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Beyond bamboo

An Asian restaurant crawl

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Last week, I turned 30. In order to dull the pain, a few of my friends and I went to CAFE ZEN (406 Blackwell St., Durham 680-8888), the new Japanese restaurant in the American Tobacco Campus, where we sat at the big table, drank all the cold sake they had in the house, and sang karaoke. The next morning, I was not feeling too well. I was queasy, I had a headache, and I couldn't get "Total Eclipse of the Heart" out of my head. I craved food that would settle my stomach and my soul.

I decided to take a trip over to RTP to see what I could find in the way of Asian food. I knew that the strip malls surrounding RTP hold some of the area's widest variety of authentic Asian restaurants, but it had been a while since I checked them out. Being a huge fan of pho, the Vietnamese beef and noodle soup (especially as a hangover cure), I sought out 9N9, a recent arrival to the RTP scene (2945-102 S. Miami Blvd., Durham 544-4496). Located in an especially desolate strip on Miami Boulevard, the restaurant specializes in pho.

That morning I was tempted by the bo kho, a thick beef and noodle stew that called to me from the specials board. The stew was good—not as hearty as other versions I've had, but still delicious. The iced coffee was fantastic. The jury is still out on the avocado shake we ordered. It wasn't bad, but I'm not sure I would call it good either. But the value for money deal of the year here is the sandwiches. For $2, you get a baguette with meat, cilantro and sliced jalapenos. It is the perfect spicy and juicy snack. I have heard that DALAT, a Vietnamese restaurant in Raleigh (2109 Avent Ferry Road, Mission Valley Shopping Center, Raleigh 832-7449), also has a small sandwich shop attached. I haven't had a chance to check it out yet, but it is at the top of my priority list.

After 9N9, we drove around to see what else we could find. Up on N.C. 54, I popped in to SPICE AND CURRY, the popular Indian restaurant with a market attached (2105 N.C. 54 East, Durham 544-7555). The menu looked good, and I resolved to come back some time when I hadn't just eaten beef stew and pork sandwiches. But then, a few doors down, I saw something that made me hungry again: CHOSUN OK KOREAN BBQ (2105 N.C. 54 East, Durham 806-1213). The sign was in English, but everything else—from the signs on the window to the sign just inside the door (perhaps a directive about waiting to be seated?)—were in Korean.

There are a couple of Korean restaurants in Cary, but apart from that I believe this to be the only other Korean in the area. (There are a few Chinese and Japanese restaurants that have Korean dishes on the menu.) And this may be by far the most authentic. The menu is extensive and full of bizarre-sounding dishes like spicy roe stew and dishes made with ox feet. There is also a part of the menu dedicated to meals for two that are cooked at the table, I'm assuming over a Korean barbecue.

I went for the kim chee soup, and I was not disappointed. The soup came out bubbling vigorously in the bowl and with four small pickled salads, traditional with any Korean meal. The broth was so spicy that it was almost too much for me, and I pride myself on my love of heat (I put Vietnamese chili sauce on my mac and cheese). But it was worth it for the amazing depth of flavor, not to mention the absolutely delicious slices of pork belly floating in the bottom. I left Chosun Ok happy and full, with the excitement of having discovered something new and the hangover almost completely burned out of my belly.

The next day, I found myself lusting for more spicy broth, and I decided to follow up on a tip to try PHO CALI HOUSE OF NOODLES in Raleigh (3310 Capital Blvd., Starmount Shopping Center, Raleigh 862-8900). I had heard from some connoisseurs that this was the best and most authentic Vietnamese food in the Triangle. I was promised that the spicy chicken with lemongrass over rice was "so good it will make you cry." I was too busy scarfing it down to cry, but just thinking about it is an emotional experience. Layers of bold flavor coat the chicken with crunchy, spicy, citrusy goodness. Other highlights at Pho Cali are the pho—which I would say is the best I've had in the area—and the grilled meat with vermicelli.

Unfortunately, after my visit to Pho Cali, life took hold and my quest for delicious and authentic Asian food was put on the back burner for the time being. But I was heartened by the discoveries I made. A true test of an area's culinary standing must be the abundance of good authentic ethnic food. We are certainly getting there, with an ever-growing population of Mexican, Salvadoran, Vietnamese, Indian, Ethiopian, Thai and Korean places. Now bring on the Burmese, German and Afghani restaurants, and I'll be content.

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