It's time to think outside the pork bun and way beyond kimchi. We're in the middle of an Asian-food renaissance that's being led on two fronts—by devoted students of Eastern techniques and culinary traditions, and by barnstorming young chefs who are reinventing the genre, from Oakland to Atlanta, Minneapolis to Manhattan. The result is a heady hi-lo fusion that combines the thrill of street vendors, noodle shops, and pho bars with the refinement of the continent's greatest gourmet cuisines. Here are the chefs, restaurants, and delicacies that are bringing this brave new world—the wild, wild East—to America.
THE 10 BEST NEW ASIAN RESTAURANTS IN AMERICA
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Red Medicine restaurant in Los Angeles
Los Angeles | 8400 Wilshire Blvd., 323-651-5500; redmedicinela.com
Tweezer-plated dishes like sweetbreads with turmeric jam might elicit sneers from the cheap-eats contingent, and Jordan Kahn, an alum of Grant Achatz's Alinea and Thomas Keller's French Laundry, is the first to concede that his food isn't like anything you'd find in Vietnam. Eating here is like seeing the country's cuisine through a kaleidoscope. Kahn's richly colored plates harness the flavor power of Vietnamese culinary philosophies—lamb glazed with tamarind plus the pursing touch of preserved plum, and wild spot prawns perfumed with lemongrass and cooked on scalding river stones.
CHEF'S TIP: Kahn can't get enough of Thai noodle joint Hoy-Ka (5401 Hollywood Blvd., 323-463-1339) and its crispy pork sautéed with chili and holy basil and served with fried eggs—good at any time of day.
Los Angeles | 3239 Helms Ave., 310-202-6808; lukshon.com
Sang Yoon first entranced Angelenos with burgers, introducing a behemoth made with dry-aged beef and banishing customizability (and even ketchup) at Father's Office. Now he's raised the bar on Southeast Asian food at this sleek Culver City spot, which won an American Institute of Architects design award in 2011. He masterfully modernizes rendang, turning the dense Malaysian stew into sous-vide meat drizzled with an aromatic coconut sauce, and elevates dan dan noodles with top-notch pork and perfectly calibrated prickle from Sichuan peppercorns.
CHEF'S TIP: In the San Gabriel Valley, the nexus of L.A.'s Chinese-food scene, Yoon covets the Chon Quing chicken at 168 Garden (1530 S. San Gabriel Blvd., 626-280-7688), laden with so many dried red chilies that it looks inedible. The trick? The numbing sensation from the peppercorns balances the heat of the chilies, which puts it right on the border between unbearable and perfect.
Washington, D.C. | 1511 17th St., NE; littleserow.com
You'd think the follow-up from Johnny Monis, who made his name turning out modern Greek food at the D.C. trailblazer Komi, would also be Mediterranean-flavored. But those who get in line for one of the 28 stools (in a former Dunkin Donuts) feast on the fiery, funky food of Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand. Although the menu changes weekly, expect dishes like pungent piles of minced catfish with fresh herbs and dried chili, kaffir-lime-laced sausage, and house-made noodles topped with featherlight fish cakes.
CHEF'S TIP: Monis swears by the Maryland branches of H Mart (locations in 13 states), an Asian supermarket with a produce section that includes pea eggplants, acacia fronds, betel leaves, and other offerings rarely seen outside Thailand.
POK POK NY
Brooklyn | 127 Columbia St., 718-923-9322; pokpokny.com
Andy Ricker (pictured, right), who expanded his Pok Pok empire to five locations with this April opening (three others are in Portland, Oregon; a fourth is on New York's Lower East Side), has spent two decades learning to re-create obscure, otherworldly Thai dishes. What you'll eat at his newest spot, a starkly designed 60-seater in the Columbia Street Waterfront District, isn't "inspired by" fare. Instead, he meticulously reproduces dishes like laap meuang (blood-spiked minced pork), khao soi (noodles in curry made with house-pressed coconut milk), and lemongrass-stuffed rotisserie chickens.
CHEF'S TIP: Ricker often starts his day at Portland's Hà & VL (2738 SE 82nd Ave., 503-772-0103) with a bowl from the roster of Vietnamese noodle soups that sell out a few hours after the 8 a.m. opening. Highlights: Hue-style broth, with chilies and shrimp paste, and Hanoi-style, with pork meatballs.
San Francisco | 2234 Mission St. (inside Lung Shan), 415-863-2800; missionchinesefood.com
Countless big-name chefs have sat in the dingy dining room of Danny Bowien's newfangled Chinese restaurant, formerly the home of an ancient lo mein joint, to sample his egregiously underpriced fusion fare like kung pao pastrami and wildly creative riffs on staples from various provinces, such as Sichuan(ish) ma po tofu and addictively salty, cuminy Hunan(ish) lamb belly. Plus, the place delivers to just about anywhere in the city—impressively humble for a restaurant voted No. 2 in America by Bon Appetit magazine last year. The much-hyped new NYC location is a thrill, but it can't match the magic of the original.
CHEF'S TIP: It may not look like much, but Ino Sushi (22 Peace Plaza, Suite 510, 415-922-3121) serves Bowien's favorite sushi in San Francisco.
New York City | 346 W. 52nd St., 212-586-2880; danjinyc.com
Hooni Kim's decision to open a hip outpost in midtown Manhattan, the perennial realm of lunch dives, theme restaurants, and expense-account-only fine dining, looked like a risky move. But the former cook at Daniel and sushi institution Masa has won over the country's most demanding foodies, serving Korean food both playful and sophisticated in a slim, elegant space that looks like it belongs 40 blocks south. Bulgogi comes in slider form topped with kimchi-style cucumber, and the poached sablefish is a masterstroke—silky flesh in a puddle of deep-red chili-based broth.
CHEF'S TIP: When Kim, a native New Yorker, wants Korean culinary immersion, he heads for Flushing, Queens, for tableside pork-belly barbecue at Han Joo Chik Naeng Myun & BBQ (41-06 149 Place, 718-359-6888), charcoal-grilled short ribs (kalbi) at Mapo BBQ (149-24 41st Ave., 718-886-8292), and peasant food at Hahm Ji Bach (41-08 149th Place, 718-460-9289).
Denver | 1555 Blake St., 303-353-5223; cholon.com
Lon Symensma labored for lemongrass-loving pioneers like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, ran the kitchen at New York's Buddakan, then decamped to dumpling-deprived Denver, which finally has a mecca for meticulously made, carefully sourced fare that builds on Southeast Asian flavors—moules frites with yellow curry, pho broth made from oxtail and veal bones—using a mixture of French and Chinese techniques.
CHEF'S TIP: Symensma visits Vegas' Lotus of Siam (953 E. Sahara Ave., 702-735-3033), often called the best Thai restaurant in the country, for the khao soi—curried noodles.
Seattle | 403 N. 36th St., 206-547-2040; revelseattle.com
The recent deification of Korean flavors can probably be traced to the deservedly praised but lavishly overexposed David Chang, who rapidly built a downtown New York City empire. On the opposite coast, the husband-and-wife team Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang (who met while cooking for Alain Ducasse) have been working their magic under the radar, absolutely killing the sure things, like short-rib-filled dumplings and crispy-edged Korean-style pancakes with kimchi and pork belly, while concocting new classics like noodles fashioned from seaweed and tossed with crab and red curry.
CHEF'S TIP: Chirchi and Yang join fellow chefs at the International District's Sea Garden (509 7th Ave. S., 206-623-2100), where they always order the salt-and-pepper squid.
Chicago | 851 N. Ashland Ave., 312-624-8509; ruxbinchicago.com
Asian doesn't dominate the menu at Korean-American Edward Kim's stunning West Town restaurant, outfitted with church pews, seat belts, and a ceiling decorated with old cookbook pages. But what there is will have you coming back, waiting for one of the 30 or so unreservable seats and for dishes like popcorn flecked with seaweed, a tangle of bucatini and clams with white wine and hauntingly sweet Chinese sausage, and sablefish with barley, pickles, and black-tea broth.
CHEF'S TIP: Kim goes to Han Bat (2723 W. Lawrence Ave., 773-271-8640) for sul lung tang, a restorative broth that squeezes every last bit of flavor from simmered beef bones.
San Francisco | 22 Hawthorne St., 415-685-4860; benusf.com
When Thomas Keller's top lieutenant at the French Laundry stepped down after nearly a decade to open his own place, expectations were sky-high. Corey Lee topped them, crafting a new cuisine that melds intense French technique and Eastern ingredients, producing some unlikely fusions that have been wowing Asian-food nerds—foie gras with eel, pork belly with kimchi crème fraîche, and a faux shark-fin soup with truffle custard.
CHEF'S TIP: Lee keeps going back to the iconic Chinese eatery San Tung (1031 Irving St., 415-242-0828), tangling with house-made noodles doused in salty-funky black-bean sauce and sticky dry-fried chicken wings.
THE 20 BEST NEW ASIAN DISHES IN AMERICA
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BEST DUMPLINGS FROM AN ODD COUPLE: Shrimp and Snow Pea Leaf Dumplings
RedFarm, New York City
Of all the quirky concoctions Jewish Chinese-food maven Ed Schoenfeld and dim sum master Joe Ng produce, the best is these impossibly delicate dumplings, with snow-pea leaves and shrimp showing through the gossamer skins.
BEST THING ON A STICK: Skewered Sweetbreads
Matthias Merges, who honed his skills at iconic Chicago restaurant Charlie Trotter's, takes yakitori to a new level with his first solo endeavor. Skewered sweetbreads—crispy outside, creamy in the middle—are jazzed up with a sort of barbecue sauce made with umami-packed preserved plum.
BEST JAPANESE FOOD WITH A SPANISH ACCENT: Sautéed Shishito Peppers
Masu Sushi & Robata, Minneapolis
Twin Cities superstar Tim McKee, who has no background in Japanese food, earns his keep with this dead-simple riff on the Spanish classic pimientos de Padrón. Shishito peppers are blistered in a pan and then combined with coarse sea salt and a papery shaving of katsuo boshi (cured, dried bonito) that quivers on top from the heat of the peppers.
BEST REASON TO RENOUNCE RAMEN: Zara Udon (left)
U:Don Fresh Japanese Noodle Station, Seattle
Judging from the recent explosion of ramen shops, you'd think there were no other noodles in the Japanese repertoire. How sad it would be if you were to overlook these house-made udon noodles, served cold and tossed in a soy dipping sauce along with scallions and ginger.
BEST NOODLE-FREE NOODLE DISH: Pad Thai Rai Sen
Little Uncle, Seattle
This takeout-only storefront in Capitol Hill serves pad Thai that demolishes the dish's gloopy past. A butcher-paper package is filled with an expertly wok-fried combo of locally made tofu, organic eggs, and bean sprouts, and there's nary a noodle in sight.
BEST LATE-NIGHT MUNCHIE: Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp
Octopus Bar, Atlanta
After leaving their own kitchens, many of Atlanta's best chefs huddle in the enclosed patio at the Vietnamese spot So Ba to eat at the Octopus Bar. The most demanded of chef Angus Brown's dishes is the deftly fried Chinese-style salt-and-pepper shrimp, shells-and-heads-on.
BEST CLASSIC PLATE, REMIXED: Truffle Banh Cam
Jason Cichonski broke many a rule when he took on the textural pleasures of banh cam, the chewy-crispy Vietnamese rice balls. He swapped the typical sweet-mung-bean filling for a purée of white beans and decked them out with brandy-soaked prunes and a dusting of powdered truffle. Messing with a classic never tasted so good.
BEST REASON TO FALL FOR DAVID CHANG ALL OVER AGAIN: Rotisserie Duck Over Rice (right)
Momofuku Ssäm Bar, New York City
The Korean godfather's most revelatory offering since his game-changing pork-belly bun is the lunch-only duck over rice—rotisserie-roasted with sausage tucked beneath the skin.
BEST REASON TO EAT A WEIRD ANIMAL PART: Crispy Pig Ear
Aviary, Portland, Oregon
Top coconut rice, Chinese sausage, and avocado with crunchy shards of fried pig's ear and the result is like an out-of-this-world nachos dish.
BEST REASON TO HIT THE STRIP: Thai Beef and Meatball Noodle Soup
Le Thai, Las Vegas
It takes pluck to open a Thai spot in the same city as the national mecca Lotus of Siam, but Dan Coughlin draws locals and bachelor-party attendees with this ruddy broth, fortified with beef bones, marrow, and copious chilies, brimming with noodles, slices of tender beef and pork, and addictively springy meatballs.
BEST BIG-TIME ASIAN BURGER: Burger 14
Eastern-inflected burgers are often a cut above, but Tim Maslow, the Momofuku-empire alum who took over the night menu at his parents' steak-sandwich shop, has hit a new level with a fat patty alive with juice, bright lemon aioli, pickled onion, and—move over, Heinz—smoked miso.
BEST REASON TO GO VEGAN FOR A MEAL: Vegan Miso Ramen (left)
Wafu, Portland, Oregon
Along with the tangle of noodles, rich pork stock is an essential ramen ingredient. But Trent Pierce harnesses the power of nori (dried kelp) and miso to create a broth that will enamor noble carnivores and die-hard vegans alike.
BEST REASON TO RETHINK TOFU: Vadouvan Tofu
Hawker Fare, Oakland
James Syhabout, the man behind Oakland's fine-dining destination Commis, took over his mom's Thai restaurant and launched a new eatery that makes perhaps the most compelling argument ever for saying no to the short ribs: tofu simmered in coconut milk and seasoned with aromatic vadouvan spice and a last-minute handful of fresh herbs.
Best Fried Chicken That Isn't Korean: Duck Fat Fried Chicken
Slurping Turtle, Chicago
The Japanese have a fine, little-known rendition of fried chicken, which Chi-town celebrity Takashi Yagihashi perfected by applying a soy-sauce-and-chili marinade and cornstarch batter, then submerging the pieces in bubbling duck fat.
Best Glorified Fast Food: Crispy Chicken Wings
Parallel 37, San Francisco
The lavish dining room at the Ritz-Carlton recently underwent a casual makeover, but you still wouldn't expect to be eating chicken wings here. Ron Siegel, longtime Ritz chef and a Thomas Keller protégé, eschews messy pub style for elegantly deboned morsels brightened with lemon and a generous dose of psychedelic Sichuan peppercorns.
Best Wicked-Good New England-New Asian Fusion: Green Curry Clam Chowder (above left)
A-Frame, Los Angeles
Just when you thought all options for Asian fusion had been exhausted, Roy Choi (above right, creator of Kogi Korean BBQ, L.A.'s famous food trucks) rejiggered a classic, swapping coconut milk for cream, applying green curry, and wisely keeping the cubes of pork.
Best Neat Version of a Messy Dish: Black-Pepper Crab Toast
The Spice Table, Los Angeles
Those who enjoy the taste of crab more than the indecorous extraction of the delicate meat can thank Bryant Ng for doing the hard part, serving a generous portion on a plate (with the requisite white toast on the side) and not holding back on his killer sauce.
Best Fish in the Desert: Sashimi Plate
ShinBay, Scottsdale, Arizona
The coasts have long hogged the country's fish-fetishizing Japanese chefs, but Shinji Kurita chose Arizona for his serene, 12-seat sushi counter, from which he serves multi-course meals, including an ever-changing sashimi plate with six little masterpieces, like a fat oyster topped with ponzu gelée and a custardy blob of sea urchin.
Best Thing to Happen to Rice Since Sushi: Rice Steamed With Dungeness Crab (right)
Brushstroke, New York City
Irascible New York restaurant veteran David Bouley partnered with a storied Japanese cooking school to launch his latest gastronomic adventure. The most spectacular dish turned out by the instructors of the Osaka-based Tsuji Culinary Institute is also the least elaborate, a study in subtlety: rice so impeccably cooked that each grain feels separate, imbued with the sweetness of Dungeness crab.
Best Forward-Looking Pho: Pho With McAllen Ranch Short Ribs
Elizabeth Street Café, Austin
The pho at this cheery Vietnamese boulangerie inspires the requisite carping from those who think the dish should never break the $6 barrier. But Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman employ long-cooked broth, immaculate herbs, and braised sustainably raised short ribs from nearby McAllen Ranch to provide a riposte that satisfies the doubters.
THE 5 BEST ASIAN FOOD TRUCKS IN AMERICA
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America's food-truck phenomenon was inspired by the previously unthinkable gastronomic marriage of Korean and Mexican. But the Kogi M.O.—quality, affordable fast food delivered streetside—was far from a fad. The company now has five trucks in Los Angeles, and mobile ops are expanding all across the country. Here are our picks for the best Eastern-influenced street-side grub.
This bright-pink truck hits the taco-filled L.A. streets, slinging fried crab balls, tortillas topped with red-curry satay and peanut sauce, and tangy tamarind duck with pickled beets.
The Chairman (left)
This truck has earned more than 10,000 Twitter followers (@chairmantruck) by reaping the glory of the steamed bun, the fluffy vehicle for pork belly, duck confit, and whatever else Hiroo Nagahara dreams up.
Duck N Roll
Banh mi fervor is still strong in the Windy City thanks to these delectably slim baguettes loosely based on the Vietnamese sandwich and stuffed with miso-braised short ribs, coconut curry chicken, or five-spice-rubbed, slow-cooked duck.
Dim Ssäm à GoGo
Corny name aside, the mobile venture from the guys at Sakaya Kitchen puts out the best hangover food imaginable, a "really?" combination of tater tots, marinated Korean beef, and spicy cheese sauce. Yes, really.
Nong's Khao Man Gai (right)
Not a truck, actually—this famed food cart specializes in a Thai version of a dish from China's Hainan province: rice cooked in the flavor-packed liquid used to poach chicken, which ends up on top in tender slices. So simple, so good.
CHEFS' SECRETS: THE 5 MUST-HAVE PANTRY ITEMS AND HOW TO USE THEM
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1. Fish Sauce
A pungent seasoning that distinguishes the food of Vietnam and much of Thailand.
The Endorsement: Tyson Cole may not cook Southeast Asian, but he uses fish sauce in everything from soups to pickles at Uchiko, his Japanese restaurant in Austin.
2. Sichuan Peppercorns
A Chinese spice common in Sichuan cooking that makes your mouth feel bizarrely, refreshingly cold.
The Endorsement: Bryant Ng of The Spice Table in Los Angeles adds them to a stir-fry's hot oil or grinds them with dried red chilies and cumin to use as a spice rub for lamb.
3. Kecap Manis
A syrupy Indonesian staple that combines the salty pleasure of soy sauce with the deep, almost molasses-like sweetness of palm sugar.
The Endorsement: Beverly Kim of Aria in Chicago drizzles it on fried rice and noodles, adding chili or lime juice to balance the sweetness.
The burgundy-colored condiment—a salty-sweet miracle with the heat of dried chilies and a fermented-soybean tang—that you squeeze over your bibimbap.
The Endorsement: Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi of Seattle's Revel use it to impart heat and complexity to a standard barbecue sauce.
5. Yuzu Kosho
A salty, perfume-y paste of fresh chili and the aromatic rind of yuzu, a Japanese citrus.
The Endorsement: Greg Dunmore of San Francisco's Nojo dabs some of the floral, fiery paste on grilled chicken or stirs it into vinaigrettes.