Street Kitchen Asian Bistro does the trick for a quick lunch in the DTC
Street Kitchen Asian Bistro opened in January 2011 — but it took me almost a year to find my way to a satisfying meal at this spot.
A friend and I stopped in recently as the lunch rush was coming to a close, passing exiting groups of cubicle warriors as they headed to the cars that would take them back to their Tech Center offices. We were in somewhat of a rush ourselves, and a smiling, efficient hostess led us to the circular booth in the boxy, photo-adorned dining room, which has a view of both the open kitchen and a slice of the bar beyond a partition at the rear.
Our server was exceptionally talkative, but he got the message when we told him of our time constraints and ordered a handful of favorites, ignoring most of the regular menu as well as the lunch specials — and he made sure all of those dishes came out of the kitchen quickly. We made equally fast work of the ginger-spiked chicken gyoza, savoring the chewy wrappers that had been crisped along the edges more than the slightly dried-out chicken within, although some vinegared soy sauce revived it. From there we took on the Street Kitchen's take on banh mi, which loaded a sliced baguette with thick slabs of grilled pork topped by cilantro, jalapeño, cucumber and lightly pickled julienned carrots and daikon radish. The sandwich definitely needed some sauce, but while a traditional banh mi relies on mayonnaise, this version came with a sweet, plummy hoisin bobbing with sesame seeds. Dunking the Vietnam-inspired sandwich in a sauce most closely associated with mu shu pork seemed a little counterintuitive (so did the sweet-potato fries on the side), but it worked.
Hit by a winter craving, I'd also gone for an order of miso ramen. The cloudy, belly-warming broth was indulgently salty and thick with soy, though I would have loved a little more pork fat — since pork fat just means more joy. A generous amount of pork belly and a creamy poached egg helped atone for that deficiency, and the broth also held a tangle of springy noodles and crisp, fresh bean sprouts. I slurped my way through everything but the bamboo shoots, which were woody and had the metallic tang of a can.
Finally, we powered through a plate of the SK signature fried rice: pieces of pork, chicken, beef, shrimp and spicy-sweet lap cheong sausage as well as snow peas, red peppers and Chinese broccoli stir-fried together until some of the rice had crisped. The whole mess was topped with a sunny-side-up egg — my favorite way to eat fried rice, since the yolk binds all the delicious flavors and adds gooeyness to the crunchy bits. (If I ever had any left over, I'd add another egg and eat it for breakfast.)
Thirty-five minutes after we'd sat down, we paid the check and waddled out the door.
Street Kitchen is owned by chef Mary Nguyen, whose upscale Parallel 17 has been rocking in Uptown for six years. At that restaurant, which serves what she bills "contemporary French-Vietnamese cuisine," Nguyen has done an exceptional job of giving fine-dining twists to traditional dishes from her home country, making it a worthy place not just for dinner, but for special-occasion dinners. For her second restaurant, this one in the suburbs, she planned a broader, pan-Asian place that would draw from the street-food traditions of several cultures. I like Asia. I like street food. I like Mary Nguyen's cooking at Parallel 17. I expected great things.
But on my first visit, I was hopelessly lost from the minute I looked at the menu. It was only a page, but it was a dense page, filled with dumplings, sushi rolls, noodle dishes, noodle soups, soups, curries, fried-rice options, vegetables and sides. In an attempt to organize the madness, Nguyen had added a key, marking every dish with a colored square: red for Chinese fare, orange for Japanese, green for Thai, blue for Vietnamese, light pink for Malaysian and black for Street Kitchen originals. Instead of creating order out of the chaos, though, the key just made things more confusing. Knowing that the veggie gyoza was inspired by Japan or the sweet-potato fries by Thailand didn't help push me in any ordering direction. I was so befuddled that I sent my server away three times before I finally made my decisions.
Bad decisions, it turned out: I didn't enjoy a single thing I ordered that night. It seemed that Nguyen had simply gotten too ambitious and needed to pare down Street Kitchen's offerings to those that actually had some street cred.
Since that first meal, I've returned to Street Kitchen several times. The menu has seen some small alterations — the banh mi I had at lunch wasn't offered nine months ago, for instance — and some minor changes in organization. But it still takes way too much work to discover what's worth ordering.
I could barely eat the pickled-vegetable sampler I ordered a few weeks ago; the thinly sliced cucumbers, parsnips, carrots and radishes in the four salads were all waterlogged and flavorless — save for a sickly whiff of vinegar. Better, although certainly not enthralling, were the pork siu mai, a dish that's usually such a hit at dim sum joints; here, bland pork-and-mushroom meatballs had been encased in gummy dumpling skins. The green curry was another disappointment. Less spicy than perfumy and sweet, it smothered a mix of eggplant, straw mushrooms, more of those woody canned bamboo shoots, zucchini and tomatoes, along with flat, leathery hunks of chicken breast that made me wish I'd gone for a tofu substitute. I should have also skipped the server's coconut-rice upsell, since it seemed like nothing more than a ball of rice dusted with coconut shavings.
Among the misses, I've also found some hits — including the dishes I enjoyed at that recent lunch. I added the Singapore noodles to my regular rotation after I sucked down an entire order on my own. The pencil-thick rice noodles had been tossed with shiitake mushrooms, red peppers and red onions, then pan-fried and garnished with fresh chives and bean sprouts. When I visited Southeast Asia last year, I loved eating pan-fried noodles straight from a wok set to the side of a road — and this soul-filling and simple combination, with the smoke and tang of the pan, recalled those meals. But for the most part, what's coming out of the kitchen is far from an authentic representation of the street food cooked on the sidewalks of the areas listed on the menu. In fact, one of the more successful dishes doesn't even try to pretend to be street food: I really like Street Kitchen's incredibly rich stuffed, roasted pork belly, a coil of fatty meat wrapped around a pungent paste of onions, garlic and chives and then roasted until tender.
For a quick lunch in the Tech Center, an area distinctly lacking in interesting ethnic food, Street Kitchen does the trick — if you order carefully. But despite some improvements to both the printed menu and the preparation of the dishes on that menu, Street Kitchen still doesn't have street cred.
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