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REVIEW: Ăn Asian Kitchen Challenges Expectations

By Kyle Young

Located in the former space occupied by Cafe de Thai on Longely Lane, Ăn Asian Kitchen & Bar strives to defy expectations while serving attractive Vietnamese, Chinese and fusion dishes. Ăn, meaning “to eat” in Vietnamese, is pronounced “Aw-n” in English. The name was chosen to pay homage to one of the world’s great unifiers: tasty food.

What Do You Expect From An Asian Restaurant?

Reno, and elsewhere, has been known to cling to culinary stereotypes with dear life. Have you ever noticed any commonalities in how we tend to describe some of our favorite local restaurants? Roach-coach, dive, hole in the wall, dingy, grimy, drab and dirty are some of the restaurant descriptors that we casually throw around. 

Some diners describe their favorite restaurants with the descriptors above as terms of endearment. Some restaurants, likewise, wear these descriptors as badges of honor.

Not every restaurant, though, including Ăn Asian Kitchen & Bar, embraces the “dive” description. A staff member at Ăn shared with me that they must actively combat the perception of Vietnamese and Chinese food as “less than”. Ăn wants to be a restaurant and bar where people can watch Sunday night football, grab a beer AND eat incredible cơm niêu (clay pot) dishes.

Some restaurants need to apply care and thought to escape the stereotypes of their culinary genre. Have you ever thought about a small Italian restaurant as “intimate”? Have you ever thought about a small Chinese restaurant as a “hole in the wall”? I pose that the size of the restaurant doesn’t really dictate the way people discuss it. 

Braised catfish in carmelized fish sauce.
Braised catfish in caramel 
fish sauce with scallions and
Thai chilies. Image: Kyle Young.

I’ll get to the point: the quality of English spoken by restaurant employees and the type of food the restaurant serves influence the public’s perceived quality of the restaurant.

Specifically, I think some Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants in town get a bum rap because the food and language seem foreign and “other”. 

Let me be clear, this is not an indictment of white people. Nor will I suggest that I don’t find it sometimes irksome to encounter a language barrier in a restaurant. I think all races and ethnic groups hold on to unjustified culinary stereotypes and shy away from the dreaded “unfamiliar”.

You’ve probably heard, “I don’t go for ethnic food.” Ever wonder why some food is considered ethnic and some not, despite all of us having an ethnicity? Just a bit of exposure and thought is often all that’s necessary to turn foreign into familiar.

Ăn Asian Kitchen Isn’t a Dive, so, What Is It?

Ăn Asian Kitchen & Bar is 50 percent elegant, 25 percent comfortable and 100 percent tasty (I know. Math right?).

Diners can enjoy an attractive full bar with a good sized television. Happy hour is 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily offering half off beer and wine. Their happy hour also offers exclusive appetizers not found on their regular menu such as the Ăn’s Chicken Wings ($6).

On their regular menu, they serve Vietnamese favorites such as bánh mì (sandwiches), phở (beef broth noodle soup) and bún (vermicelli noodle bowls).

Chinese-American favorites include: cashew shrimp, sweet and sour pork, broccoli beef, Mongolian chicken and the like.

Some dishes not commonly found elsewhere in Reno include: lotus salad, DIY spring rolls, seafood sizzling rice soup, dry noodle soup and braised catfish or salmon in clay pot.

The restaurant offers ample seating at booths and tables. The aesthetic of the place is modern and attractive.

Finger-lickin’ Chicken and Crazy Good Clay Pot

Ăn’s chicken wings ($6) were tasty, but lacked the depth of flavor present in the cá bông lau kho tộ ($16), aka braised catfish. Tony Tran, one of three co-owners, graciously hooked me up with these two delectable dishes.

Ăn’s chicken wings.
Image: Kyle Young

The photo of the wings depicts a sample, so know that they normally come in an order of six. The wings were coated in a sauce reminiscent of sweet Thai chili sauce. All the sauces at Ăns are made in house. The sauce was tasty and sweet, but seemed like it would benefit from some heat, acidity or another flavor. I’m unsure of what constituted the breading, but I’d guess that potato starch played a roll. The texture of the wings had a bit of crunch and wasn’t entirely unlike a sweet and sour-type chicken.

As I write notes for these reviews, I need to balance eating the food quickly with retaining semi-clean hands. If I wait too long to eat the food, I risk missing its qualities as the kitchen intends them. If I eat things like wings too quickly, I soil my notes with sticky prints. Grasping for a happy medium, I was caught by a member of the staff literally licking my fingers. I think I turned as red as the napkin that was handed to me.

The braised catfish in clay pot with caramel fish sauce was served with fried scallions and fresh, red Thai chilies. This marked the second time I tried a dish of this type from any restaurant, and I think Ăn does an exemplary job. The first time I tried the dish, not at Ăn, the catfish kind of melted into a thin layer of gravy. At Ăn, three distinct cuts of catfish sat delicate, but intact, atop a generous amount of caramel fish sauce.

A member of the staff shared with me that the Vietnamese people picked up the technique of caramelization from the French during the French occupation of Vietnam. 

Picking fish bones out of a dish isn’t always what I’m into, but the “bone duty” at Ăn was limited and painless. The sauce was something special. The depth of flavor was fantastic. It tasted sweet with notes of ginger, black pepper, umami and funk. The fish was perfectly cooked. The fried scallions and fresh Thai chilies added delightful flavor, heat and texture. 

At Tran’s advice, I spooned some of the caramelized sauce on top of the fresh cucumber, fresh tomato, pickled radish, pickled carrots and steamed rice. I’m thankful for this pro-tip as it really enhanced the veggies and starch. Tran recommended the catfish over the salmon due to the fat in the catfish. Here, too, I completely agree with Tran.

Ăn Asian Kitchen & Bar is located at 7499 Longley Lane in Reno. Call in your reservation or take-out order at ​(775) 852-6320. They are open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Visit them online at an-asiankitchen.com. Keep an eye out for La Mint on South Meadows Park Way. That restaurant will be brought to you by the same talented creators of Ăn Asian Kitchen & Bar.

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