Shanghai stir-fries.
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At my first dinner, I ordered lettuce wraps that were just this side of terrible — bitter with heat-soured herbs, bland where they weren't nasty, almost identical to all the other lettuce wraps being done at all the other Americanized Asian restaurants in the country, and a far cry from the actual dish on which they are based: that Chinese hash of leftover meats and vegetables, dusted with five-spice powder before being wrapped in lettuce or stuffed into glazed rice-flour buns. The shrimp and pork dumplings weren't much better — knock-off Chinese shu mai, steamed and flavorless but for the competing stings of curry sauce and chile oil — and the lo mein was almost inedible, the flavors mismatched, combative, the texture all wrong. But the drunken shrimp were a wonder, drizzled in chile sauce and mounded up around a flaming cup of rum-spiked pineapple juice that my waitress thoughtfully ladled over the battered and fried shrimp, effectively searing the hot red chile sauce to them. The dish was theater, and so very tiki-bar retro cool that I was won over before I'd had my first bite. And then there was that bento box...
When I returned for a second dinner, I was sans child and so was forced to eat like an adult. I had the lettuce wraps again and found them exactly the same, then retried the dumplings, which were just as dull. But while the kitchen is consistent in its thoughtless, repetitive construction of appetizers, it does more interesting work with entrees. The Chinese version of honey-walnut shrimp (the more Chinese version, anyway) is godawful — like a cold ambrosia salad made with crustaceans and mayonnaise rather than whipped cream and fresh fruit. Ling & Louie's American version is much more palatable — the shrimp deep-fried, the sauce made of honeyed coconut milk studded with walnuts and chewy straw mushrooms — while still recognizable as Chinese party food. The Bangkok duck has also been tamed for American tastes: The kitchen uses only breast meat (gently gamey Maple Leaf Farms breasts) and mounts it over shredded cabbage redolent of garlic and ginger in what's almost a purification of the traditional Chinese presentation, which generally involves hacked-up pieces of duck, dry as hell, over whatever wilted, about-to-be-unusable greens are kicking around the galley lowboy. And the firecracker fish — a fried fillet topped with red chile sauce — is an easy takeoff of the whole fried fish served at every Southeast Asian restaurant, the kind that scares so many people who, for whatever reason, don't like their entrees looking back at them while they eat.
Schoch is working hard to create a new interpretation of modern Amerasian dining, giving a lot of thought to the immigrant intersections of cuisine. He and his concept have come from an uncommon place, and together they're moving in an uncommon direction — limping toward a synthesis of flavors first learned in the original American melting pot of Asiana. And if Ling & Louie's were a stand-alone, independent restaurant, I'd be happily looking forward to the next menu change, the next improvement. But our Ling & Louie's is just one link in a growing chain, which means we may not see the next step in this evolution; it could come in another location, in another city, leaving us with only this freeze-frame of innovation, this almost-good restaurant with the vision, the money, the potential to be so much more.
But while I may not get to see Ling & Louie's grow up, I can at least enjoy dinner there — as long as I don't run out of friends willing to breed me dining companions or kids willing to trade me their lunches for a bag of M&M's.