Soi Asian Bistro: fresh, sunny, and affordable
Those tall, glossy glass business and condo towers that cut into the downtown Miami sky, emblematic of the soaring times of not so long ago hover over an amalgamation of prosaic grey streets that never saw the sunshine of those golden days. Some sassy new shops and eateries, however, have been popping up of late – like flowers poking through the charred mulch of a forest fire. Soi Asian Bistro, a stone's throw from the Miami Dade College's Wolfson campus, is the newest bright spot to sprout.
This spry little 30-seater is a spin-off of Mr. Yum on Calle Ocho. Wasabi-colored velour banquettes bookend the narrow room; one white wall is adorned with a lengthy, rectangular stretch of segmented mirror, and the other by a pop art portrait of a lipsticked female. The most interesting decorative aspect of the minimalist space is a ceiling covered by hundreds of white paper bags arranged neatly in rows and hanging open-end-down (lighted from behind). The other focal point is an open kitchen that starts at the rear-left portion of the room. Soi Asian Bistro is altogether a clean, modern, airy space; it's hard to believe this was formerly the dark, almost dingy Thai Churros.
The cuisine here is informed by Japan (sushi, sashimi, edamame); Thailand (tom yum goong and tom ka kai soups, curries, noodles, stir-fries); Peru (ceviches, tiraditos); and Chinese-American restaurant menus (as in there are 60-plus items to choose from, a third sushi-related rolls and such). There are more options to start off a meal here than places to buy chopsticks in China.
Going from soup to nuts: Tom yum goong is a light, tart lemon grass broth underlined with lime juice and bearing two crisp jumbo shrimp that barely fit in the bowl (already squeezed with scallions and quartered mushrooms just-cooked in the hot liquid). Miso soup is included with the lunch deal (Thai $9.95, Japanese $10.95), but not with the more expensive dinners ($13.95 to $15.95).
The cold appetizer selections are seafood-based: tuna tataki, octopus in vinegar, conch in spicy sauce, and a sushi/sashimi sampler. We tried the last, three pretty thick slices each of salmon, tuna, and pearly white tuna, which was the most luscious of the trio ($13.95). A dozen or so sushi rolls ($7.95 to $13.95) comprise a sort of collection of American diners' best hits: California, tuna, salmon, shrimp tempura, and soft-shell crab. And then there's a Peruvian-inspired Soi Inca roll consisting of ceviche-marinated fish and fried cassava wrapped with cilantro rice and capped with a huancaina sauce light on aji amarillo peppers.
Perhaps a diner would be better off approaching Peru head-on by ordering ceviche de mariscos, a marinated medley of thinly sliced yellowtail, shrimp, and conch shimmering with cilantro and lime. Ours included warm, colossal choclo kernels on the side; the advertised sweet potato, a basic to this dish, was missing. Yellowtail tiradito huancaina possessed a similar flavor profile — thinly sliced fish was accompanied by choclos and bathed in the same marinade — one that watered down the yellow huancaina sauce on top so it contributed only dazzling color.
A quintet of Thai-style salads touches most taste bases — there's beef, duck, seafood, spicy tuna, and a strange-sounding toss of apple, pineapple, orange, and strawberries in a creamy sauce topped with grilled chicken (soi vey!). Still searching for a starter? The five hot appetizer options are steamed edamame, fried calamari, a vegetable spring roll, gyoza, and popcorn shrimp. The last brought a dozen or so pieces of tempura-coated crustaceans bathed in a mildly piquant, mayonnaise-based yuzu sauce. The fried gyoza (also available steamed) were textbook dumplings filled with minced, subtly seasoned pork.
Thai noodles, curries, and fried rice variations take over the entrée page. Most are based on a choice of shrimp, chicken, or beef. Chicken with ginger sauce was clean and fresh, the pounded breast meat tossed with onions, almost-raw bell peppers, mushrooms, and scallions; there wasn't much ginger flavor, though. Pad Thai with thinly sliced pork was the standard peanut, rice noodle, egg, and sprout rendition — but as happens too often in restaurants, the sauce leaned too heavily toward sweet. Things got sweeter still with pad prew noodles sauteed with pineapple, cucumbers, and peppers in a sweet (yet tangy) tomato sauce.
The highlight of our visits was the beef massaman curry, a peerlessly rich preparation that included meltingly soft meat melding with cashews and tender lumps of potato in a luscious coconut-based curry sauce redolent of cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. It came with a wedge of ripe avocado fanned across the top, and a bowl of steamed white rice on the side.
An order of "drunken" fried rice was supposed to tag along as well, but our waiter forgot to pass word to the kitchen (odd because we were the only diners in the restaurant). We had to order the fried rice again after the other entrées arrived without it. Although the dish is listed as a vegetarian mix of peppers, onions, mushrooms, scrambled egg, and basil, we were asked for our preference of protein — chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp. "Straight-up and meatless would be fine," we replied, yet were brought a version with lots of chicken. We didn't say anything, as we hadn't requested it for vegetarian purposes, and it turned out to be a very fresh and flavorful version.
The amateurish and under-managed side of Soi Asian Bistro's service isn't as evident during the day because of the bustle of lunchtime crowds that keeps staff humming along. But on slow evenings, there is a lethargy among waiters and a curious lack of attention. Everyone was friendly enough, and service sufficed overall, but we didn't feel as though anybody cared whether we were there or not. Music was consistently too loud and clubby; the room was kept ridiculously cold. At one point, a person walked off the street and into the place, headed to our table, and hit us up for change. Nobody from the restaurant asked him to leave.
Had they bribed him to leave with a free bar beverage, street guy would likely have been disappointed with the selection: There are only two beers (Kirin and Sapporo), three red wines, and three white wines ($24 to $32; glasses $7 and $8).
The nuts — remember, the review is from soup to, well, peanuts — were sprinkled on top of a cup of condensed milk alongside cleanly fried Thai donuts (really little round donut holes). That dessert hit the spot — good thing, too, as it was the only one available. You might catch mochi ice cream or chocolate cake on other nights, if you're lucky. But even with this newcomer's quirks, downtowners are lucky to have Soi Asian Bistro sauce up the neighborhood with fresh, sunny, and affordable fare.
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