Satay Surprise

Wonders Abound at This Southeast Asian Eatery




Satay

photograph by John Anderson

Satay, The Asian Cookery

3202 W. Anderson, 467-6731
Mon-Fri, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm;
Sat, 5-11pm; Sun, noon-3pm, 5-10pm

For some ridiculous reason, I let the offhand comment of a fastidiously picky friend - "The food is fine but the interior is totally underwhelming," or some such nonsense - override curiosity and keep me away from Satay for years. One Sunday night when a group of friends met for dinner at a restaurant that wasn't open on Sunday, a smart vegetarian in our midst led us straight to Satay. What we found was a dynamic, critically acclaimed restaurant unlike any other in town. It is characterized by a vast, spiral-bound menu that is favorable both to those who champion every food group and to vegetarians, who can get almost anything on the regular menu cooked with tofu or mixed vegetables instead of meat. While food scientist and owner Foo Swasdee is from Thailand, she brings elements of Malaysian, Indonesian, Cambodian, Philippine, and many other Asian cultures to her cuisine. If nothing on the basic menu appeals to a patron (an unlikely scenario), he or she can choose something from an enormous listing of monthly specials.

In quick defense of the decor, Satay's jungle wallpaper and fake palm tree are a festive backdrop to the array of Southeast Asian foods that Swasdee brings to the public. The casual nature of the restaurant is also a reflection of the moderate price range - $4.95-6.95 for lunch, $7.50-14.95 for a dinner entrée - and Thai culture, which traditionally values a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. The service left nothing to be desired and I never doubted the cleanliness of the kitchen or dining areas. Ultimately though, the proof is in the pudding, and I'll bet Satay's Siam Ruby Rice Pudding is fabulous. Unfortunately, we were too full of other good things to ever get around to it.

On our first visit for the Chronicle, we started with a Shrimp Satay appetizer ($4.25). A satay is a Thai convention, with meat, shrimp, or tofu skewered and grilled over charcoal. Our appetizer included three skewers, with one large, unraveled peppery shrimp per skewer and a side of toast and peanut sauce for dipping. That evening, we tried an order of Spicy Vegetable Dumplings ($4.50) off the January specials menu. We enjoyed the little boats, topped by Satay's signature fried garlic, but found them slightly dry and wholly inferior to the Steamed Dumplings, absolutely perfect bundles of ground turkey and shrimp. Both sets of dumplings were accompanied by a sweet, chili-infused, soy-based dipping sauce.

Because my dinner companion that night was a self-proclaimed aficionado of Pud Thai ($7.95), we shared an order of the Thai classic as our entrée. Initially, he found himself disappointed with Foo Swasdee's rendition, which seems to be a departure from the classic: Instead of fat flat noodles, it uses a comparatively thin vermicelli. I rarely order this dish because I prefer a wider range of flavors, but this Pud Thai had zest. It seemed to be enhanced with liberal doses of chili and tamarind, while maintaining strong peanut undertones. The bits of tofu were firm and almost fruity tasting, a delight when you could find them. The shrimp lended texture more than flavor, and the cilantro, green onion, and cabbage garnishing the dish were ample and fresh. The portion was large enough that, after appetizers, two people eating off the same plate didn't clean it.

The second visit was a greater success than the first. Three of us started with two appetizers: an order of Miang Khum ($4.25) off the specials menu and Tod Mun ($3.95). In the Miang Khum, six raw spinach leaves were spread on a silver tray like a cluster of flower petals. Each leaf had what appeared to be a pile of toasted coconut in the center, but it's slightly more complex than that: It has a coconut base with lime, garlic, peanut, and ginger mixed in. The goal is to apply a dollop of Thai Roasted Coconut Salsa (recent winner of the Scovie Award "most unique" category) and get the whole thing into your mouth before the leaf splits and the contents rain out. Miang Khum has such a light, unusual taste that eating it is a worthwhile pursuit even if you end up covered in toasted coconut. After it was gone, one friend admitted that she doesn't like raw spinach, and the other confessed that she hates coconut, but both raved about what we had just eaten. They were similarly unsure about the Tod Mun, ground whitefish mixed with green beans, curry paste, and spices, pressed into cakes and deep-fried. The fish had a fresh, clean flavor and the sweet heat of a tiny marinated cucumber salad contrasted well with the salty cakes - another hit.

We moved on to two of the soups. Tom-Yum is perfect for someone with adult tastes: very hot, very sour soup in a thin lemongrass broth with pieces of hot chili skulking at the bottom. Tom-Kha Gai also has a hot and sour base, but coconut milk and ginger give this soup a childish appeal. If we weren't compelled to try more than one kind of soup, we might have shared a "firepot"($7.95), literally a large metal tureen heated by flames underneath - the perfect choice for lovers or pyromaniacs.

At the recommendation of the waiter, we chose the Mus-Man Curry ($7.50), an Indonesian dish with chicken, peanuts, potatoes, and onions as one of our entrées. With an oily looking finish on a brownish-orange stew, this dish was less photogenic than most, but it spanned a broad range of flavors and textures; what was initially sweet blossomed into a slow burn, a good framework of flavors for the contrasting, crunchy, chewy, slippery, and crisp contents. We loved it.

The Korean Beef ($7.95) was a different story. The dish consisted of a platter with a small salad of lettuce and cabbage, an assortment of pickled carrots, onions, and cabbage, and a pile of sweetly marinated grilled beef. None of us were too impressed at the outset, although the dish grew on the attending eaters as the meal progressed. To me, it seemed like a light taste, though not necessarily a fresh one.

The Phuket Wonder ($8.95) was my counter-strike, which they disdained but I couldn't get enough of. Crisp green beans were stir-fried with Thai chili oil, basil, red pepper, garlic, and your choice of meat. Like many meat eaters, I mostly regard the eating of tofu as a waste of time and energy that could be spent in better ways, like gnawing flesh off a bone or chewing leaves off a plant. I have even resorted to the argument that tofu turns into a high-fat food when you fry it as much as you must to render it edible. But in deference to the vegetarian community that Satay carefully caters to, I asked for the green beans with tofu and was dazzled by how appealing it was.

While Satay probably has something for everyone, it's the perfect place to go when you are ready to put aside your bias against fishcakes for a night, or when you are ready to open your mind - and your mouth - to the wonders of tofu.


Rudy's Country Store and Bar-B-Q

11570 Research, 418-9898
Sun-Thu, 7am-9:30pm;
Fri & Sat, 7am-10:30pm

This place evokes memories of small town Texas in the Fifties, a roadside icehouse with gas pumps, a few oilcloth-covered tables, and a big smoking pit out back. The bill of fare varies little: meats served on butcher paper with "light" (white) bread; onion and pickle slices in crocks; side dishes of slaw, potato salad, and beans in plastic containers; banana pudding with vanilla wafers for dessert; soda and beer iced down in tubs. When I was growing up, there was at least one of these joints in every little town we passed. The Rudy's outlet is a little slicker, to be sure, because it's a Brinker franchise concept, but somehow it manages to capture enough of the old-time Texas flavor to be inviting. Several months ago, Rudy's won a BBQ contest sponsored by a local TV station and I'd been meaning to check it out ever since.

I stopped in at the northwest area Rudy's on a recent blustery cold day, lured by the idea of a substantial meal of spicy smoked meats. There were plenty from which to choose. In addition to the standard brisket, sausage, and chopped beef, Rudy's menu also features pork ribs, chicken, prime rib, pork loin, turkey breast, and baby back ribs by the half pound, link or rack. All the meats are prepared with a peppery dry rub and slow smoked over oak. I chose the X-lean Brisket ($4.49 1/2lb), a link of sausage ($2.79), and a half rack of Baby Back Pork Ribs ($5.95). The brisket here is done just the way I prefer it: lean slices of fork-tender beef flecked with pepper along the top. It made great sandwiches with tangy dill pickle slices and the fiery sauce. The sausage, a relatively mild recipe made especially for Rudy's by Opa's Sausage of Fredericksburg, goes well with the very spicy Rudy's "Sause," a breakout product available in stores and by mail order for $7.95 a quart. A coating of the secret recipe dry rub provides just the right accent for the meaty little baby back ribs and leaves the lips tingling. The overall quality of the meats I tried will encourage me to return for the chicken, prime rib, pork loin, and turkey breast.

A winter seasonal stand-out at Rudy's is the BBQ Beef Stew ($3.59 pint, $5.59 quart). This hearty dish is someone's ingenious idea for making the very most of every morsel of meat on the place. Peppery brisket trimmings join new potatoes, chopped carrots, mushrooms, onions, and tomatoes in a flavorful beef broth to make a substantial meal, equally warm with temperature and spice. Take a quart of this home, add a skillet of hot buttermilk cornbread and a salad of locally grown field greens, and the family couldn't ask for a cozier winter meal.

Rudy's caters for parties of 50 or more and offers a selection of "group meals" for smaller groups in increments of 10, 20, or 30. The group meals feature a choice of meats, side dishes, bread, pickles, onions, and jalapeños, paper plates, and meal packs, plus a bottle of the signature sauce. If you choose to eat in, paper and plastic ware are available, and the seating is family-style, in folding chairs at long, oilcloth- covered tables. My favorite sign at Rudy's says "Your mother doesn't work here. Clean up your own mess." Words to live by. -- Virginia B. Wood

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