You really have to know where you're headed to find either Szechuan Cafe or Pho Ha Nam, which might explain why both of these new AsiaTown eateries are in spots that have experienced frequent change. Each, coincidentally, is set within a larger building, which all but eliminates random foot traffic and makes longterm success more of a struggle.
You'll find Szechuan Cafe (not to be confused with Szechuan Gourmet) in the rear of Asia Plaza, in a bright and roomy space that also can be accessed from the Park to Shop parking lot. For a handful of years the location was home to E. 30th Street Cafe, which featured a large, rambling menu that covered ground as diverse as Japanese bento boxes, sushi and sashimi, Thai curries, Vietnamese noodle soups, daily dim sum and a laundry list of American-friendly Chinese staples.
Szechuan Cafe also features a long and rambling menu that covers a lot of ground — including a rarely ordered-from sushi section. But as the name suggests, the restaurant's true calling is the Szechuan cuisine. Chef Benjie Ma, who comes by way of Grand Sichuan restaurant in New York City, knows his way around a wok and prepares delicious, well-balanced versions of countless classic dishes.
The only problem is trying to figure out what is what on the massive 300-item roster. Szechuan-style cucumber salad ($5.95), for example, is listed as "Tasty and Refreshing Cucumber." That it is, with the cool and crunchy vegetable tossed in a bright and vinegary dressing making the perfect prelude to a meaty, spicy meal. If you have questions, like we did, ask your server for assistance. Not only will they clear up any confusion, they'll likely offer up suggestions and recommendations.
Double-cooked pork ($12.95), usually called twice-cooked pork, is delicious here, with thin-sliced (and, yes, fatty) pork belly stir-fried with an abundance of leeks in a sweet and salty, earthy and spicy sauce studded with fermented black beans. Dan Dan noodle fans should look for something called Szechuan Noodles in Peppery Sauce ($6.95), which nets a tangle of thick noodles in a bath of red chile oil, topped with greens and a heaping mound of finely ground pork. This dish and others, we felt, went regrettably easy on both the ma and the la, the spicy/tingly one-two punch characteristic of Szechuan cuisine.
Perhaps the third time will be the charm for Pho Ha Nam, the latest Vietnamese restaurant to set up shop inside the Asian Town Center mall. Starting with Pho 99, moving through Ninh Kieu, and landing on the present tenant, this first-floor space has seen more than its fair share of beef noodle soup. All of it has been good, sometimes approaching great, but the location, competing as it does with more conspicuous alternatives, never seems to reach critical mass.
Wisely, the new owners have greatly pared down the menu, jettisoning a considerable number of dishes in favor of a few core items. The pho ($8.50) is lovely, with a fragrant, flavorful broth filled with tender rice flour noodles and a generous amount of thin-sliced rare beef and well-done but tender flank. For something with a bit more heft and heat, try the bun bo hue ($9.50), a hearty soup that many people actually prefer to pho. A spicy red-slicked bone broth with tart hits of lemongrass and fish sauce is fortified with three types of meat (pork and beef) and fat, round noodles. As with pho, the soup is garnished by the diner with a squirt of lime, fresh mint leaves, crunchy bean sprouts and, in the case of bun bo hue, sliced banana blossoms.
Pho Ha Nam's banh mi sandwiches ($5) are excellent, with a warm, crisp and flaky 8-inch baguette sliced open and filled with hot-from-the-grill marinated pork, a schmear of pate, shredded pickled veggies, jalapeno wheels, sliced cucumber and fresh herbs. Buy them by the sack.
Of course, the restaurant still offers a number of broken rice and vermicelli bowls, Vietnamese staples that come topped with any number of ingredients and combinations. Again, the selection has been whittled down, leaving a handful of options like grilled pork, grilled pork chops, shredded roast pork, finely ground pork or steamed omelet. All come with the appropriate shredded veggies, herbs and garnishes.
Along with the good and familiar summer rolls ($4) and ubiquitous and addictive fried spring rolls ($3), Pho Ha Nam offers a less common appetizer made with ground pork skewers ($8) that are grilled and rolled in rice paper with fresh veggies and served with peanut dipping sauce.
If you're looking for somewhere new in AsiaTown to try, both of these places would love to take care of you.Szechuan Cafe 2999 Payne Ave., 216-515-1111 SzechuanCleveland.com
Pho Ha Nam 3820 Superior Ave., 216-586-6969