Loaded fries? They’re dumb food: all carbohydrates, oils and fats, devoid of subtlety or finesse. Just don’t tell that to the keema fries at Night Market, next door to Mein in Chinatown. The chubby steak fries, topped with spicy ground brisket, garlic and mint sauces, and fresh cilantro, have seized this critic’s mind. Each bite is slightly different, but equally delectable. One may be hot with the chiles that fleck the juicy meat, another cooling with creamy mint raita and a cilantro leaf.
Over in Midtown, Maba Pan-Asian Diner is also showing that a smothered fry dish can be something more when fused with Asian traditions. The restaurant’s pho fries are less heavy with toppings than Night Market’s keema fries, but their statement is just as strong. The potatoes are tossed in the cinnamon, coriander and cloves of a pho spice mix, then topped with the same onions and cilantro that would top a bowl of the Vietnamese soup. It’s finished in squiggles of Sriracha, in the same way many augment their pho.
Changing a critic’s mind about loaded fries isn’t all the two restaurants have in common. Both serve smart, sometimes even witty, new wave Asian fusion. This is not your father’s Chinese chicken salad or pizza with Thai peanut sauce. Instead, both restaurants are fresh combinations of Asian heritage and American ingenuity.
Mike Tran of Tiger Den and Mein owns Night Market with Rikesh Patel, whose Indian influence is apparent. The cuisine is South Asian, not East Asian like Tran’s other projects, including Aka Sushi House. The dark interior, gently lit by the spot’s red neon sign, immediately conjures the night markets one might hit up for street food when touring Asia. A mural of temple goddesses, cartoony sari-sporting ladies and an Indian 007 cement the impression.
The menu is centered around both Malaysian and Indian dishes, but other influences pop up in the form of Mexican mandarin and pineapple Jarritos; a Mediterranean tomato, feta and caper salad; and, of course, those undeniably American steak fries.
Interestingly, traditional Indian recipes aren’t the real draw here. Vegetarian masala curries, for example, are fine but forgettable, despite the enticingly fragrant jasmine rice they come with. And naan, whether ordered plain or topped with garlic and butter, is unpleasantly heavy on flour, caking the diner’s fingers with powder.
The fusion, meanwhile, has us hooked. It’s hard to stop eating a unique mid-rare five-spice-rubbed ribeye, served in easily shareable chunks, alongside grilled onion and peppers. Malaysian curries stand out, too, particularly the endearingly spicy pork belly. The tender cubes of meat fall apart into a pile of rice alongside squishy slices of sweet plantain, all of it under a thick broth laced with lemongrass.
Another winner features big pieces of brisket rising from a lightly tangy sea of coconut curry that’s made even sweeter with diced pineapple and a pool of coconut cream on top, another take on a Malaysian dish. Both the pork belly and the brisket get their heat from a not insignificant dose of Thai chiles, showing that the kitchen isn’t cooking down to Western palates.
Like the fries, dessert showcases the best of both worlds. There are only two options, both of which center around homemade cylinders of Indian kulfi, served in silver bowls and providing a cool breath of saffron and, even more prominently, cardamom. The treat is available topped with mango, but it’s far more fun to get it with crumbles of chocolate and drizzles of caramel sauce. For those of us accustomed to eating kulfi with chopped pistachios, it sounds like an odd combination. But trust Tran and Patel. They know when a clash of cultures will result in an unexpectedly delicious union.
So does Maba chef/owner Wayne Nguyen, whose in-laws are behind Timmy Chan’s and Sinh Sinh. In a space that’s airy yet even more casual than the “diner” in the title would imply—you order at the counter, though servers bring your food to the table—it’s a surprise to find dishes as innovative as the aforementioned pho fries.
Then there’s his pork belly taco, whose name does no justice to the unusual idea behind it. At taquerías, we’ve all had to choose between corn or flour, but at Maba, there’s only one option: scallion pancake. And it made me wish more tacos were served that way.
The crisp exterior made me think of San Antonio–style puffy tacos, but the layered, chewy center is closer to New Mexico fry bread. In an additional swerve, the fillings are neither Mexican nor Chinese: thinly sliced pork, cucumber, carrots, daikon, Thai chiles, onion and cilantro sprigs. The delightful dish is as creative as it is international. It was difficult not to order seconds.
Despite charming touches like the welcoming patio, eating a whole fish at a restaurant with a self-service Coke machine may sound like a frightening proposition. Still, it’s a good idea to leave fears aside for a taste of the pan-seared lemongrass tilapia. Yes, it’s tilapia. But don’t turn your nose up at the fish foodies love to hate. At Maba, it’s deboned, leaving the head and tail, with a thick matting of chopped lemongrass taking the place of the fish’s skeleton. This guarantees not only big flavor, but a burst of freshness that negates any muddy taste the fish might have.
My tilapia was fried to crisp perfection on one side, but its skin was burnt on the other. Nonetheless, the white flesh within remained moist. The fish was presented on a bed of well-prepared rice with a single skinny stalk of Chinese broccoli, which felt like paltry vegetation on a plate with an entire animal on it.
The rice-and-one-stalk theme recurred when I ordered the General Tsao’s chicken. The dish is another clever concept: In a subversion of the dough balls Americans have come to expect, this iteration gets its crispness not from deep-fried batter but from the chicken’s own pan-seared skin. Unfortunately, when I ordered it, that skin wasn’t crisp, and the sauce, though speckled with chiles, was more syrupy-sweet than spicy.
This wasn’t the only time that Nguyen’s ideas were better than their execution. As a fan of Vietnamese sizzling clay pot dishes (particularly ca kho to, or catfish), I was excited to order the chicken pot. But the caramelization that makes those dishes special was missing. What resulted was a perfectly pleasant stir-fry of chicken, onions, peppers and tofu in a mildly flavored
Instead, why not order some pho fries, or one of Maba’s other, more focused fusion dishes? Chances are, with the successful creations there and at Night Market, Houston will be seeing more modern Asian fusion soon, and I can’t wait to see what chefs create.