There are many signs of a good restaurant — the loosening of the belt, the phrase “I’m stuffed,” silence at a table full of people concentrating on the flavors of their meals — but my favorite is when you’re reading the menu at the end of your meal to plan the next one. That’s what I found myself doing during a recent visit to AmerAsia.
The décor at AmerAsia isn’t a lot to look at, but that really doesn’t matter when every fiber of your being is enjoying the plate at hand. The small dining room has several booths, bar stools and a large table in the middle. On the quiet Sunday night we visited we chose the back booth — or, as Johnny Chu said, “the VIP booth.” Gracious and funny, Johnny is the co-owner, and he and the staff were recovering from a rather raucous Saturday night that seemed to be the effect of a recent listing in CityBeat’s Best Of Cincinnati issue for “Best Makeover.”
According to Johnny, the only thing that remains the same at AmerAsia is the name. While he runs the front of the house, helping servers, running deliveries and acting as host, his father Richard is in the back of the house working his magic in the kitchen. Richard, Johnny said, has cooked since he was 9 and worked in a traditional Chinese noodle shop. At the shop, he trained under a chef who was once the apprentice of the chef of the last Emperor of China. Not surprisingly, one of Mr. Chu’s specialties is noodles along with tofu and vegetarian dishes. His motto: “Do not take short cuts and do everything with passion and love.”
This passion comes through in everything from the way Johnny talks about the business to the preparation of each dish. The dishes in the Master Chef category of the dinner menu are those you are less likely to find on traditional Chinese restaurant menus. Johnny warned us that they require extra time (5 to 10 minutes) as we asked about various items.
Along with Master Chef dishes, AmerAsia offers the more traditional selections in the Cooking 101 menu category such as Lomein ($7.50), General’s Chicken ($7.95) and appetizers and soups. We started with Pot Stickers (five for $4) and a steaming bowl of velvety Egg Drop Soup ($2). The soup was something any Jewish grandmother would give a nod of approval and would do some seriously healing if you had a cold. The broth was thick, not too salty and hit just the right spot. The pot stickers were excellent, too. They were served with a garlicky soy dipping sauce, were filled with ground pork and a variety of minced vegetables.
We weren’t in any hurry so we ordered two dishes from the Master Chef category: Ginger Chicken ($12) and Beef Stew Noodle Soup ($7.50). As we placed the order, my husband asked Johnny if they had chopsticks. With a deadpan face Johnny explained, “No sir, I’m sorry. We are a Chinese restaurant; we don’t have chopsticks.” It took a couple of seconds for the joke to sink in. Johnny, in the meantime, retrieved the chopsticks and an ice bucket for the bottle of wine we brought (AmerAsia is still working on their liquor license).
The build up for our dinner choices didn’t disappoint us. Both items were generous portions and attractively presented. My husband’s chicken was fragrant with the underrated spice: The chicken was not only cooked in a ginger sauce but also topped with razor-thin slices of raw ginger and cilantro. My noodle stew was full of fat, delicious noodles, chunks of beef and fresh tomato and cilantro.
Because we wanted to compare some of the more typical dishes at AmerAsia to other local Chinese we’d eaten, we later went back for a carryout order and tried the Orange Chicken ($7.95), Moo Goo Gai Pan ($7.95) and Hot and Sour Soup ($2). Hot and Sour soup is the dish I judge a Chinese restaurant by, and Richard Chu’s certainly passes muster.
I typically avoid Orange Chicken, which consists of chopped, battered and fried chicken pieces coated in a spicy sweet orange-flavored chili sauce, but AmerAsia’s sauce balances garlic against the sweetness so that I even liked their version of this dish! The Moo Go Gai Pan, unlike most places, has a brown sauce and the vegetables included fresh tomato, zucchini and yellow squash as well as snow peas.
As I wound up my follow-up call with Johnny I realize he solved my quandary that began this review: He insisted that on my next visit I try the new vegetarian Steamed Dumplings ($4), adding, “They are our secret weapon!”
Go: 521 Madison Ave., Covington
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday- Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday; 4- 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 4-9:30 p.m. Sunday (Look for later night hours in the future)
Entrée Prices: $6.50-$12
Payment: All major
Red Meat Alternatives: Vegetarian and chicken choices
Accessibility: Fully accessible