Out of Balance

Ronin Asian Fresh needs some schooling in the art of subtlety in flavors

The literal definition of ronin means "wave man--one who is tossed about." A ronin, in feudal Japan, was a samurai who had lost his master. Then there is the legend of the 47 Ronin, who after avenging their master, were forced to commit suicide. The modern definition is a student who failed a secondary-school entrance exam. It's an inauspicious choice, then, for a name.

I knew none of this before our first visit to Ronin Asian Fresh, a fast-casual Asian eatery on North Oracle Road. We stopped by on a Friday night at a time when most fast-casual joints are packed, but only a few tables were occupied. Perhaps the dim outside lights had something to do with it. The blinds were closed as well. The building was almost unnoticeable from the road.

Indoor lighting wasn't a whole lot better. The white lanterns gave off an eerie glow (think the first part of Joe Versus the Volcano). While the colors--a terra cotta red and white--were nice, the room seemed cold. Nothing hung on any of the walls save a wooden box (which holds condiments such as hot mustard, chili sauce and oils, although no one pointed that out on either visit).

The young cashier was friendly as she took our order. John ordered egg rolls ($2.75) and cashew chicken ($6.95). I tried the lettuce wraps ($5.75) and fried shrimp with hoisin and ginger sauce ($8.95). We had our choice of brown or white rice--we both picked brown. We skipped drinks, as the only offerings were fountain sodas, coffee and iced tea.

Our food arrived in almost no time. The egg rolls were nicely arranged, but when we bit into them, we were met with one dominating flavor: onion. The sweet chili ginger sauce on the side wasn't intense enough to overcome the onion. The lettuce wraps featured tiny bites of chicken in a dark--presumably hoisin--sauce, and were supposed to also include shitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, green onions, garlic and ginger. The mushrooms and water chestnuts were almost invisible, and the sauce on the chicken overpowered the other flavors.

The same thing happened with my shrimp, which contained spinach, onions, carrots, ginger and sake. The pale brown sauce completely drowned out all the other ingredients--and it had this flavor that I am still hard-pressed to identify. Call it extra-strength hoisin, where the fermented beans have turned. (As a side note, Karyn Zoldan, who accompanied me on my second visit, was also unable to figure out what it was.) To satisfy my curiosity, I bought some hoisin sauce at the store just to make sure I wasn't being overly fussy. I wasn't--the two didn't compare.

The flavor lingered, too. I picked out the shrimp and spinach and left the rest in a pile.

The nuts in John's cashew chicken were so finely chopped that they were hard to find. It was the best dish of the evening, but that's not saying a lot. There was plenty of food left over, but we took none of it home.

Visit two was for a Saturday lunch. Karyn and I both decided that even in daylight, the building needed something to make it noticeable. More red? Less gray? A bigger sign?

We again met with great service. The young man who took our order was trying hard, but he was also answering the phone and delivering all the food to the table.

We ordered a bowl of sweet-and-sour soup ($6.75) and the minty Thai salad ($6.75) to split. Karyn ordered Szechwan beef ($7.95), described as tender beef, crisp carrots, bamboo shoots and cilantro in a spicy chili sauce. I ordered the lemon chicken with lo mein noodles ($6.95). Karyn had a diet soda, and I had an iced tea (each $1.75).

Our soup was brought to the table by that nice young man, but he seemed extremely nervous as he carried the filled-to-the-top bowl to the table. One suggestion, an old waitress' trick: Don't watch the hot liquid you're carrying. Watch where you're going instead. Fewer spills, I guarantee it.

This is one of my most favorite soups, but Asian Fresh's version was all wrong. The color was dark and greasy; the viscosity was too thick; the ingredients were too finely chopped; and the seasoning again overpowered everything else. Karyn thought it was too peppery, and I thought there was too much soy sauce. We couldn't eat it, and although the server asked if we wanted another soup or a refund when we told him to take it away, we declined.

Our salad was the bright point of the meal. Iceberg lettuce was topped with spicy, thin slices of chicken, mint leaves, cucumbers, radishes, onions, carrots and fresh wonton chips (there was supposed to be cilantro, but we couldn't find any). It was pretty, but then we topped it with the "soy, honey and sesame oil dressing." And pow! There was that flavor again. Perhaps it's the soy sauce; I really can't say. We picked at the salad and discussed possible improvements, such as a different dressing and a bigger bowl.

Next came the entreés, and again--in spite of the large portions--we were dismayed at the results. Karyn's dish was colorful, with carrots, onions, red, yellow and green peppers and tender beef, but the sauce suffered from that odd, lingering flavor. All the other flavors were almost nonexistent. The brown rice was OK.

My chicken was served in a big bowl. The sauce was overly sweet without the bright, fresh lemony tang that is essential to this dish. Karyn compared it to caramel corn or a children's breakfast cereal. The chicken had no real flavor of its own, and the noodles were soggy.

We also tried the condiments--hot mustard, chili paste and some kind of oil. The mustard passed muster, but the chili paste tasted like ketchup with chilies tossed in. The oil was bland.

We asked the couple sitting next to us if they liked their dinner. They told us, yes, that they come here all the time. The gentleman then added, "Yeah, but food is food, right?"


Asian food should be a delicate balance, where all the flavors blend together gently. But sadly, that isn't the case here.

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