Fusion Without the Pretension
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Daisy Mint: Aims to Please all Lovers of Asian Food."
The Los Angeles area, it has been well-remarked, is the capital of regional Asian cooking in America, where scarcely a province of China or Korea is without its representative; Japan and Thailand are comprehensively marked; and connoisseurs of Vietnamese food argue the merits of restaurants representing noodle cultures that in the motherland are practically within walking distance of one another. Are you in the mood for yak momos, barbecued hagfish or Burmese dishes even Noam Chomsky couldn't pronounce? Pull up a chair.
But sometimes even the most adventurous of us are in the mood for the other kind of Asian restaurant, the kind where you don't have to be vigilant for scraps of spleen that may have made it onto your plate and where the Scoville units linger in the low three figures, where you can order waterfall pork without pointing at the menu and your elbows probably won't stick to the table — a restaurant less interested in testing your limits than in acting as the background for a nice night out. Because man does not live by Jitlada's fish kidneys alone.
It is possible to find something like happiness under the plastic bugs and sumo wrestler paintings at Pasadena's Daisy Mint, a Colorado Boulevard storefront prettified with fresh flowers and empty picture frames, chandeliers and old calendar art, and a dessert-touting blackboard mounted high on a wall. At lunchtime, the sun-washed dining room could almost be the Asian analog to San Marino's Julienne, filled with exceptionally well-dressed women who look ready to sell $2 million houses or lead CalTech into the 21st century.
The kitchen tries hard to be all things to all people. It's vegan-tolerant, but its most popular dish is probably a vaguely Isaan-style grilled-beef salad with lime dressing, served in Hungry Man portions. You can bring your own beer or wine — there is no liquor license — and almost everybody does. There is a passable rendition of the Malaysian pancake called roti, with curry, and a clove-scented duck noodle soup just good enough to keep you from looking longingly out in the direction of Thai Town. This is fusion without the pretension — and without the exotic cocktails.
I have always thought of Daisy Mint as a standby Pasadena lunch place: less expensive than Smitty's, more amenable to lingering than Pie 'n Burger or the Tibet-Nepal House, and open straight through the afternoon.
The menu has shifted in the two years the restaurant has been open, from truly pan-Asian to basically Thai with an occasional Korean or Vietnamese accent, but until recently, I never strayed far from my standing order of kimchi fried rice, served as spicy as the kitchen can bear to make it. My daughter always ordered the pad see ew, soft rice noodles fried with sweet bean sauce and vegetables; my son, the yellow chicken curry with potatoes. It was fresh, it was light, and it wasn't Burrito Express. If I was feeling grand, I got the spicy Thai fried rice with basil and shrimp.
So I was slightly confused when I stumbled into the restaurant at dinnertime and found it to be anything but sleepy, with a crowd at least 20 years younger than the customers at lunch, a half-hour wait for a table, and knots of both Art Center students and people who have never eaten anywhere more challenging than Panda Inn.
Daisy Mint is not necessarily a different restaurant at dinner — the menu is the same — but it feels as if it is: less salady and more big eats, more flirty than refined, with a smooth, delicious Panang curry with chunks of stewed pumpkin; shellfish and crab served on a superheated sizzle plate; and an unfortunate slab of overcooked salmon broiled in a congealed cream sauce. The rack of baby back ribs is as long as a piano keyboard, rubbed with shrimp paste, cooked to a kind of flaky crispness, and the Korean rib-eye is a big steak, decidedly not prime, marinated in soy and sugary pear juice.
Is the fried catfish with spicy apple slaw accomplished enough to make you forget the version at Sunshine in North Hollywood? Do the rice paper–wrapped summer rolls stand up to the version at Nem Nuong Kanh Hoi? Will the spicy spaghetti detain you from after-hours visits to Sanamluang? Are the peanut dumplings more than nuts and jaggery sugar in floppy noodle skins, the pollack wraps more than rice with a few flecks of roe perched on nori, or the Daisy Mint wings more than Buffalo wings with sweet-and-sour sauce instead of blue-cheese dressing? Of course not, and that's probably beside the point. But there is fried ice cream for dessert.
DAISY MINT: 1218 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 792-2999, daisymint.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat.-Sun., noon-9 p.m. AE, MC, V. BYOB. Street parking. Takeout. Starters, $2.95-$6.95; main dishes $8.95-$16.95. Recommended dishes: spicy fried rice; steak salad; Panang curry with pumpkin.
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