Ling & Louie’s Asian Bar and Grill

3801 Old Seward Highway (North end of the University Center), Anchorage, 338-5464. 

It’s bad form to read restaurant reviews before you go to a restaurant to review it. But I couldn’t resist. Ling & Louie’s earned some bad ink and a fair amount of good ink. The beef that kept rising to the top was the lousy service. So I walked in prepared to get cranky and wait. That foul mood never materialized, the service was always prompt, friendly and helpful and the food was good, too.

They offer Asian-inspired cuisine with a contemporary American twist or what some may call Asian Fusion or whatever name you want to apply. The menu is big, but manageable with rich offerings and generous servings. The chefs pay attention to presentation as each dish is well composed and pretty to look at. Ling & Louie’s is a small chain originating in Arizona, and now you can find them in Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. Prices are mid-level to a little spendy with no dish costing more than $20.

The atmosphere is a contrast to the stores and bright hallways of the University Center. When you enter you can let loose an aaahhh and surrender to the calm. A large water feature separates the bar from the dining area. High, black ceiling and indirect lighting illuminate a choice of booth or table. Sitting at the windows looking out on the mall was distracting for me, but if you’re into people watching that’s where you want to be.

The bar has a few flat screen TVs bolted to the wall, but thankfully they kept them out of the dining room. This is a good stop for date night after a movie or a walk at the nearby Cuddy Family Midtown Park. Quotes painted in bold lettering occupy the tops of the walls, sort of fun but shy of trying too hard. The restaurant has a sense of humor but when it comes to the food it’s serious business.

On the Asian side of the menu, coconut milk and curry play a central role. The tom kha gai (4.95) in the appetizer section is a good example of a sweet, spicy Thai soup made with coconut milk, lemon grass, fresh mushrooms, and chicken perked up with fresh cilantro. When January rolls around, I’m going to come here for that soup with its little jolt of chili to defrost my chilled bones.

My main course of Ling’s Seafood Hot Pot ($18.95) brings curry along with the coconut milk. The curry provides the kick and the coconut milk smoothes the edges. The presentation is a small spectacle with mussels perched around the edges of a roomy simple white oval bowl, a mound of jasmine rice peaking out from the broth. This is another smooth, sweet, savory dish bringing a mellow heat to the back of your throat.

A couple of the appetizers were a good start. The chicken lettuce wraps ($9.95), savory, salty and crunchy with a soy background. It’s an intimate way to share an appetizer as you wrap your chicken in crisp lettuce leaves. Calamari ($9.25) is always a telling appetizer for me, and Ling’s served lightly breaded tender baby squid and larger rings of squid.

The aioli and chili sauce drizzled over the top bumped it up from a standard tartar sauce. The squid could have spent about 30 seconds more in the fryer because the breading was a little doughy, but not doughy enough to keep us from cleaning the plate. Our server recommended the black orchid ahi tuna ($11.25), a simple dish of blackened sashimi–grade ahi, slaw and spicy soy mustard.

My honey walnut chicken ($13.95) featured lightly breaded crispy chicken on top of brown rice (you can choose from jasmine, brown or fried rice), but it was the giant fresh sliced mushrooms with their earthy aroma that I dug into. The chicken wasn’t seasoned and tasted bland. Candied walnuts contrasted with the hint of spice and add the crunch.  Not my favorite dish.

My sister-in-law really liked her Ahi Tuna Salad ($13.95). It featured seared sesame-crusted sashimi-grade ahi served with mixed greens, red bell peppers, and cilantro. The miso-ginger vinaigrette was the touch that made the ahi so good for her.  Everything was fresh and it’s a healthy choice and a big enough serving to get you from lunch to dinner.

I liked the “9.95 Chop Chop Lunch Special” a choice of nine entrées that can get you in and out of the restaurant in short order (Ginger, downtown has a similar deal). It includes mostly chicken dishes like firecracker chicken, “kun pow” beef, orange peel chicken and pad thai. If you’re on a tight schedule, this might be the solution to getting in and back to work on time.

I stayed on the Asian side of the menu, but you can visit the Americanized Asian side. The meatloaf sliders ($12.50) with shoestring onions, tomato and spicy aioli looked interesting, as did the Korean sizzling salmon ($18.95. Most come with some sort of ginger, soy, garlic or sesame sauce.

We asked our server about some choices and I liked how she asked us a few questions about our likes and what we were in the mood for before she steered us toward her favorites and pointed out the most popular dishes the restaurants serves.

So far it’s only beer, wine or saki at the bar. I liked the non-alcoholic Arnold Palmer ($2.95). I challenged the server to say it fast three times and she humored me both times I asked. The drink is equal amounts of limeade and iced tea. They also serve pomegranate tea chiller and strawberry limeade for the same price. Plus they serve the usual soft drinks.

Maybe the bad service rap came early when the restaurant opened in September. Now the kitchen staff has their feet beneath them and they weeded out the surly wait staff. I’d go back if only to share with my wife Ling’s seafood hot pot and the tom kha gai. Plan ahead because Ling & Louie’s only takes reservations for parties of eight or more. We walked in on a Friday and the wait was too long with our empty stomachs.

Originally published May 14, 2012

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