What my friend was telling me was correct, but at the same time it couldn't have been further from the truth.
“Hey, I ate at a place last night you haven't been to for a long time,” he said.
The place was West Coast Grille on South Calhoun Street, which an article on the wall showed I hadn't reviewed since 2014. But what my friend didn't know was that the little hidden gem of an Asian eatery is a place my family has frequented since that last review and that I had just eaten there days before.
So given my allegiance to the place, I thought it would be hard to find anything new to discover. But I was wrong. Not only did something new prove to be as wonderful as the crispy duck and perfectly rendered pork belly I have enjoyed numerous times over the years, it might join that list of old favorites.
Fish is not a very popular or common choice on American Chinese restaurant menus, and the name of this dish didn't exactly sound appetizing. But it wasn't the fish that made the Pungent Fish so pungent, it was the fresh ginger and bell peppers. And it was easily the best Chinese fish dish I've ever eaten.
Lee Truong, who owns and operates the restaurant with business partner Thu Lien, coated flounder fillets in a standard batter similar to sweet and sour chicken. It was stir-fried with chunks of shaved ginger, red and green bell peppers and a little onion. It was coated in a slightly sweet sauce made with a little citrus to make it sour up front while still being a little sweet with just a tickle of spice. I would best describe it as an upscale version of standard sweet-and-sour sauce.
What may have been the most impressive part of this entrée was the side of fried rice. I have kind of become numb to fried rice because most are boring and just sort of sit in the background with the sauce from the entrées they come with providing the only real flavor. This fried rice was different.
It was toasted beautifully in the wok to give it a subtle charred flavor and it had just the right amount of soy sauce to flavor it without overpowering the carrots, sprouts, onions, peas and, most importantly, the rice. This fried rice was not a background player.
Orange chicken is about as commonplace as sweet and sour chicken, and West Coast Grille's orange duck paid homage to that American favorite while also lifting it to a much higher level.
Truong is a master of duck and those beautifully cooked birds hanging in the glass case next to the ordering counter are as enticing as can be. The bone-in half duck in this dish was super crispy and its thick orange glaze gave it the classic sweet and tangy flavor I expected. It came with a side of pan-fried udon noodles, carrots, cabbage and white and green onions soaked in a sort of slimy clear sauce that gave those noodles a luxurious flavor and texture.
I did not like the sauce ladled over the Beef Udon entrée as it was much sweeter. The meat was tender and tasty, but its daikon and carrot slaw was hidden a bit in a pile of chopped romaine. Once I dug down and found that slaw – which had a nice vinegar bite to tame the sweetness – and incorporated some of the peanuts sprinkled on top, I was happy.
The pork belly, which is sold by the pound, should make anyone happy. It was perfectly seasoned and had a thick layer of rendered fat – think pork crackling – on top that was its best asset. It was served with a soy dipping sauce, but there is nothing wrong with eating it as it is. You will find no better pork belly.
There is no better way to have Peking duck than the way it is done at West Coast Grille, either. The duck is delicious, sure, but it is the formal way Truong serves it that makes it so special. He carved the breast of the bird table side, putting it into perfectly steamed buns along with slivers of green onion and a smear of plum sauce.
When he was done, he took the carcass and its remaining meat back to the kitchen to make either soup, fried noodles or fried rice with the remains. I usually choose soup because the meat and bones add flavor to his already flavorful pho broth which creates a magical elixir.
There is a lot of magic that has happened on South Calhoun since West Coast Grille moved there from its original spot in Glenbrook Square in 2014. Though I liked it from the start, I feared for its future given Truong and Thieu have never really done a lot of marketing or promotion. But the people came and have kept coming.
Even though it looks much like any other Asian takeout place with lighted, photo-laden signs hanging above the counter as your only menu, the service is always splendid. You will be checked on and tended to throughout your visit.
Though the little dining space was more function than form at the start, even that has gotten better over the years. Regular plates and flatware replaced foam takeout containers and plastic forks and spoons, and the restaurant was expanded to include a more formal dining room. That room is temporarily under repair but should be back open within a month, Truong said.
But I won't wait for it to be finished before I return. And it sure as heck won't take six years like my friend assumed.
Restaurant: West Coast Grille
Address: 2310 S. Calhoun St.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Peking Duck ($25 for whole duck), pork belly ($12.95 per pound or $8.25 entrée with white rice), Pungent Fish ($11.25), Beef Udon ($9.59), orange duck ($10.75)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
West Coast Grille
Out of a possible five
• West Coast Grille offers a full line of bubble teas and smoothies with popping bobas or tapioca pearls. I loved my blueberry-kiwi with the pearls - suggested by Lien - and the avocado versions are a great choice, too.
• Don't sleep on the duck drumsticks. For $3.99 you get two crispy fried pieces of duck that remind me of good broasted chicken. They aren't exotic at all, but they are delicious.
• The appetizers were all above board. The egg rolls were crisp and not at all greasy and the shrimp rolls and crab rangoon were executed perfectly.