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Building the Ballot – Asia

March 5, 2012

It’s time for another working session in preparation for the FUSSYlittleBALLOT 3.0. It’s coming in April, and it will be here before you know it.

Believe it or not, but we still have a lot of ground to cover.

Before moving forward, let’s remember the purpose of this exercise. Every year the Times Union polls the Capital Region about what’s best in the area. Only a small fraction of residents respond, but their responses help to define our region and continually cast it in a negative light. Smaller but better restaurants get left in the cold as people’s loyalties are split, and mediocrity reigns supreme.

However, if we could all agree to vote on a slate of businesses that may not be our own personal choice for The Best, but that we all recognize are certainly among the best, then a few great places might be able to break through.

Today, I’m going to ask you for your THREE top picks in a variety of categories. And I really need three. Your first choice may not make the ballot, and I want to try and make sure as many people get as many of their top picks on the ballot as possible. It’s about compromise and unity for the sake of the greater good. I do hope you will help me now and then later in April when I ask you to endorse the ballot and solicit the help from your friends and relations.

But without further ado, onto the task at hand: our Asian restaurants.

These categories are a mess. Last year they were Best Chinese/Japanese/Korean restaurant and Best Indonesian/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant. Now I’m hoping that in this regard Michael Janairo will be responsive and change the Times Union’s questionnaire as per our request.

I had suggested pulling them apart into:
– Best Exclusively Chinese restaurant
– Best Exclusively Japanese restaurant
– Best Pan Asian restaurant

Given that we really only have one Indonesian restaurant and it’s one of the most highly regarded restaurants in downtown Albany, I think it’s ridiculous to include that in any category of Southeast Asia.

Many of our Thai restaurants also include sushi or other Asian fare, so those can be included in Pan Asian. I think there is broad consensus that of the places that serve exclusively Thai food that Blue Spice is the best. And I’m fine with that, and won’t even pick nits about determining which single location should be awarded this distinction. Plus Blue Spice won the category last year, so I’m fine to just leave this alone.

More and more Vietnamese places have opened up in the past year. Now instead of a horse race between My Linh and Vans, one can add Saigon Spring and Pho Yum into the mix. Having actually never been to My Linh or Saigon Spring, based on my experiences at the other two and my knowledge of all four menus, I’m prepared to call this in favor of Saigon Spring and move on. I know Vans has its fans, but what they do to the classic dish of Bun is inexcusable.

I’m most interested in your input into the three major categories outlined above. I’ll share my thoughts and I hope you weigh in with yours.

Chinese

3. Emperor’s has some of the best chow fun around. It’s charred from the wok, and its noodles have a great chew. When I’m in the mood for this classic dish, this is where I go, and that’s no small thing. Sure it’s a bit oily. And yes, there are definitely some misses on the menu, but it’s a solid regional classic, that has been holding the line on authentic Chinese preparations long before anyone else.

2. Shining Rainbow has an all you can eat hot pot service. This year was an anomaly, but in a town that generally experiences eight months of winter, I cannot tell you how valuable it is to have something like this. If you’ve never been, wait for the next cold snap, grab three of your closest friends, and prepare to spend several hours noshing on meats and veggies as you build a tasty broth for a deeply flavored noodle soup. Love this place.

1. Ala Shanghai. You probably saw that coming. Not only does Ala Shanghai specialize in offering regional Chinese fare, but they have a seasonal menu to boot. This means cooling dishes like lufa and shrimp in the summer and warming dishes like chicken in wine for winter. All of this is served up at relatively modest prices, in a peaceful setting, by a friendly staff. It’s a gem.

Japanese

Let it be noted that I have a predisposition against two things. One: heavily sauce-based sushi preparations that focus on fanciful rolls rather than putting simple, fresh fish front and center. Two: Teppanyaki, which I consider to be a crime against food.

3. Shogun Sushi – I’m tempted to leave them off because of the Pad Thai on their menu. But I’m not convinced that one dish makes them Pan Asian. But still it makes me very uncomfortable.

2. Yoshi Sushi – All the sushi is made by Chef Yoshi, who has 37 years of experience preparing sushi and Japanese dishes.

1. Sushi Tei – It’s not just the sushi, but all the other home-style Japanese dishes they offer as well. This is what makes them the best Japanese restaurant. Japanese cuisine is more than just slicing up raw fish and making volcanoes out of onions.

Pan Asian

This is the big catchall group for any sushi place that serves Thai, any Chinese place that serves sushi (and may have a Japanese name), or any Thai place that serves Korean food.

3. Sushi Thai Garden
2. Sake Cafe
1. Kinnaree – Is the only one that really matters in this race. Not only are their Thai dishes delightful, they actually have tasty Korean food to boot. In this case having multiple cuisines isn’t a liability (I don’t know who thinks it’s a good idea to have fermented Thai fish sauce stinking up a kitchen where someone might be eating sushi nearby).

I know there is a lot here to respond to today, but I really value your input. Let’s hear it.

 

12 Comments leave one →
  1. acw permalink
    March 5, 2012 11:47 am

    I haven’t spent enough time eating Asian food in Albany to submit my ideas for a ballot but I admire what you’re trying to do.

    I recently started a “foodish” blog for myself which aims to address essentially the same issue. http://fiveoneate.tumblr.com/post/13461631996/perpetually-hungry

    The Times Union Best Of has always enraged me!

  2. Tonia permalink
    March 5, 2012 12:38 pm

    I haven’t been to a few on here. SO, I will have to check them out. We need to venture out a little more from our three mile radius. Seems to happen in the winter. I really have to make it over to Ala Shanghai. I have not eaten Chinese in years since my fav spot closed-other than the occasional yucky takeout stuff we’ve had to eat in a pinch.

    [We did go to Carmen's and Karavalli, recently, but we'll save that for another conversation.]

    I have a soft spot for Shogun because we live close by, the owners are great, and I love their salmon (sashimi). I’ve had Tei’s, but I prefer Shogun’s. Tei’s sushi is good. Never had any of their other Japanese dishes so I can’t speak to those.

    Teppanyaki! I 100% agree. I don’t understand this fascination. Every time someone arranges to meet at one of these I cringe.

    As for Van’s and My Linh, haven’t been to either in a while. Van’s from what I remember was good, no issues, but not blow me out of the water. My Linh must not have been memorable as I haven’t gone back, nor do I remember what I ate.

    There should be another category, MOST OVERRATED. Koto, Hana, and Ichiban.

  3. Ellen permalink
    March 5, 2012 1:03 pm

    Have the owners of Blue Spice been cleared of the charges of welfare fraud? I hope so, because I have enjoyed quite a few meals there and would like to go back there sometime, but I actually think the food at Sukothai is better.

  4. March 5, 2012 1:22 pm

    I’m actually totally okay with your picks — I’d probably put your Chinese picks in the same order (though it makes me a bit sad, ’cause I’ll always pick Cantonese over Shanghainese… but I’ve never had a bad food at Ala Shanghai, never not liked something or had it come out badly or wrong yet). I almost never eat Japanese (’cause I don’t eat sushi), so I’ll trust your judgment. And I sadly haven’t really had a chance to eat much Thai, or any Korean yet, or any Vietnamese, either, so I’ll assume you know what you’re talking about there (and cross my fingers that I can get to Kinaree and Saigon Spring at some point).

  5. March 5, 2012 3:47 pm

    Thumbs up for Ala Shanghai, thumbs down for Saigon Spring and Sushi Thai Garden (as well as Duo and Pacific Grill in Saratoga, same concept). The “Pan Asian” concept should still require excellent food and not give points for a wide menu of mediocre items.

    I’d also like to give some consideration to Taiwan Noodle but can’t vote for it since I haven’t actually eaten there yet…

  6. Jazzngas permalink
    March 5, 2012 10:46 pm

    Ala Shanghai is the only Asian restaurant in the capital district that is worthwhile in my opinion. Forget sushi. Nothing is sushi grade or even fresh enough. Korean? That is what this area needs the most. Real or even trendy Korean. That leads me back to Ala Shanghai. If only they served beer and wine or even encouraged BYOB. Having just returned from a two month sabbatical in Fl. and experiencing fantastic Vietnamese French cuisine on multiple occasions reminded me how much we are lacking. Again, Ala Shanghai. Thai, I’ll leave that up to you. Nothing here has excited me. That is probably my fault because I haven’t ventured out seeking it enough to know. Sorry to sound so negative because that is not my nature. You have touched a nerve.

    • March 6, 2012 9:39 am

      Have you been to Ala Shanghai lately?
      1. They DO serve beer and wine.
      2. They don’t specifically advertise it, but you can BYOB with no cork fee.

      • Jazzngas permalink
        March 6, 2012 10:30 pm

        Haven’t been since the holidays. Happy to hear this news.

      • March 7, 2012 8:00 pm

        They let us bring in our own wine on my birthday, which was in October. I don’t think it’s specifically advertised, but it’s not discouraged.

  7. Roger A. Ksenich permalink
    March 6, 2012 1:57 am

    Something that maybe is being overlooked here is that, for these Asian categories, what may be considered “best” to Asians eating at these restaurants is not necessarily what would be called “best” by non-Asians. I’ve been to more Asian restaurants in our region that are popular with non-Asians than to restaurants that are popular with Asians. This is not by choice; it’s because Asians tend to frequent establishments that prepare dishes more authentic to their culture.

    Chinese:
    1. I agree on Ala Shanghai. The preparations and flavors are exceptional, although I’ve never ordered anything close to an American “favorite” such as General Tso’s Chicken. Good crosssection of Asians and non-Asians eating here.
    2. CCK used to be a favorite when Chef Peter owned it. I haven’t tried it since he left.
    3. I agree with Burnt My Fingers that Taiwan Noodle needs some consideration even though I haven’t eaten there either. I’m hearing and reading too many good things about it.

    Japanese:
    1. It’s been awhile since I’ve been there, but Sushi Tei was excellent. Both Asians and non-Asians eating here.
    2. It’s also been awhile since I’ve been to Mare’s, but it is simple yet good Japanese.
    3. I’ll accept your recommendation for Yoshi Sushi, it was always good when I got sushi there.
    (I miss Mino’s however. Word is he may be back in time for next year’s vote.)

    Pan Asian:
    1. I am in full agreement with you on Kinnaree. I have not found a single dish that I didn’t enjoy there. Similar to Ala Shanghai, you will see a lot of international students and adults eating there in addition to non-Asians, which I believe shows a good balance in satisfying the preferences of both groups of eaters.
    2. Phila Fusion is good and covers more international dishes than its sister businesses at Sushi Thai Garden and Sushi Thai at the Park.
    3. You are correct that we are pushing the envelope trying to identify another Pan Asian. I’ll trust your judgement in Sake Cafe.

  8. March 6, 2012 9:48 am

    I hadn’t realized Sake Cafe identified as technically “Pan-Asian.” In fairness, I’ve only had their sushi once, and it was delivered for lunch to my office. (It was quite delicious, I might add!)

    I am in agreements with Kinnaree as #1 Pan Asian. Yum. Also, I haven’t been to Sushi Tei, but I have heard enough good things about it that I am comfortable with that recommendation. And, as you know, I am in FULL agreement about the quality of Ala Shanghai. I’ve been turning everyone I know onto that place, and as a result on Fridays and Saturdays, it’s packed. This makes me happy.

    However, I would reorder your Chinese list:
    3. Emperor’s – I agree, wholeheartedly, with this placement. Until Ala Shanghai opened, this was our go-to place, and we still get takeout from there with relative frequency (usually, duck chow fun (though the beef and pepper chow fun is tasty, too) and fried dumplings … yum). Some things on the menu are hit or miss, but most of it is quite good. WAY better than PF Chang’s, if you’re in the neighborhood, and without the wait and the fuss and the price tag.
    2. Ming’s (Rte 5 in Schenectady) – Until we discovered Ala Shanghai, this was easily the best place in the Capital Region. EASILY. They don’t take cards, they don’t deliver (not that it matters; we live in Albany so we would have to pick it up anyway), and they really don’t have a sit-down atmosphere. It looks like your standard corner wok. However, it’s a corner wok that can stand up to the corner woks in NYC, and in my book that deserves some consideration. My favorite dish is their Mongolian style beef, but really, everything they do is delicious.

    I would still say Ala Shanghai is the runaway winner, however.

    I haven’t been terribly impressed with anything I’ve gotten from Shining Rainbow. I haven’t had their hot pot, so that would change my mind. They’re better than Ichiban, and I can order through them on Mealeo, so they’re a sometimes option when I’m feeling lazy, but they’re a distant fourth for me.

  9. March 8, 2012 6:07 pm

    Love the concept of a mass vote, but won’t vote for someplace I haven’t tried yet.
    Chinese: Ala Shanghai definately worth voting for
    Japanese: Can’t vote Sushi with the grade of fish in the area. What other Japanese food is worth trying in a local restaurant? (Yes, I have been to Japan. No, I’m not an expert.)
    Pan Asian: Trying to drag spouse to Kinnaree – always a good test as he brings the black cloud of doom with him.

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