Friday, October 22, 2010

A Southern Tea Room For Asian Food?

When friend and faithful blog reader Amy recently sent me a rather unusual email link, I have to admit, I was a bit stymied at first. She had been perusing CraigsList when she just happened to see a post that caught her eye. Not being a prolific CraigsList user myself, I had only ever considered the website to be useful if one was selling something on-line or looking for a roommate. Apparently, Southern Gardens Tea Room had used it to promote not their traditional menu of scones, quiche, and chicken salad, but admonished readers that good versions of Asian specialties such as Pad Thai and Pho, that Vietnamese beef noodle soup that I do so much love, can be had right here in Akron. According to the restaurant, there was apparently no need to drive all the way to Cleveland anymore to experience these delicacies yourself.

I immediately went to the Internet and pulled up the website for the restaurant. Sure enough, they really were a full service tea room. However, nothing on their website said anything about Asian foods. Thinking that this might be a prank, I sent off an email to the "info@" account associated with the restaurant essentially asking, "For reals?" I didn't think much about it until several days later, I actually received a response from Joe, new manager of the restaurant (edited slightly for spelling):

"Yes it is true. My wife and partner is of Laos nationality, and she is very good at cooking her ethnic foods. So as an experiment, we decided to include some of them on our new dinner menu. We have expanded our hours to include Friday and Saturday evenings (till 9pm) and Sunday 12 to 5pm. We have not changed any of the existing lunch and tea theme that has made the Southern Gardens so popular, except to add a few more items to the lunch menu.. i.e. bacon and broccoli quiche, vegetable and shrimp summer rolls. Please stop by and see what's new.

Joe and Lita"

So, I did what any curious Asian food-loving epicurean would do: I contacted Amy and a few other friends and we decided to go down for a dinner on Friday evening to check it out for ourselves. I had asked Joe if he could send us an email with the menu ahead of time so we could take a look before showing up at their doorstep. He did send me the requested email, but unfortunately, the menu had been created in Microsoft Publisher and since the only program that can open Publisher files is ... wait for it ... Microsoft Publisher*, we ended up going into the restaurant having no idea what Asian specialties awaited us this evening.

Southern Gardens Tea Room was located at 497 Portage Lakes Drive, Akron, OH 44319 and can be reached at 330-644-8363. Parking was in front of the restaurant in a small lot.

Here was a shot of the front of the restaurant:

Entrance to Southern Gardens Tea Room
Once inside, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of what appeared to be a flowery, lacy, porcelain laden tea room. That this restaurant was also serving Asian food seemed incongruous with the decor. Nevertheless, after being seated at a larger table towards the front of the restaurant, we were handed our menus while our server went to get us a round of waters.

Here was a shot of the front of the menu:

Southern Gardens' Menu
What we quickly discovered as we opened the menus up was that the current tea room menu was offered at the same time as the new Asian dishes. And speaking of Asian dishes, there were three appetizers:

Southern Gardens' Asian Appetizers
And five entrées:

Souther Gardens' Asian Entrées
According to our server, the new dishes had been on the menu for exactly two weeks. With so few items from which to choose, I found it interesting that one of the five entrées was chicken wings served over sticky rice. I'm not sure if that was supposed to appeal to the American diner who just had to have his order of chicken wings regardless of where he ate, because in all of the Asian restaurants at which I've ever eaten, I've never seen this dish appear on a menu.

Unfazed, I decided to start out with an appetizer, a summer roll with shrimp filling:

Summer Rolls with Dipping Sauce
Here was a shot of the interior of the roll:

Interior of Summer Roll
As soon as the dish was placed in front of me, I took my fork and tasted a bit of the dipping sauce by itself. It turned out that the sauce was straight up sweet chili sauce, like this brand, straight out of the bottle. While I personally love sweet chili sauce and use it quite often in my own cooking, I rarely use it directly as a condiment. It is usually used as an ingredient to a sauce, not as the sauce itself. The rolls were fresh and tightly rolled. The fresh mint and cilantro used in the filling added a nice herbaceous flavor that complimented the cold shrimp well. Other than the rather uninspired dipping sauce, this dish was fairly decent.

Our appetizers now out of the way, our server brought out the plate of pho "fixins" for both Amy and myself:

Plate of Pho Fixins'
On this plate were the usual Vietnamese suspects: fresh basil and mint, lime wedges, and mung bean sprouts. The only thing missing that I've seen at other restaurants were freshly sliced chili peppers, usually Jalapeños. In addition to this plate, our server also brought out a plate with various condiments, including Sriracha and fish sauce. While there were lots of ways to spice up the broth, I was certainly happy to see my all time favorite, Sriracha.

Soon, our entrées arrived. Here was my pho:

Big Bowl of Pho
What was unusual about this version of pho was that in addition to the sliced beef and beef meatballs that would definitely appeal to most carnivorous Americans, beef tendon had also been added. While this certainly makes this version of pho more authentic, most American diners would find the texture of beef tendon to be off-putting. While you normally see me championing the case for authenticity, one of the other dishes available on the menu, Sesame Chicken, seemed more Americanized Chinese than authentic, thus making me question the inclusion of the beef tendon.

I tasted the broth twice, as it came from the kitchen and after I added sauces/fixins. The remarkably clear broth had a slightly beefy flavor, but was missing some of those exotic warming spices that I have really learned to enjoy in other versions. The sliced beef was cooked completely, but was still relatively tender. The meatball was slightly chewy, disheartening to a diner used to Italian-style meatballs, but perfectly in line with other versions of pho that I've had. The rice noodles were also nicely cooked and I knew that I would be in danger tonight of saucing my shirt as I slurped these long strands up from my bowl. Overall, it was actually a decent bowl of pho. It certainly wasn't as good as say, Superior Pho in Cleveland, but more importantly, it wasn't as good as the version you can get at Siamone's Thai Pub right here in Akron.

The other two dishes that were ordered tonight were the aforementioned Sesame chicken and a plate of Pad Thai. While I tried neither, I did get feedback from the other diners that their dishes were just average. They weren't bad, but they weren't exceptional, either. I definitely feel that Amy and I lucked out tonight with our orders of pho.

Based on just the food I tasted tonight, I wouldn't hesitate to suggest that you give this establishment a try. However, given the very small number of Asian items that are available, coupled with the fact that they are only offered on Friday and Saturday evenings as well as on Sundays, and the fact that the Asian menu has only been in place for just two weeks, it wouldn't surprise me if at some point the restaurant abandons this concept and returns simply to serving just the food for which it was originally known. While the pho wasn't bad, you certainly don't have to travel to Cleveland to get a version that is superior in Akron.

* Yours truly uses a free office suite called OpenOffice that can successfully read and write Microsoft Word and Excel files. Unfortunately, there is no free equivalent for Microsoft Publisher.


deanna said...

This looked like an interesting dinner where you're going "what the?" the whole time, haha! This is the site I use when I get a publisher file:

Tino said...

@deanna: This was definitely a case of the "What the?" mindset. I'd actually be curious to go back and see if they've adjusted the menu based on customer feedback.

And thanks for the link to the website. I can see myself using it in the future when this happens again.

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