Reflections on Stripmall Eating

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Big Champin'

Name: Champa Laos
Location: 219 Haddonfield Berlin Road, Cherry Hill, NJ
Personnel: Rachel, Me
What We Ate: Mang Sa Vi Raj (Vegetarian Appetizer Plate With Corncakes, Spring Rolls, Fried Tofu; Two Kinds of Vegetable Dumplings and Cabbage Salad); Aom Laos With Chicken; Sticky Rice; Wild Ginger Tofu; Coconut Jasmine Rice; Tea
Condiments: Chili Sauce; Fish Sauce; Sweet and Sour Sauce
Bill Total: $50
Observations: The owners of the excellent Cafe de Laos on 11th Street have now opened a suburban outpost in the Centrum Shoppes strip in Cherry Hill. Like Cafe de Laos, Champa Laos is beautifully decorated with vibrant colors and gold stenciled walls. The menu is a similar mix of Thai and Lao specialties, but if memory serves, some of the offerings are different. Either way, you can't really go wrong here: A vegetarian Thai style appetizer sampler is a great start, with delicate spring rolls, ginger-inflected corn cakes and blocks of golden fried tofu. These crisp, oily treats are nicely balanced with a shredded cabbage salad dressed in chili and lime. I loved the light, tangy broth of the Aom Laos curry, with its herby scent of lemongrass and dill. The accompanying sticky rice came in a traditional bamboo basket which, when you're done sopping up sauce with the rice, could double as a cute little purse. The service is friendly, too. A word of advice, though: If you plan to go to this restaurant, don't Mapquest it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

You Gotta Have Balls*

Name: Sushikazu
Location: 920 Dekalb Pike, Blue Bell, PA
Personnel: Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Wasabi Shumai; Complimentary Hijiki and Tofu; Oshinko; Japanese Tuna Balls; Kanica Roll; Blue Bell Roll; Una Avo Roll; Green Tea; Complimentary Orange Sections
Condiments: Soy-Vinegar Shumai Dip; Soy Sauce
Bill Total: $48
Observations: Holy shit. We struck suburban gold. Jesse had been telling me about Sushikazu for some time, and we finally had the chance to visit last weekend. It's a small place and it's kind of hidden behind a strip mall off of Route 73. But the place was obscure only to me—on a Saturday night it was packed with much savvier diners who'd had the foresight to make a reservation. The hostess gently chastised us for our mistake and we hovered by the entrance, watching what looked like promotional tourism videos until she found us a table. Because it was so crowded service was slow, but boy, everything we had was well worth the wait: A plate of oshinko (pickled veggies) surprised with unexpected flares of sweetness and umami. Spicy-sweet pork dumplings wrapped in wasabi-flavored leaves melted on the tongue. The Kanika roll, a bundle of King crab, cucumber, glinting roe and spicy sauce, was crowned with perfectly airy shrimp tempura. The highlight, though. was Japanese tuna balls, where the soft raw fish was embedded with slivers of green onion, and crispy crackles of tempura and rice cake. Unfortunately my camera batteries ran out en route, or I would be sharing pics of these gorgeous creations.
*The title of this post is actually a reference to a novel by Lily Brett, which is about a octogenarian man who opens up a restaurant with his sexy Polish girlfriend. They specialize in all things ball-like.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Continental Style


Name: Coconut Bay Asian Cuisine
Location: White Horse Road, Voorhees, NJ
Personnel: Keith, Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Pickled Cucumbers With Chile Pepper; Hong Kong Noodle Soup With Seafood; Cold Sesame Noodles; Thai Fried Rice With Chicken, Pineapple and Raisins; Eggplant and Chicken in a Clay Pot; Lemon Jasmine Iced Tea
Condiments: None
Bill Total: $52
Observations:I read about Coconut Bay over the Internet, and we wanted to see Neil Young: Heart of Gold, so we decided to combine it with a blog dining outing nearby. (It should be noted that for a Philadelphian, New Jersey suburbs are exceedingly difficult to navigate. We drove around in a Mapquest-induced state of confusion until we finally realized that White Horse Pike and White Horse Road were two different thoroughfares.) Coconut Bay is in the Echelon Village Plaza, which boasts a Genuardi's and a Panera Bread.

If "Asian cuisine" sounds vague that's because the menu here truly spans the continent. You got your Malay beef, your Hirame, your Kung Pao, all in a fat bound volume that demands prolonged, furrowed brow concentration. I don't think restaurants ought to aim for diner-style comprehensiveness. It seems a little too deferential to picky diners. If we don't like curry, we'll go somewhere else. What we had was nicely presented, like the cold sesame noodles with cherry tomato buttons lining the plate, and the fried rice in a cute Polynesian pineapple bowl. The former was greasy and flavorless but the latter was actually quite zesty. I was surprised to find chunks of lobster tail floating in the Hong Kong noodle soup broth, but otherwise the dish was not worth the work of maneuvering two utensils. Jasmine iced tea was sweet, syrupy and herbal all at once, like a drinkable cough drop. We were running late for the movie so we didn't get a chance to sample dessert. (Oddly, there are only four on the menu.) It was all decent enough but next time I think I'd rather go back to Coriander, the excellent Indian restaurant a few doors down from the Ritz. The movie, on the other hand, was fantastic.