published Friday, August 19th, 2011

Unassuming Asia Cafe contains surprises

Fans of Asian food have griped for years about the trade-off between inexpensive meals and quality food.

Sure, you can pay $20 for an entree and a fresh, healthy experience at a Japanese steakhouse, but what if you only want to spend $5?

What if you don't care about seeing your food prepared by a well-trained chef, who will inevitably create a large flame inches from your face before flipping a shrimp into your mouth from afar with his well-honed spatula skills?

Many a mallgoer has suffered the alternative -- turmoil in the belly from General Tso's chicken that has sat too long under the heat lamp, that wasn't cooked properly or wasn't what it appeared to be.

Asia Cafe on Brainerd Road offers a fresh compromise between the two extremes.

The restaurant offers fast, affordable meals that don't harm the physiology yet tantalize the tastebuds with every bite.

THE MENU

The menu isn't an exhaustive, multipage history of Asian food, but what the restaurant does do, it does well.

The owners concentrate on a few key areas. In addition to the standard selections ($5.50 for two meat items and two sides) dished up at most Chinese restaurants, Asia Cafe also offers entrees that can be ordered separately.

These are broken into Thai, Japanese and Chinese sections. The restaurant also features vegetarian combos, soups, noodles and a surprising selection of chicken wings.

From the Chinese entrees, the broccoli beef ($6.25) and sesame chicken ($6) stood out with recognizable, appealing flavors and a fresh taste.

Instead of being overpowered with monosodium glutamate (MSG), the entrees tasted real and recently cooked. The vegetables were properly prepared, and the meat had its own distinct personality, without falling prey to oversaucing.

Thai dishes such as Pad Thai Noodles with beef ($7.49) offer fresh takes on Asian cooking with a squirt of lime and a handful of scallions.

Diners also can go full-throttle and get a beef, chicken and shrimp entree from the Japanese hibachi ($9.99), which is served with fried rice, vegetables and a special white sauce.

It's like going to a more expensive restaurant without the waiting or the price tag.

For more casual dining, 20 wings ($10.99) are available in more than 20 flavors, ranging from Southwest chipotle to extra hot.

A few specialty drinks such as Chai Tea ($2.99) and smoothies ($3.29), prepared on the spot and served in more than a dozen Asian-themed and fruit flavors, are available to finish off the meal.

Don't want to wait? Call in your order and have it ready when you get there.

THE SERVICE

IF YOU GO

Where: Asia Cafe, 5210 Brainerd Road.

Phone: 899-8888 (take-out orders accepted).

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday (temporarily closed on Sunday).

Price range: $4 (daily special)-$9.99 (beef, chicken and shrimp hibachi).

Alcohol: no.

The friendly and flexible servers were willing to cater to all our requests. If they didn't have it, they were willing to make it or give us a reasonable substitute for free.

Everyone smiled, and there was a general feeling of amicability.

THE SPACE

The restaurant is still under renovation, but it's a step up from the spartan, often aged-looking interiors found in many strip-mall restaurants.

Vibrant red hues and stainless steel give the restaurant a richer texture than most of its ilk, and dining-in becomes a real consideration in the well-lit space.

Of course, there is still some work left to be done. The role of ice machine is currently served by an ice-filled Igloo cooler, and a few wires and pipes have yet to be covered up.

Though there isn't a soda fountain, the restaurant stocks a wide array of drinks behind the counter, and there is a generous sweet-tea dispenser.

Asia Cafe wasn't packed at the noon hour early in the week, but a steady stream of blue-collar customers seemed to speak well of local confidence in the restaurant.

THE VERDICT

For the price, I was surprised.

The food was affordable, filling and delicious. A wide selection ensures that no one goes home hungry.

Fans of Thai, Chinese or Japanese hibachi food all will find something to love, and with football season around the corner, those wings look mighty affordable.

The owners have shown wisdom and good taste in the restaurant's launch and appear to be well on the way to running one of the best options for lovers of Asian food in the Brainerd area.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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