Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
We've always been a touch skeptical about so-called fusion cuisine, which to our minds has become a catch-all phrase that makes it far too easy for restaurants to slap random ingredients on a plate and act like anybody who doesn't think it's great is just too terminally un-hip to recognize genius when it's served to them. Still, at its best, fusion cuisine can be an interesting melding of tastes and techniques from different cultures; at its worst, it's Guy Fieri screaming catchphrases while trying to mix barbecue with sushi. And then there's Sullivan's Diner, where Dang Sullivan and Pam Beaty take the idea of fusion cuisine and stand it directly on its head in the best way possible.
Sullivan's bills itself as "homestyle cooking with a taste of Thai," and we can't think of a better way to describe a place that has fried okra and chicken fried steak on the same menu as fried rice and chicken Pad Thai. The diverse menu was a little overwhelming on our first visit, so we decided to do the sensible thing and order one American dish alongside one Thai dish and see if the kitchen could pull off such varied dishes at the same time. To that end, we started with the chicken fried steak ($9.95), a generous portion of gravy-smothered beef with mashed potatoes and fried okra on the side. The steak was fork-tender with a breading that remained firm and crisp even under all that gravy. The mashed potatoes were creamy, if a tad dense, and covered with the same gravy that came with the steak — so much gravy that we wished we had perhaps ordered the potatoes without. The okra was of the pre-breaded and frozen kind, but it was so fresh and hot from the fryer that we didn't mind at all.
Our dish from the Thai side of the menu was the Chicken Fried Rice Platter ($6.95), a mountain of rice loaded with vegetables and savory pieces of chicken and served with two of Momma's Meat Rolls ($6.25 for two) on the side. We'd never heard of a "meat roll" before, and our question about them drew a chuckle from the man behind the counter who told us that they were like spring rolls "but with a lot more meat." The meat in question turned out to be a very flavorful pork mixture that was complemented perfectly by the homemade sweet-and-sour sauce served to the side. The rice itself was firm with a good texture that lacked any of the greasiness so common to dishes of this sort, and the chicken was well distributed throughout.
On our second trip, we decided to take the same approach of getting a dish from each side of the menu, ordering the fried catfish dinner ($10.95) and the pork pad thai noodles ($10.95). The catfish platter came with four plump and succulent catfish fillets, hush puppies, cole slaw and some more of that tasty okra. The fish itself was crisply fried without being dry, and the hush puppies had a nice seasoned flavor and small chunks of onion fried right in, something we've always felt was necessary for a good hushpuppy. The slaw was nothing special, bland and watery, but on a plate this packed with things to eat we didn't feel slighted at all. It wasn't the most impressive catfish platter we've ever eaten, but it was well-cooked and fresh-tasting.
The Pad Thai Noodles, on the other hand, were a knockout. We marveled at the complex flavor and texture of the dish — sweet, spicy and savory all at the same time as tender noodles came together with crisp bean shoots, crunchy peanuts, and the bittersweet taste of scallions. We ordered our noodles on the hot side, and by the end of a few bites we were sweating a bit from the subtle spice of chili oil, which we tempered with bites of the fresh tomato and cucumber that were served to the side. At most places, we tend to pick rice dishes over noodle dishes as a rule, but these noodles from Sullivan's were the best thing we tried on either visit, and we found ourselves sneaking bites even after we had already decided we were finished.