50 N. Market St., Downtown
This time of year, it feels like the lower level of hell along the ragged concrete sidewalks that saddle the City Market area. Sweltering waves of August heat blanket tourist throngs, a 98-degree clambake of humanity feeding at the trough of unbridled plastic kitsch.
The oppressive heat makes sucking down overpriced warm beer amid the mass confusion of screaming kids and steaming horse turds a veritable luxury. Swarming herds of hungry vacationers elbow out serious attempts at gastronomy, presenting a difficult foothold for those eager to climb above the cartoon food that characterizes much of the tourist fare down here. In the Market, eating usually means a Disneyfied palace of mass consumption or an expensive foray into the upscale establishments that inhabit the edges of the fray. That makes the wafting odor of exotica all the more exciting as you pass by Aromas.
It's a nice spot, as inviting as any other designed to lure passersby on the market. Art adorns the walls amid a bevy of bistro tables and white napkins, an inviting bar flanks the rear of the space. The varied Asian themes of the menu (the front door declares American, Chinese, and Thai influences) only scratch the surface of a considerably diverse environment. The place is a kaleidoscope of influences, an explosion of concepts that, while catering to the broad spectrum of visitors that must troop past the door, also hamstrings the environment. Among the original art on the walls (which is also offered for sale) hang flat-screen televisions tuned to the evening game and paper placards coat the place in offers of beer by the bucket, college-style. A sign behind the bar proffers "mystery beer," a first for Asian-themed restaurants in the Holy City that I am aware of.
The patrons seem to be no more uniform than the space. Several graduate students suck beers at a large table; two men, one bald and glaringly white, the other looking remotely Albanian, converse in rapid-fire German over large plates of food; a rather large African-American man counts wads of bills in the corner, a towel draped across his shoulder (perhaps he works here?); our server glides into view, a beautiful college-aged girl asking for our drink order in a thick Eastern European accent. She stops by the Australians gathered at the bar, getting rowdy in the usual jovial manner over a mounting collection of empties. It's a virtual United Nations in here.
We peruse the menu, a standard assortment of Asian dishes, "Spring Roll" ($4.95), "Pot Stickers" ($5.95), and "Thai-Fried Calamari" (6.95) parade out front, followed by a collection of soups — think fish with sour cabbage and shrimp swimming in a spicy lime-sharpened broth. The service is steady, if painfully late. Our server constantly attempts to cover for an excruciatingly slow kitchen — and considering no fewer than four employees are gathered in the rear of the restaurant, such tardiness is inexcusable. As if a sloth were cooking the stuff back there, the dishes emerge so slowly, so erratically, that we are forced by our fussy toddler to take the last dishes to go.
A look back at the experience, the place, and its food leaves a mixed bag. "Crab Rangoons" fry up deliciously, if a bit on the chewy side. The "Aromas Shrimp Rolls" ($7.95) seem acceptable but overpriced (especially when they arrive cold from the kitchen). "Roast O' Beef" ($7.95), a cold selection of thinly sliced roast beef topped with a spicy chili sauce, is downright weird.
Entrées are equally mixed. Standards like "Pad Thai" ($9.95) lack charisma and verve, even if they will adequately fill a hungry stomach with acceptable fare. "Peking Duck" ($16.95) promises skilled preparation, and although tasty like the Pad Thai, it fails to deliver that crisp, crackling, lacquered skin so necessary to the preparation, leaving the deliciously tender, juicy meat to languish beneath the greasy flab of the poorly prepared exterior. The "Chili-Sauced in Flounder (Spicy or Non-Spicy)" ($16.95) tastes great, all succulent and perfectly cooked, the delicate flesh mingling with the flavor of Asian spice, but proves quickly drowned by a torrent of sauce, pooling into the fish and spilling from the plate.
As we head out of the door, I notice a small laminated card taped to the storefront window, the ubiquitous kind that show different types of sushi. Sushi? They have sushi? I quickly backtrack through the door, locate the waitress (my kid has become a nuclear missile siren outside), and ask about the sushi.
"Oh yes, we have sushi. Would you like to look at a sushi menu?"
I declined. They had too much to offer, and after two hours of dining, I was out of time.