The colorful menu at the pan-Asian eatery tucked behind the grocery aisles at King Market had me at quail eggs. Then it damn near lost me again at fish stomach. But after exploring the roster of fresh flavors and intriguing ingredients — most notably a stew of doll-sized hard-boiled eggs and gelatinous straps of aquatic guts — I'd been won over to just about everything King Market had to offer.
And here's the advantage of dining in a hybrid restaurant-market such as owner Sunnee Saysack's Antioch Pike enterprise: When you stumble across something you crave on the menu — such as the compact cuteness of quail eggs — you can pop over to the refrigerator case and gather some to take home.
A stroll through the grocery aisles of Saysack's store, which the staff playfully dubs "The Asian Super Walmart," gives good indication of the fare at the cafe, which is run by Saysack's charming daughter, Nina. Fluffy bundles of mint, cilantro and kaffir lime leaf make their way into steaming bowls of soup. Shaved coconut shells serve as the vessels for coconut water. Fresh Thai eggplant resembling small striped heirloom tomatoes add crisp texture to red curry. And, of course, quail eggs (available fresh, canned and pickled) bob in velvety stew alongside fish stomach shaped like long, soggy Bugles. (Also known as maw, the stomach is more precisely a gas bladder that controls a fish's buoyancy.)
It's worth noting that there is a downside to such transparency of ingredients. For example, seeing the box of frozen New Zealand Greenshell mussels can take a little romance out of the cafe's mussels on the half-shell with red and green bell peppers and sweet-and-salty oyster sauce, particularly if you'd prefer to think your bivalves were clicking with life only seconds before they succumbed to the wok. But for the most part, the visibility of ingredients has an appetizing, not to mention educational, effect.
The menu reads like the answers to a New York Times crossword puzzle or a cutthroat game of Scrabble, with a monosyllabic repertoire featuring pho, larb and cà.
We started with beverages including coconut water (served in the shell, with a straw), fresh sugar cane juice, Thai tea with cream, and a sweet iced tea made with chai and garnished with a lime wedge.
We enjoyed the pho, a large bowl of rice noodles and chicken in beef broth, which arrived with a generous plate of add-ins, including bean sprouts, mint, jalapeños, basil and lime. While strolling through the grocery aisles, we had a fleeting hope that we had discovered the secret to the pho's success, in a sachet of star anise, cinnamon and other spices. But Nina said she doesn't use the pho flavor packet and went on to describe a laborious overnight preparation of beef stock that no doubt lends to the soup's complex layering of flavors.
For diners who enjoy the do-it-yourself character of lettuce wraps, King Market offers two versions of the handheld dish, with distinct flavor profiles. Larb arrives as a cool salad of stir-fried sliced beef tossed with chili, cilantro, scallions and whole mint leaves, to be wrapped in ruffly lettuce with cucumber slices and Thai green peppers. (If you find yourself puzzling over a foreign spongy texture among the tangled beef strips, no, that's not gristle. It's cow stomach.)
A less piquant dish, nam neaung, arrives on a dramatic platter with a central meat (typically pork sausage) ringed by a pretty assortment of finely chopped ingredients, such as crisp green mango, ginger, bean sprouts, starchy green banana, vermicelli and pickled onions. A side plate overflows with lettuce fronds, cilantro sprigs and sheets of rice wrapper.
The red curry — a gorgeous medley of peppers, mushroom, bamboo shoots, herbs and white chicken meat in a creamy bath of coconut milk and broth infused with warm spice and hints of citrus — was not as spicy as the menu had led us to believe. If you like your food on the fiery side, you might ask the server to turn it up a notch.
After a recent discouraging bout with watery fried frog legs at another eatery, we were impressed by the King Market version, featuring crisp, non-greasy batter cloaking rich tender meat. Meanwhile, if you're really into frog, you can pick up legs as well as whole amphibians in the freezer section. The latter are near the snakehead fish and the silky chickens.
Such unusual ingredients bring us back to the subject of fish maw soup, with all its quail eggs and air bladders. "It's a little slimy," Nina says frankly, referring to the rubbery wet strands of sliced fish parts winding throughout the large bowl. Slimy, yes, but also fabulous. The silky smooth and slightly thickened broth is strewn with pulled chicken, dark threads of julienned mushrooms, finely minced garlic, bamboo strips and firm quail eggs, which burst like grape tomatoes. To dub such a delicacy "fish stomach soup" is to undersell its richly textured and deeply flavored medley of earth, sea and sky. In fact, after one spoonful of this sultry elixir, you might just find yourself daydreaming about how to make it yourself. If so, you're going to need to swing by Aisle 5 for the eggs and make a sweep of the rear shelves for the puffed fish snacks. They look kind of like pork rinds. Of course, you can get those at King Market, too.
King Market Cafe serves lunch and dinner until 7 p.m. daily.
Well, this is something I wish I'd known a couple of weeks ago. :D
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