Generally, restaurants that specialize are best. It's difficult to do more than a few things very well, and often, places that serve too many things --- too many types of things --- end up not doing any particularly well. We've had a number of local restaurants try to serve various Asian cuisines, but Asia is awfully big, and that task is tall. So, while I've enjoyed places like Yang's and Kim's Asia to an extent, I tend to seek out nation-specific restaurants more often (Seoul Garden for Korean, Churi's for Thai, Shiki for Japanese, and so on).
But so far, I'm very pleased with the pan-Asian fare at the new Flavors of Asia, located where Ming III failed in the old Lorraine's spot. Owner Amy Cheng, sister of Golden Port owner Wayne Luong, has the expertise in house to pull it off. Chinese-Vietnamese herself, she has a background in food from both those countries, and she's hired a chef who specializes in Thai food as well (though he is Vietnamese). The results are delicious.
Som tom is a classic Thai salad made with shredded green papaya, and it varies quite a bit at different restaurants. Here, it's sweet and crunchy, but with pronounced fish flavor ($6.25). I've had it hotter, but that's just fine. If you're used to the very sweet pad thai at the King and I, you'll get a tart surprise here, a bit closer to what Churi serves ($5.95 with tofu; chicken, $7.95; shrimp, $9.95). I prefer this style, but my family didn't and you might not, either.
Num touk, a Thai grilled beef salad, was quite sweet, but lemongrass, mint, and fish sauce still shine through ($8.25). This one, by the way, is great diet food, as it sits on a bed of lettuce rather than on noodles or rice. Like most of the Thai and Vietnamese food at Flavors of Asia, it's made to order, meaning it will taste fresh but might come a bit slowly (more on that later). Another salad, yum shrimp prikpas, was also a standout, with powerful white pepper flavor ($10.95).
The fresh spring rolls are good, but probably not made to order. That means the skin is just slightly tough, though they're a decent deal with two for $2.50 (shrimp or vegetarian). Those are on the fairly extensive dim sum portion of the menu. Iris, my five-year-old, liked the fried pork dumplings, with a generous filling and thick dough ($4 for six). Leek and shrimp is a winning combination, and you can get it in two fried spring rolls or four steamed dumplings ($2.50). There is a pile of dim sum options, including about 10 for vegetarians (I like Chinese greens with garlic).
If Vietnamese food is what you're after, you'll find the classics: pho tai (beef noodle soup, $5.95) and bun (bowls of vermicelli with various toppings). I just had a bowl of the pho, and I've got that warm, satisfied feeling only a good pho can bring. Though the broth isn't as complex as that at Le Lemongrass, this is a terrific soup, with expertly cooked noodles and great meatballs (you can have it without them if you're chicken). Cheng also serves it with kickin' sliced peppers on the side, a great touch. If you're a pho fan, Flavors of Asia needs to go in your rotation.
Wrap up your meal with sesame balls ($2.50), a red bean bun ($2.50), or sticky rice with mango ($3.00), and you'll glow with pleasure. If you want to bounce and glow, have a Vietnamese coffee with sweetened, condensed milk as well ($2.50). All are excellent.
Nathan Nebbia is the manager, remodeler, accountant, host, waiter, and business consultant for Cheng. He's known her family since he was a small child, and calls Cheng "my second mom." Nebbia did most of the work to get the location ready, and it looks great: open, even stylish in a simple way. The hand-painted sign outside is a nice touch. It's a comfortable place to be, and the neighborhood seems to be embracing it.
Flavors of Asia is working out the kinks on the service front. When I went with my family, we waited a very long time for our food. Cheng points out, rightly, that freshly made food takes longer, and that wasn't lost on me. The Vietnamese, at times, can lean toward the French in terms of dining pace, so be prepared. For now, you might not want to bring kids when the restaurant is likely to be busy. The service is very friendly, though, which makes up for the speed a bit.
Flavors of Asia isn't a clone of anything else in town, and as such it's a most welcome addition. The Thai food is distinctive, and if you're a fan of that cuisine, you'll want to try some of your favorite dishes here to see how they compare. Same thing goes for the Vietnamese dishes. Across the board, the food is vibrant and fresh-tasting. The breadth of the menu doesn't seem to diminish the quality. Very few entrées are over $10, and my family of five got out of there for $45 and had a pile of leftovers. May the curse of Lorraine's be lifted.
Flavors of Asia, 831 S. Clinton, 256-2310. Hours: Sunday, 12 to 9:30 p.m.; Monday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.