Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
When a green awning advertising "Mike's Vietnamese" went up outside a long-vacant restaurant on Asher Avenue last winter, we could barely contain our excitement. Unfortunately, the awning was something of a tease, as we passed by week after week with no sign that the place was ever going to open. Just when we thought the new place was just a dream, Mike's finally opened its doors, promising authentic Vietnamese cuisine in a part of town that's becoming known for its Asian food. After dining at Mike's, we came away feeling like the initial tease and promise of that green awning still hadn't quite been fulfilled, because even though there was nothing overtly wrong with Mike's Cafe, there wasn't much about the menu that stood out, either.
The menu at Mike's is an extensive one with dishes listed by their Vietnamese names, something that can be overwhelming to a first-timer. The restaurant has anticipated this, however, providing thorough descriptions of each dish, as well as a handy number/letter combination ordering system that makes things easier for both the diner and the person taking the order. This system, along with some help from our friendly waitress, allowed us to pick the Vietnamese spring rolls known as Goi Cuon ($2.95) for our appetizer, and in no time at all they were served right up. The large rice-paper wrapped rolls were filled with rice vermicelli, fresh cilantro, green onion and shrimp. The noodles were cooked perfectly, and we were quite impressed with the freshness of the vegetables, but the rolls were shy on the shrimp. The peanut dipping sauce helped, making these rolls a good start to our meal.
Not wanting to leave a Vietnamese place without sampling the pho, a popular noodle soup, we ordered a bowl of Pho Tai ($6.95), a rare beef soup served with bean sprouts and Thai basil. This soup was the highlight of the meal, with a rich, slightly sweet broth that made the perfect foundation for the thin sliced beef, chewy rice noodles, and fresh basil and sprouts. The soup arrived in a massive bowl, and even with two of us eating on it, we still managed to only eat about half of what was served. We decided that this was a perfect cold weather dish, vowing to return when the temperature dropped to warm ourselves over a bowl of this delicious broth and noodles.
The pho was definitely memorable, but the same can't be said for our other entrees. Wanting to sample one of the numerous seafood dishes on the menu, we went with the Tom Xao Sate ($6.95), a mixture of shrimp, onions, and green peppers in a spicy peanut sauce. The shrimp were nice and plump, if a touch overcooked and tough, but the flavor of the perfectly cooked onions made up for this quite well. Where the dish failed was with the sauce, which gave us only a hint of spice. It's an ongoing trend of muted flavors we've found in many of our local Asian restaurants, as if the cooks at these establishments are pulling their punches in order to please bland American palates. Trust us: we can handle the heat, and would have liked to have seen more from this otherwise tasty dish. The same timid flavors struck again with our final dish, the Com Tam Dac Biet ($7.95), a massive plate of rice, pickled vegetables, Chinese sausage, a fried fish cake, and a grilled pork chop. There were definite good things about this plate, especially the tangy vegetables and the spicy hot and sweet sausage. The fish cake was crispy on the outside, but completely bland in the center, adding nothing but a bit of chewiness to the plate. The biggest disappointment was the pork chop, which didn't taste like much and had an overabundance of gristle to boot.
As a spot to grab a cheap lunch, Little Rock could do a lot worse than Mike's Cafe. The restaurant is clean, the service is good, and the food arrived at our table in record time. People looking for a more intense authentic Vietnamese experience will probably leave the place disappointed, however, as the flavor profile at Mike's is one replicated across numerous buffets and take-out places all around Central Arkansas. Here's hoping Mike's takes the hint and learns to trust that Little Rock can not only handle the spice — we crave it.