How to navigate An Choi’s massive contemporary Asian menu.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
“Everything is my favorite,” says Thanh Truong, enthusiastic owner of An Choi in Pacific Grove. “We started with everything I liked and had 100 items on the menu.
“We had to shorten it. Now there’s 60.” It’s still an impressive menu—with unique seafood tarts and classic sashimi, phos and fried rice, duck confit and soy Cornish hen, shitake fish and caramelized prawns. But two recent visits revealed that while so many things look really good, it’s best to follow the cheerful staff’s recommendations.
On a recent midweek evening, local hospitality pro Lina and I selected the Crispy Sweet Potato Shrimp Tarts ($9) from an inviting roster of appetizers. I also asked for a Thai One On ($6) from a hip-looking special drink menu that includes Bobas (the trendy drinks with flavored tapioca bubbles, $4) and pomegranate martinis.
The tart was an interesting little piece of work: three triangular lattices of thin french fries with a solitary shrimp fried onto the center of each. The potato itself wasn’t sweet potato, but a regular potato dripped with a sweet (albeit tasty) sauce. That was a little strange, and the dish wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped. And the drink that sounded so promising—coconut milk with sweet Thai Iced Tea and vodka-like Han Soju—was somehow bitter. (As we tried to pass the drink off on one another, we realized we should’ve gone for something from the short but respectable wine list.)
The remodeled room, meanwhile, in the space previously occupied by Le Chantilly, looks almost as good as the menu. Baby-blue vaulted ceilings soar high above 20-plus tables, a small bar, and pretty golden-framed wall-hangings of Chinese characters and decorative dragons. Sleek tall-backed chairs look modern and stylish without sacrificing comfort. The napkins and placemats, though, are paper.
The Ha Noi Crisp Crab Rolls ($12) arrived next. Alas, the fresh crab wasn’t actually in the rolls, but stacked on the open ends of two diagonally sliced egg rolls like an afterthought.
Redemption, from young server Pam, came not a moment too soon, and sounded like this: “Clay Pot Ginger Fish” ($14). The four filets came steaming, saucy and flavorful, with garlic, green onion, white onion and soy, in a pretty decorative pot; the supremely light bites of sole simply melted through the delicious layers of flavor. It made for a nice climax before a squat-bellied pot of roasted rice tea ($3) closed the evening nicely.
A second visit to An Choi was similar to the first: The service was great again—from the opening bottles of Singha and Tiger beer ($4 each) to the delivery of the check—and the menu once more had us asputter with anticipation. But server Christine’s leadership gave us the best taste of the day.
Local road-biker Joy and I started with one of the three soups, bypassing the Thai Seafood ($7.50/small; $12/large) and Crab and Asparagus ($8-$13) for a large pot of Enoki Mushroom-Tofu ($5-$8), which yielded five small cups of warmth. The tiny enokis, which lent miniature silky texture and subtle flavor to the starchy soup, inspired a three-cup slurp-salute from me.
Christine guaranteed we’d like the Walnut Prawns ($13), and she was right. Five big prawns perfectly fried in a thin and light batter formed a pretty pyramid accented by curled carrot shavings and walnuts on a long white rectangular plate. A sweet and creamy white sauce completed the standout dish.
We decided we wanted to try a signature plate before adjourning to adjacent Asilomar for sunset, so we also ordered the An Choi Seafood Fried Rice ($12). (The other signature dishes include the Canard d’ Orange, $18, Saint Jack Scallop Prawn, $21, and the Shrimp Papaya Salad, $12.)
The pot of rice (a good portion for two) had small slices of scallops, a few rolls of squid, and a smattering of shrimp and good smoky character. In short: solid, but unspectacular.
Colleagues have since told me that the Imperial Spring Rolls ($7.50), Pad Thai ($8), Vietnamese Chicken Salad ($7.50) and Shrimp Papaya Salad ($12) are all excellent. I’m happy to hear it, but should I get back to An Choi I’ll defer to the happy staff.
An Choi Asian Contemporary Cuisine
1120 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove • 11am-2:30pm, 5-9pm daily; until 8pm Sun. • 372-8818.