I’m going to take a detour from my usual posts about weaving, fiber and book arts. There’s a restaurant in the Memphis area that makes me feel like I’ve been transported into Chinatown of a city like New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia or Boston. I’ve eaten in Chinese restaurants in those cities, and New Asia in Exeter Village Center at Exeter and Poplar in Germantown feels like it belongs in one of those cities. But it belongs here in the Memphis area and it certainly looks like it’s here to stay. We’ve eaten there many times in the last few months. The restaurant is one huge room with several large tables, bright lights and lots of noise. The wait staff welcomes everyone with friendly smiles and quick and efficient service.
What you will need to know to make you feel like you’ve been transported into Chinatown is that there are two menus to choose from. The red menu is the one to go with — this is the “authentic” Chinese cuisine menu. The other menu, the green one is for Cantonese and Szechuan cuisine. The green menu has many lovely offerings, but is not very different from menus of other top notch Asian restuarants in Memphis, eg. Mosa and Asian Grill. The authentic menu includes more traditional Asian food offerings without any “Americanization”. They are unusual, richly flavored, and have a characteristic feel of Asian “comfort food”. It’s really hard to explain other than that the food is wonderfully delicious.
To begin with, the seafood hot and sour soup is an adventure for those who love to experience texture. (Keep in mind this is a weaver talking!) Not too spicy and not to sweet, your taste buds will be surprised by the velvety texture of tofu and shrimp, then followed by the crunchiness of a bit of octopus or squid, all of which are generously ladled in the soup. Another soup that has a more overall velvety texture is the crab meat with cream corn soup. This is more subtle than the hot and sour but still has a great deal of character.
There are few places in Memphis where you can find fresh and well prepared seafood. New Asia is one of them. The chef’s special –the whole braised cod in spicy tomato sauce is excellent.
It is beautifully presented, the meat comes off of the bones cleanly and the tomato sauce adds a smooth and sweetly powerful flavor to an otherwise tasteless fish. The fish itself is huge — plenty for two with enough to take home in your “doggie” bag.
Other highly recommended seafood dishes are the Hot Braised Filet of Sole (served in a sauce similar to the tomato sauce of the braised cod) and the Scallops with Black Bean Sauce. Ordinarily black bean sauce may leave a strange aftertaste, but this sauce is prepared in such a way that you’ll be smacking your lips for more!
Sizzling dishes are always fun to order at Asian restaurants, and New Asia aims to please in this department. My favorite is the Sizzling Chicken with Black Pepper. It has a strong pepper flavor complemented by such tender chicken pieces that they melt in your mouth like “buttah”. The Sizzling Beef with Satay Sauce surprised me, in that the “satay” sauce was not what I expected. I was looking for the more traditional satay sauce of Indonesian and Thai origin. The satay sauce at New Asia was more like a mild black bean sauce — still tasty nonetheless.
The sizzling dishes are beautifully presented on a hot skillet with a wooden board.
As far as vegetables, pea plant with garlic seems to be a staple of authentic cuisine. It is steamed with whole cloves of garlic and is similar to escarole with a major kick. The fragrant eggplant is another crowd pleaser. Not at all bitter or tough, the strips of eggplant are prepared in a mild pepper sauce with slices of chile pepper. For the less adventurous, the green menu for Cantonese and Szechuan Cuisine has a milder version of this dish.
The atmosphere of New Asia is a definite down home type of experience. Many of the large round tables are filled with families, and groups of people both young and old. It seems that it is a favorite of Asian families. To have an experience like New Asia here in the Memphis area is truly special. If you don’t have a chance to visit the restaurants of Chinatown in a major U.S. city, then take a short trip down Poplar, you’ll find the same experience there.