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Mike’s full of Asian food options

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published June 13, 2013 at 3:35 a.m.

ca-chua-ngot-house-special-fi-sh-fillet-with-orange-features-fried-fish-smothered-in-onions-and-orange-sauce-at-mikes-cafe-chinese-and-vietnamese-cuisine-5501-asher-ave

Ca Chua Ngot, “house special fi sh fillet with orange,” features fried fish smothered in onions and orange sauce at Mike’s Cafe Chinese and Vietnamese Cuisine, 5501 Asher Ave.

Mike's Cafe

Mike's Cafe on Asher Avenue in Little Rock features Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine. The pool tables, bar and murals provide a fun, friendly atmosphere. (By Eric Harrison)
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The new Asian restaurant on Asher Avenue has an identity crisis.

The sign and awning outside the completely renovated building that housed something called the Union, between Fair Park Boulevard and University Avenue, says “Mike’s Cafe Chinese and Vietnamese Cuisine.” The in-house and to-go menus, however, call it “Mike’s Spot Restaurant Chinese & Vietnamese Cuisine.”

The scene when you walk through the front door may be even more baffling, because what you see first are the three pool tables and a bar. Only a panoramic view of the establishment reveals the seating areas, primarily on raised platforms or in odd-shaped alcoves, with modern blacktopped tables and serviceable chairs.

Now add in the disco ball and the color generator that we discovered on our second visit, which shoots laser-like beams of colored light about the establishment while the sound system (operated from a disc jockey booth on the building’s east side) plays cheesy ’80s and early ’90s Top 40 hits.

Chowing down on chow mein and charbroiled pork while listening to the Eagles and John Cougar Mellencamp is not what we usually expect from an Asian dining experience.

We will say this for Mike and his spot: The Vietnamese and Chinese menu (the Chinese dishes have Vietnamese names but the helpful dish descriptions in English will guide you accordingly) is at least as extensive as any of its competitors, and the food is about as good.

The kitchen is open almost until the midnight closing time (which could be a godsend for those who have devoutly wished that there was a nonchain Chinese or otherwise Asian restaurant that stayed open later than 10 p.m.).

Whether you want to pony up $8 to play pool is, of course, up to you.

Beyond the disco ball, the decor features vivid dark blue walls illuminated by some bright murals, depicting musical elements and city scapes. A photo of The Beatles crossing Abbey Road hangs behind the DJ booth. A couple of prominent shrines, one in front of the bar and one behind, are stocked with produce, bottled water and other items to presumably promote prosperity.

The staff is entirely Asian and so is most of the clientele, which is encouraging. The kitchen staff converses loudly in the kitchen and on the floor (when the restaurant isn’t crowded, staff and friends sit and sip beer in the dining room) in what we presume is Vietnamese.

The floor staff, all at least second-generation American, speaks English, and, as at Mike’s Vietnamese competitors, you’re much better off ordering by the number system since not even the wait staff can pronounce the Vietnamese names, and everybody’s better off not going through the embarrassment of trying.

Mike’s still needs a lot of work on service. Our waitress, for example, was completely unable to answer questions about the dishes in which we were interested, didn’t have a clue that she was supposed to supply hot red peppers for the so-called “fish sauce” with our Cha Gio egg rolls, and had to be asked to refill drink glasses (during the restaurant’s grand opening, soft drinks have been free; there’s also a variety of specialty beverages, and the restaurant also serves bottled domestic and imported beer).

We liked those egg rolls, by the way. You’re supposed to get three for $2.99 but we got five. The crisp, thin shells are filled mostly with meat, and are a little spongy but fairly tasty, with a minimum of other fillers. (A vegetable version, Cha Gio Chay, is also $2.99.)

We had a split decision on the Goi Cuon ($2.95), the fresh spring rolls with rice-paper wrapping around shrimp, rice noodles and bits of vegetable, including a long scallion that extended well past the end of the roll. Some members of the party devoured these with relish; Intrepid Companion did battle with the scallion and subsequently left the rest of her roll unfinished. The generous portion of peanut-and-pepper dipping sauce, by the way, was the best thing we had on any plate during any visit.

We were more united on the Bau Hu Chien Don ($3.95), huge cubes of deep-fried bean curd (the menu says six, but we got nine), which tasted better dipped in either the fish sauce or the peanut-pepper sauce than in the soy-based sauce that came with it.

There are more than 100 entree options, ranging from pho and other soups to more than a double dozen of “Mike’s Dishes Special.”

We started with something fairly familiar, the Bun Dac Biet ($7.95), shrimp, beef, shredded pork and chopped egg roll on a bed of lukewarm rice vermicelli. It needed peppers for the fish sauce, which we lacked, and the kitchen skimped a little on the egg rolls, but we otherwise enjoyed it.

From the Chinese portion of the menu, we chose the Hu Tieu Mi Xao Tom ($8.95), shrimp and sauteed vegetables(carrots, baby bok choy and straw mushrooms) on a choice of chow mein or chow fun noodles (the former are vermicelli-thin, the latter wider, about the width of fettuccine). The chow mein version came out with deep-fried noodles (a bit of a surprise) in a mild sauce that Intrepid Companion didn’t think much of - another split decision at the table.

We decided to throw caution to the winds and try the Ca Chua Ngot ($12.95), “house special fish fillet with orange or lemon juice.” Our waitress didn’t know what kind of fish it was, so we’re still not sure, but we believe from the flavor that it was lightly fried catfish, smothered in a thick, slightly sticky orange sauce with onions and green peppers plus a huge cake of steamed rice. The menu category also includes a steamed whole fish with brown sauce ($14.95) and a “house special whole sea troutfish” (also $14.95).

Unlike the meat on skewers with a tangy, often spicy peanut sauce you see in Thai places, the sate, aka saday, dishes are entree-size. The sauce on our Bo Xao Sate ($9.50), sauteed beef with green peppers and onions, may be peanut-based, but it’s a good deal more complex, rather spicy but not overwhelmingly so, and kind of reminded us of Mongolian Beef.

Mike’s Cafe Vietnamese & Chinese Cuisine

Address: 5501 Asher Ave., Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight daily

Cuisine: Vietnamese and Chinese

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Reservations: Large parties

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 562-1515

Weekend, Pages 31 on 06/13/2013

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