For many years, Asian cuisine in the U.S. consisted mostly of an American style of Chinese food. Over time, somewhat similar culinary approaches were introduced that embraced Japanese, Thai, Indian, and other ethnic influences. Now chefs and entrepreneurs are providing a modern, elevated twist on Asian foods, particularly those from Southeast Asia.
“I would say it is updated,” says Kelly Kim, chef/owner of Yellow Fever, a three-unit fast casual based in Torrance, California, referencing modern Southeast Asian food. She points to the fresh, colorful ingredients of today’s Southeast Asian fare.
“Asian cuisine concepts are experiencing a natural evolution,” says Branden J. Lewis, a chef and associate professor at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Providence, Rhode Island. This is occurring for several reasons, he adds, including a “different level in terms of quality and expectations on the part of consumers.” This has bolstered fast-casual restaurants that create “chef-driven, guilt-free, feel-good dining experiences” by employing more natural ingredients and championing causes like sustainability.
Additionally, “consumers have become more educated in cuisines of the world, and so have their palates,” Lewis says. While that doesn’t mean the recipes need to be genuine—some ingredients require moderation for Americans—it does allow room for experimentation.
“People want authenticity, but they also want flavor,” says Steve Chu, co-owner of Baltimore fast casual Ekiben. “So, we don’t lose any sleep over if it’s real.”
In that sense, modern chefs owe a nod to their predecessors.
“While Asian immigrants initially introduced these flavors to the country throughout the 20th century, the resurgence in the continent’s food and flavors can be attributed to its accessibility and familiarity amongst Americans,” says Mark Sy, founder and owner of Vien, a two-unit New York City fast casual that focuses on cuisine from across Southeast Asia.
All types of combinations are being attempted. Chicago’s two-store Brightwok Kitchen, for instance, looks largely to Chinese and Thai cooking for inspiration, but it has adopted other Asian styles as well, says Jeremy Klaben, founder and chief executive. “The sauces and dishes are really focused on being approachable, with lighter flavors,” he says. Ingredients are authentic but balanced.
Regular entrées include items like Everyday Eat Right that features a Thai basil sauce, brown rice, local chicken, onions, broccoli, bell peppers, and carrots, and the Earth, Curry and Fire with chile, coconut, and curry-spiced hot sauce, white rice, local tofu, local kale, onions, carrots, bell peppers, and egg. Four entrées change seasonally.
At Yellow Fever, Kim tries “to keep each of the menu items real and to pay homage to each city or country” mentioned in the bowl entry. The Saigon Bowl is her version of a Vietnamese rice noodle bowl, with rice noodles, Asian slaw, sprouts, salad greens, almonds, quinoa, lemongrass vinaigrette, and grilled Mary’s Free Range Chicken. “The Saigon initially had a marinated lemongrass pork shoulder that did not sell,” she says. “As soon as I changed it to Mary’s grilled chicken breast, it became popular.”
Ekiben features steamed buns for sandwiches, bowls, and small plates, and Chu says he tries “to respect the cultures and flavors behind the ingredients.” Thai and Taiwanese are the roots here. The buns create “a very humble meal,” and they feature the same builds as the bowls, like the Neighborhood Bird, which has Taiwanese curry fried chicken thigh meat topped with sambal mayonnaise, pickles, and fresh herbs. Another favorite is the soft-shell crab sandwich, a necessity in Baltimore, while the red beans use an Ethiopian family recipe.
Balance Pan-Asian Grille, a four-unit operator based in Maumee, Ohio, reflects its name, featuring styles from several countries. But it also is cross-continental, combining American and European methods of cooking with Asian-influenced recipes. There’s even a taco menu, with selections that play with Asian ingredients and styles. “If you dabble with all kinds of Asian countries and cultures, the results are endless,” says Hochan Jang, cofounder and head chef.
The taco line developed slowly, featuring first one, then two, and now six options, including the popular Bang Bang Tacos with grilled chicken in spicy bangbang sauce, yogurt sauce, red onions, and cilantro. The most popular bowl is the Wiseman Bowl, which is Jang’s take on Sichuan sauce combined with broccoli, carrots, corn, sprouts, and kale.
For Vien, the name references Vietnam, but the restaurant’s dishes are inspired by the flavors and colors of the entire region. “We strive to strike a balance between the salty, tangy, spicy, and sweet notes that define the region’s culinary palate,” Sy says. “We let the customers say Vietnamese, although we say Southeast Asian. We don’t want to argue with the customers.”
The build-your-own bowls have several base options, including chilled rice noodles, jasmine or brown rice, and seasonal salad. Proteins include grilled lemongrass chicken similar to one that’s used in a popular Filipino dish, grilled ginger hanger steak that’s a nod to Indonesian beef skewers, and turmeric tofu with links to Indian-inspired vegetarian dishes of the Malay peninsula. There are various garnishes and sauces.
While many new restaurants focus on various Southeast Asian cuisines, Four Sisters Grill in Arlington, Virginia, features simple foods reminiscent of Vietnam, says co-owner Hoa Lai. Using some of the items from his family’s Four Sisters Restaurant, Lai built a menu that includes noodle bowls, rice plates, appetizers, and pho. He also added bánh mì.
Even though pho is a morning dish in Vietnam, it is a popular lunch and dinner menu item at Four Sisters Grill and elsewhere. The bánh mì entrées are also popular, as are spring rolls that use a unique family recipe. “I do serve more the American style, but it is still pretty authentic,” Lai says. “The food is made from scratch. I did the fast-casual restaurant for the speed of service, but I didn’t want to dumb down the quality. Everything is still made to order.”