This article appears in the January 2011 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
The Tea Station Chinese Bistro (9422 Norton Commons Blvd., Prospect), located in Norton Commons, is not a trendy spot where hordes line up for wok-seared wonders. Nor is it an Asian art gallery where the views trump the food. I’d label it a pleasant neighborhood restaurant that welcomes anyone of any age or status. I’d also call it a thoughtful place.
The modern Asian decor lacks clichéd and passé red and gold gilding or odd serpentine accents. The music — Asian as well, but fused with Western instrumentation and melodies — serves as a background touch, never something you have to scream over. Food is freshly prepared, served piping hot and elegantly rolled out on a cart to your table. But it was the purse baskets — those short wire and wicker perches presented by servers for holding purses conveniently below tabletops — that got me hung up on the theme of thoughtful. Just to see the female customers smile when offered one showed the gesture was truly appreciated.
Such details imply that owners Paul and Amy Yang aren’t consumed only with the production nature of their restaurant. It signals they’re asking themselves often what their guests want, and answering that question in ways that can turn an otherwise ordinary restaurant into a beloved institution.
In such an environment, it doesn’t bother me a whit that the menu isn’t daring, that most dishes draw on the familiar Chinese lexicon. But I can’t think of a comparable local Chinese restaurant that prepares its food so can’t-miss reliably while selling it at such reasonable prices. (Lunch entrées come with soup and rice for $5.95 to $6.45.) Sure, customers might leave without being truly dazzled, but it’s likely no one ever departs disappointed. I never have.
Offerings are ample (76 items at dinner, 28 at lunch) and starred spicy where applicable. (If you fancy a tingling tongue, go well above the “level 3 of 5” spiciness I requested.) What is unexpected and welcome are the 13 sushi offerings — a limited but fresh-tasting, artfully prepared lineup of standards. The lone out-of-the-box item was the Tea Station Roll ($11). This snappy combination of tempura shrimp, spicy crab, spicy mayo and a “special red sauce” delivered a flavorful balance of zing and peppery sting.
I tried a few of the other less-expected dishes, starting with the jalapeño fish ($13). Here, thumb-sized pieces of tilapia were lightly battered, fried and served with a medium brown sauce flecked with sliced scallions and jalapeños. While I’m not a pepper heat nut, I did wish the dish finished higher on the Scoville scale. Even so, the pepper slices I found in the sauce were vibrantly fresh and made the dish stand out.
A real surprise was the salmon fried rice ($10), whose name didn’t exactly draw me in. But when a normally indecisive tablemate chose it and, after one bite, became protective of her prize, I had to taste what the fuss was about. Turned out it was an addictive combination that left me admiring Yang’s creativity in mixing a musty Alaskan fish with a Chinese staple. The twice-cooked pork ($8) spurred similar devotion during another meal. Nothing fancy at all, yet the blend of tender pork strips wok-seared with cabbage in a spicy bean sauce was brightly flavored, subtly fiery and gone too quickly.
The orange beef ($11) was lightly breaded, seared firm and tossed in a deep brown sauce with orange peels; its chewiness drew my only real quibble in the course of four visits. The pan-fried noodles ($11), however, more than made up for that minor flaw. A firmly fried disc of hakka noodles was topped with a simple brown sauce and joined by wok-seared beef, chicken, shrimp and baby corn. Take heed, parents: My picky 12-year-old not only loved it, but I sensed some mild resentment when his mother and I forked out our shares.
As the restaurant’s name presages, tea figures prominently on the menu. From a list including green, jasmine and oolong selections, I chose a pot of aromatic and delicate rose tea ($1.75). Served hot and soothing, it made me wish for a good novel and a cozy afghan.
The bistro also serves 18 types of bubble tea, a light and chilly elixir studded with tender tapioca pearls for chewing. My choice of taro milk ($4) came with a large-diameter straw for vacuuming up those pearls. Since telling my kiddo about this playful beverage, he has consistently nagged me to take him back for a bubble tea of his own. Trust me, that will happen sooner rather than later, for I don’t need any excuses to return to the Tea Station.
Photo: John Nation