As much as I love the first cold snap of fall, when I can pull out a favored soup or stew recipe, I get almost giddy with the arrival of summer. I long for the grill, for early morning visits to the Doherty High School farmers' market, for afternoons spent planning how to prepare my fresh finds that night.
When we entered Fine Asian Cuisine, a strip-mall Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant near the busy Garden of the Gods Road and Centennial Boulevard intersection, the dated arches and curved-back chairs didn't scream sunshine. But our first order, the grilled shrimp and pork appetizer ($11.45)? This was summer on a plate.
The artfully prepared platter arrived with crisp lettuce, cucumber and bean sprouts, fragrant cilantro and mint, with a pop of color from some shredded, marinated carrots. Resting on a fluffy bed of rice noodles were strips of perfectly grilled, sweet marinated pork and lemongrass-scented shrimp.
Dry, flat rounds of rice paper and a bowl of steaming water accompanied the dish. Owner Corazon Samuels smiled and asked if I knew what to do no worries, I did. Taking the delicate sheets, I slowly spun them through the water, softening them, and began assembling my idea of the perfect summer roll. Fresh herbs, marinated meats and crunch from the vegetables combined wonderfully. And sweet and rich hoisin sauce and Sriracha hot chili sauce made it easy to customize.
We found no fault with any of the Vietnamese dishes. The grilled pork chop and chicken rice combo ($7.50) had smoky, flavorful grill marks, and the large chop was juicy. My grilled beef bun, or noodle bowl, ($7.45) refreshed with the usual rice noodles and vegetable accompaniments sprinkled with chopped peanuts. Infused with a lemongrass marinade, the tender beef was brightened by the sweetened vinaigrette house sauce. The sauce also complemented the deliciously crispy Vietnamese egg rolls ($6) stuffed with pork, herbs and rice noodles. Light, fresh and flavorful how I want to eat when the temperature starts to rise.
On the other hand, Fine Asian's Chinese dishes earned a split decision. That portion of the menu arrived only recently, after Corazon and her husband Albert Samuels III bought the restaurant from Patrick Truong.
The sesame chicken ($7.95), super-fried and coated in a sugary, caramelized glaze, initially scorched the tongue. Upon cooling, the chicken hardened into unappetizing, candied nuggets. Easily scoring against its Chinese competition, the Mongolian beef ($7.95) shone with an abundance of mildly spicy slivers of tender meat and yellow and green onions.
As for the service, the staff maintained a friendly warmth on both visits. One cool feature, which the Samuelses added in hope of capturing a larger piece of the north-end lunch crowd: a type of "no-wait" ordering style for in-house dining. Take a menu and call in your order, then simply tell them your expected time of arrival for lunch. It'll be ready when you arrive.
Perhaps next on the agenda, according to Corazon: a liquor license. Until then, the eats remain a deserving solo attraction.