- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Dining at Cafe Asia is like an introductory course in Asian cuisine. With an expansive menu, it spans the cuisines of China, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand.

Cafe Asia is housed in the street-level space usually reserved for a lobby in a nondescript office building in Rosslyn, and it easily could be overlooked if it weren’t for the orange, yellow and other fluorescent-hued chairs that are set up along Wilson Boulevard for outdoor dining.

Inside, the restaurant has a minimalist appearance, apart from the large, bright mural that greets diners. High white ceilings are matched with low-level, birch-colored bentwood chairs. The sunken kitchen fits perfectly into the scheme, allowing diners to peek into the cooking process. Nearby is the sushi bar where a few guests can sit and watch the controlled chaos of a restaurant kitchen up close.

With high-profile architects designing many of the restaurants where we eat, we sometimes forget why we are there, but Cafe Asia should be applauded for what is served on its large white plates and bowls.

Several appetizers are standouts. The spicy Chinese ravioli — pork dumplings wrapped in steamed pasta — are served in a light garlic sauce. The distinct hot and spicy flavor of the sauce enhances the pork.

Crab won tons are fried to a golden crisp, crunchy shell with a heated mixture of crabmeat, cream cheese and herbs. The cream sauce served alongside the won tons is slightly overpowering but is fine when used sparingly.

Gyoza are not as popular as the other appetizers, but they provide a contrast to the other dishes with a delicate texture and taste. They are served either steamed or fried and with a vegetable and soy or shrimp filling.

Two soups also make an appetizing beginning to the meal: tom ka, and hot and sour soup. The tom ka is a combination of sweet coconut milk with galanga, a wild ginger, and green chili, along with chicken.

One of the great strengths of Cafe Asia is portion size and the opportunity to share with friends.

The noodle bowls make either excellent light meals or great shared starters. Pad Thai is served piping hot, the soft noodles mixed with bean sprouts, egg, scallions and a crushed peanut topping that sends sweet aromas around the table.

Another standout that isn’t offered at many restaurants is mee goreng. Served in a large bowl, the dish contains Malaysian egg noodles mixed with a spicy dark soy sauce, tofu and egg; it is excellent when combined with chicken, beef, pork or shrimp.

With many options among the entrees, some of the dishes are true standouts, including the chicken Panang, a curry; the beef steak panggang, and the General Tao’s chicken.

The chicken Panang is a nice contrast in flavors and textures. The soft chicken absorbs the spicy curry, sweet coconut and fresh basil flavors.

The beef steak panggang is one of the few grilled items on the menu, but probably one of the best dishes offered. Available in tofu, chicken, pork, shrimp or the beef, the steak is a great choice because it holds up to the sweet soy sauce on top. The crushed peanut topping adds just the bit of salty crunch that the dish needs.

While General Tao’s chicken is available at most mall food courts and Chinese carryouts, try Cafe Asia’s version. It’s worth ordering.

The restaurant has one dessert truly worth the calories. Pisang goreng is a fried banana drizzled with coconut and honey and then topped with vanilla ice cream.

Cafe Asia’s sushi menu also has many offerings. The sushi is prepared to perfection. For guests interested in trying many types, the happy hour, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday offers $1 nigri sushi rolls, which make a good introduction for those unfamiliar with sushi and a bargain for those who already enjoy it.

RESTAURANT: Cafe Asia, 1550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703/741-0870; www.cafeasia.com; reservations recommended for dinner

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; and 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Soups and salads, $4 to $10; appetizers, $3.50 to $10; sushi, including combos, $1 to $14; entrees, $7 to $14

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street and garage

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Rosslyn (Orange and Blue lines)

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