When it comes to off-the-beaten-path restaurants, you'd have a hard time topping Asia Tea House. To get here, you first need to pay a visit to the AsiaTown neighborhood, an enclave of Asian-run markets, shops and restaurants loosely bordered by East 30th and 40th streets, and St. Clair and Payne avenues. Once there, make your way to Asian Town Center, a five-year-old, 115,000-square-foot warehouse-turned-mall, the anchor tenant of which is Asia Foods, a sprawling Asian grocery. If you enter that store and wind your way clear to the back — past the produce coolers, live seafood tanks and butcher counter — you'll reach a point where the market ends and the warehouse begins. Congratulations: You just found Asia Tea House.
This is actually the second iteration of Asia Tea House. The first was equally buried in the back of the original Asia Foods store on St. Clair, which closed when the owners developed Asian Town Center and relocated the market. Like the original, this cafe is less a dining destination than delicious happenstance. Customers invariably stumble upon it while loading up their shopping baskets with baby bok choy, udon noodles, mushrooms and fish sauce. It's likely the warmly illuminated hanging roast ducks that first grab one's attention. Then and only then do shoppers notice a small and largely concealed "dining room," an odd assortment of tables and chairs, cold concrete floors, and unflattering fluorescent lights.
"It's kind of like a hidden treasure," says manager Henry Duong. "It does take some time for people to find us. That and a certain willingness to try something new that's maybe not as mainstream as something with a big storefront."
In a city where many of the restaurants and menus are beginning to look identical, it is quirky gems like this one that reward the adventurous diner. There are no menus here, just a printout of the 20-or-so available dishes taped to the counter. Descriptions are non-existent, just minimalistic names like "roast pork rice plate," "assorted beef noodle soup," and "grilled pork chop salad." Place your order at the register, pay the tab, and grab a seat. Somebody will be by with a pot of tea in moments.
I know that pho is all the rage — and Asia Tea House serves up a mighty fine bowl — but these days all the cool kids are slurping bun bo hue, the spicy Vietnamese beef noodle soup ($7.95/large). This oil-slicked winter warmer is like the punk rock version of pho, with blistering heat, fatty brisket, bright lemongrass highs, and thick round noodles in place of pho's thin, flat and delicate ones. If something less assertive yet equally comforting sounds more appealing, order the shrimp wonton noodle soup ($7.95). This wholesome bowl of flavorful chicken broth is loaded with thin-skinned dumplings filled with ground pork and shrimp, tender egg noodles, bright greens, onions and scallions.
There's a reason shoppers at Asian markets often see golden Cantonese-style roast ducks hanging by their necks behind glass. It's because they taste delicious and they're impossible to duplicate at home. Order the roast duck plate ($7.95) and you'll get half a bird, hacked into pieces and laid to rest on a pile of steamed rice. Crisp-skinned and juicy, the meat is dark, sweet and intensely flavorful. If duck isn't your thing, there's a lighter yet no less tasty alternative. The grilled chicken rice plate ($6.95) features succulent marinated, skin-on white and dark meat that's cooked to order. As with the duck, it's served with rice and pickled vegetables to cut the richness.
One need not take a seat at Asia Tea House to enjoy its offerings. Everything on the menu is available to go, including roast duck by the half or whole, roast pork, and soy sauce chicken, which is as good as it sounds. But that's just the beginning, really. Shoppers slip back here at all hours of the day to grab a quick snack off the large rack of fresh-baked sweet and savory buns. Varieties like cheese and bacon, mung bean and coconut, and taro are paid for and eaten out of hand. Fresh-wrapped Vietnamese summer rolls, fresh-fried spring rolls, banh mi sandwiches, and even sticky rice and Chinese sausage-stuffed banana leaves are restocked throughout the day.
But the best reason to visit Asian Town Center is the market itself. Like others in the area, Asia Foods is a great resource for everything from live lobster and fresh egg noodles to miso paste and Sriracha. Prices across the board are roughly half that of conventional grocery stores, making adventurous shopping more affordable than ever.