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New Asian Dining Picks

Pacific Rim: Bao 111's spice-rimmed house cocktail. (Photo by Kenneth Chen)

Bao 111
111 Avenue C

Don’t let the gangly young models and their scruffy escorts deter you. Even these diet-dazed divas can’t resist what emerges from chef Michael Huynh’s Vietnamese kitchen: Exceedingly fresh, Hulk-size summer rolls ($7). Plump chicken wings that come with a Scotch-bonnet dipping sauce that elicits a warning from the waiter ($7). And grilled short ribs skewered onto lemongrass stalks ($11)—a highbrow steak-on-a-stick that may make you wonder whether Jean-Georges has a moonlighting gig. Fusiony entrées creep past the $20 barrier, but the noodle and “traditional style” portions of the menu fall well beneath the mark (try the sputtering ironpot chicken, $14). And save room for sublime desserts like black-sticky-rice pudding, just like the models do.

Khao Homm
39-28 61st Street, Woodside

Off-the-menu orders stymie some kitchens, but not this ultra-accommodating, multitalented Thai one. We asked for deep-fried-catfish salad, and the chef complied, topping shredded lettuce with gossamer-crisp fish, julienned papaya, roasted cashews, and a sweet-and-sour dressing we wanted to lap up. Instead, we turned our attention to the exquisitely curried chu chee salmon ($12) and pad kee mao ($6), seductively soft broad noodles permeated with chili and basil. It’s not only the food and gracious service that have earned this yearling a loyal Thai clientele—the karaoke machine packs ’em in, too.

Kuma Inn
113 Ludlow Street

New York–Born King Phojanakong’s “Asian tapas” menu seamlessly fuses the cooking of his Filipino mother and his Thai father with a bunch of tricks he learned under the tutelage of David Bouley and Daniel Boulud, among others. Mom and Pop’s influence shows in wonderful dishes like chicken adobo, Chinese sausage with Thai chili sauce, and simple garlic-fried rice. The novel Japanese-Austrian fusion of pan-fried pork tonkatsu sliced into delicate strips and layered over a watercress salad, on the other hand, owes its rich (and decidedly un-Japaneselike) butteriness to the chef’s schnitzel days at Danube. This is beautifully presented, exceptionally fresh, highly imaginative food at bargain-basement prices (from $2.50 to $10). A great sake list and the cool second-floor hideaway location make it a real find.

140 West Houston Street

A fountain gurgles in the back room, the banquettes are sexily backlit, and a hip clientele convenes in the lounge to sip exotic neon cocktails. Despite all that, the kitchen is serious, the menu exciting, and the chef imported straight from Shanghai. Lozoo rebels against aesthetic and culinary stereotypes alike: The look is more Soho than Chinatown, and the kitchen bravely eschews soup dumplings for less familiar aspects of refined Shanghai cuisine. Deep-fried escargot are sheathed in crispy tofu skin ($8); lettuce leaves make crunchy wrappers for delicate minced bass, pine nuts, and pomelo ($8); and spears of garlicky eggplant and molded sticky rice are almost indistinguishable until the first surprising bite ($15).

Mooncake Foods
28 Watts Street

Two couples joined by marriage—plus a restless mother-in-law who can’t stay out of the kitchen—give this comfy Pan-Asian canteen a conspicuous family feel. With its retro-diner décor, off-the-beaten-track address, and $4–$8 price range, it’s a Soho anomaly where everything is made with care and served with a welcoming smile. It’s also a wellspring of savory sandwiches, salads, and snacks like springy wontons stuffed with snow-pea greens, sweetly spiced chicken wings, and delicate, exceedingly fresh jícama-stuffed spring rolls.

O Mai
158 Ninth Avenue, near 19th Street

The sleek successor to Nam in Tribeca shares its precursor’s understatedly stylish aesthetic, not to mention most of its menu. It’s possible to find cheaper Vietnamese food, but none sparked with such consistently fresh, clean flavors and served in such casually chic environs. We seldom pass up the lemongrass-crusted tofu ($4), but the diced monkfish and peanuts on a rice cracker ($8) and the five-spiced baby back ribs ($8) are both eminently worthwhile. The skill of the kitchen is most apparent in the selection of rolls, noticeably lighter and more delicate than most of the rice-paper-wrapped competition.

Rice Avenue
72-19 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights

A funny thing happened when we visited this anomalously slick Thai joint in Jackson Heights, a distant (but recognizably related) cousin of Manhattan’s Spice chainlet. When the solicitous waiter asked how we wanted our food, we said “spicy,” with the usual resigned skepticism, and we got spicy: tear-duct-activatingly, nose-clearingly, cheek-flushingly spicy. But tingly lips didn’t stop us from plowing through pungent pork larb ($6), fiery green-curry fried rice ($6), and deliciously crisp, fatty duck in basil sauce ($12). Hurts so good, indeed.

Sichuan Dynasty
135-32 40th Road, Flushing

The gap in our Sichuan-craving appetite left by the recent closing of Spicy & Tasty has been handily filled by this equally fiery six-month-old Sichuan kitchen, where the $16.95 “family dinner” buys three choices from a 59-item menu—plenty for two to share, with leftovers. Pick and choose from the familiar (an estimable kung pao chicken) and the obscure (kidney with sesame oil), and splurge on the à la carte double-cooked pork ($9.95). And the setting, with its glossy Marimekko-ish tabletops, comfortable booths, and mezzanine bar stocked with California wines, is a natty notch above the profuse competition.

Taste Good II
53 Bayard Street

The last time we visited Taste Good, the Malaysian restaurant in Elmhurst, we left disappointed, thinking that perhaps they should change the name to something less ambitious, like Taste Okay. Maybe it was an off night for the kitchen or our taste buds, because with the opening of a new Chinatown branch, that name seems charmingly inadequate. If the owners knew how rare it is to find food this vibrantly full-flavored—as exemplified in dishes like tender beef rendang (get it with springy noodles and a side of greens, $4.95), a sizzling platter of ethereally light and fluffy house-made tofu with its delectable ground-pork-and-vegetable gravy ($7.99), and roti telur, a delicate egg-filled Indian pancake to dip in lip-smacking curry ($3.25)—they’d come up with a boastful new name, raise the prices, and open a Park Avenue South location.

Flip For It: You're in charge of dinner at 36 Bar and Barbecue. (Photo by Kenneth Chen)

36 Bar and Barbecue
5 West 36th Street

After dining at this modern, industrial-chic Korean barbecue house, you’ll emerge smelling as pungently smoky as your dinner. Considering the caliber of black-Angus beef and topnotch seafood that you grill on copper screens over built-in table charcoal pits ($17–$19), that’s not necessarily a bad thing (unless you’re dating a vegetarian). A contemporary, accessible alternative to the sometimes insular traditional Korean restaurants that populate this neighborhood, 36 is aggressively helpful: Servers mind your bulgogi, lest the sweetly savory marinated beef start to burn, and demonstrate proper sauce-slathering and lettuce-leaf-wrapping technique. Other attractions: nouvelle appetizers like eel tortilla pizza ($9) and a soju bar upstairs.