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story.lead_photo.caption Schezwan Pepper Ribs are plenty as an appetizer for two, or even three, at Asian Bar & Grill on Cantrell Road. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison

Asian Bar & Grill is only the latest Asian restaurant to occupy the double storefront in the Cantrell Road strip center that also houses an outlet of Senor Tequila.

Since-departed tenants of what can safely be described as a revolving-door restaurant (one that has housed at least a half-dozen businesses in the last dozen years or so) include the second location for Gina's Sushi & Grill and the final resting place of Sai Gon; two versions of The Main Cheese, the second even more short-lived than the first; and, speaking of short-lived, a brief incarnation of Whole Hog Cafe and an even briefer second outlet for Hawgz Blues Cafe.

Asian Bar & Cafe

Address: 14524 Cantrell Road, Suite 10, Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. daily

Cuisine: Mostly Chinese with Malay, Thai and Japanese items

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Wheelchair access: Yes

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

(501) 673-3934

At least one factor contributes to why restaurants, even all of those that had succeeded elsewhere, have failed to succeed here: Getting into and out of the strip center, from and onto Cantrell Road, at a spot where no traffic light controls the intersection can be a nightmare at peak periods.

Asian Bar & Grill has a couple of helpful advantages. It has a large, broad menu of primarily Chinese cuisine, much of it with a Malaysian accent, as well as a few Thai, Malay and Japanese items. The decor is pleasant -- check out the bamboo feature wall at the entrance; the black-clothed, glass topped tables with lattice-back black-padded chairs, two of them high-topped with stools; and some Asian-theme artwork, including a stylized Buddha portrait on the back wall of the window bay at the restaurant's front. There is a bar of modest size; sliding doors separate the main dining room from a party room/overflow seating.

And it has some disadvantages: Several dishes we tried varied substantially, sometimes radically, from counterparts we've encountered at other Chinese restaurants, here and elsewhere. That's not necessarily bad, but it could induce some customers to eschew this place for one of the nearby establishments whose food sticks to more conventional lines. (Even some of the spellings are unusual — take, for example, the number of menu items with the word "Schezwan," which most other places spell "Szechwan" or a variation thereof.)

Generally speaking, the appetizer list is far and away the largest portion of the menu and the dishes of which we approved the most. Almost all them are big enough to serve two, or even three.

The Crispy Green Beans, lightly coated in somewhat spicy batter and sauteed in garlic and peanut oil, are a tasty bargain at $6.50; they're an even better bargain at happy hour, when they're $3.

The Schezwan Pepper Ribs ($9.50), pork ribs fully coated in a crust that includes soy sauce, vinegar, ginger and "schezwan" peppers, were meaty and sufficiently tender that the meat came easily off the bone; a "sweet" option is also available: BBQ Spare Ribs (also $9.50), made with honey and "five spice sauce."

Gallery: Asian Bar & Grill

The Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($7.50) are more like chicken lettuce bowls; filling the half-dozen crenellated lettuce sheaves were large-ish chicken cubes and a selection of "crunchy stir-fry vegetables." In fact, just about everything we got at Asian Bar & Grill came with unexpected accent vegetables, primarily green beans. A vegetable lettuce wrap option is $6.50.

The menu offers Chicken Wings ($6.50), deep-fried and served with ranch dip and celery, but if you're feeling particularly adventurous, order the enjoyable Chicken Lollipop ($8.95), entire wings with a bone that extends out to provide a handle, coated in a paste of chile powder, ginger, garlic, corn flour and egg.

The vegetable spring rolls (four for $5.95), vegetables in a thin wrapper, were fine but not extraordinary. We liked the Pork Bao (three for $7.50) better — small, soft buns (think pita with gyros or soft tacos) half-wrapping plentiful thick slices of pork belly with cabbage and Hoisin sauce, and they come with a side of chile-garlic green beans. Chicken Bao (three for $6.50) is also an option. The Asian Mix Platter ($10.95) gives you a chance to try multiple options on one plate — two chicken "lollipops," two vegetable spring rolls and two pork bao with a side of "schezwan sauce" — we're not sure just what it's for, but we did use it for dipping the spring rolls.

We would not, however, recommend either of the two soups ($3.95 cup, $6.95 bowl) we tried.

Black pepper dominated the Hot & Sour, which was more bitter than sour -- not exactly, as the menu says, "rich" or "tangy," and not especially spicy.

And the Egg Drop Soup, unlike most such soups, not only didn't have the clear broth with cooked egg bits that we're used to, but lacked the "julienne carrots and green onions" the menu promised. Intrepid Companion spurned it after the first ladle-ful. The broth was opaque, with a slight hint of something that might have been red chile oil (which might also account for the tan color) and unexpected and unusual noodles. Which sort of made us wonder subsequently if, by mistake, we got the Tom Yum Soup (same price, $1 to add chicken, $1.50 to add shrimp), which the menu on the restaurant website calls "Tom Yum Noodle" soup. (In the immortal, but surprisingly appropriate in this context, words of Yul Brynner in The King and I: "Is a puzzlement.")

Asian Bar & Grill's Pad Thai ($7.95, $2 to add chicken, $3 to add shrimp or beef) is pretty conventional, made with medium-wide noodles (instead of the thin "glass" noodles we generally prefer for this dish), tossed with bean sprouts, green onions and even a few green beans. We weren't asked, as we generally would be if this were a Thai restaurant, how spicy we'd like it, so it came out pretty bland, although there we did perk it up a bit with some on-the-table chile sauce.

The Kung Pao Chicken ($11.95), one of the Chef Specials, featured huge chunks of chicken "fully involved," as a fireman friend might put it, in a very sharp, very red, somewhat spicy "schezwan chili" sauce and tossed with peanuts, green onions, small bits of green and red bell pepper, carrots and squat red chiles (which, of course, you're supposed to weed out before you accidentally bite into one and cause yourself great oral distress). Its unusual, strong flavor had moderated some as we polished off the cold leftovers at a later meal. We certainly liked the side of thin, Chinese-style Hakka noodles, tossed with vegetables in a sesame-oil-based sauce ($5.50 a la carte). Other side options with Chef's Specials: rice or fried rice. (Kung Pao Shrimp, on the seafood menu, is $10.50. Also on the seafood menu, for some unexplained reason: "Asian Special BBQ Duck.")

The menu also includes three sushi rolls and vegetable, chicken and pork dumplings; a selection of salads; and a handful of vegetable entrees.

We ordered hot tea, and the server brought out a mug of hot water and an English Breakfast teabag; apparently that constitutes what the menu calls "black tea" ($1.99). If you want something a little more like what you'd get in a more traditional Chinese restaurant, apparently you'd order Flower Tea ($2.50), except the restaurant was out of it the night we tried.

Quality of service on our two visits was better when the manager/owner provided it, much more variable when it was a server; the one on the second visit seemed particularly clueless.

Weekend on 03/28/2019

Print Headline: RESTAURANT REVIEW + PHOTOS: Asian Bar & Grill in west Little Rock offers unusual flavors


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