New and improved

Dec 31
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A.W. Lin’s upgrades Asian cuisine with organic ingredients, local produce and no MSG.

Photo by Melissa Tucker
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It may not exactly be a leading indicator of a full-scale economic turnaround, but it’s certainly nice to see yet another new business opening up in the Promenade at Chenal, doubly so since the newcomer is yet another place to go eat.

Right on the heels of a big name opening for foodies late last year comes another good get, a Chinese eatery called A.W. Lin’s Asian Cuisine, which opened soft in December and is going grand this month.

The establishment is actually an offshoot from an out-of-state operation that went by the name Fulin’s. But, owing to there already being a locally owned placed called Fu Lin (long housed on Bowman Road), the new name reflects a desire to avoid confusion. The initials are reportedly a conglomeration of the first initial of the executive chef and last initial of a co-owner.

The pair certainly couldn’t have picked much more prime real estate than their location within the center, which you really can’t miss if you’re turning in from the parkway at the Chenal Club Boulevard light (which you probably just know as the light unless you look at a map). You’ll see it on the left as you come down the hill, and likely also see plenty of parking between it and the entrance. So getting in and out should be no big deal as long as there’s not snow on the ground.

But back to the restaurant, which is so new that last week there was still a faint whiff of wood glue and new carpets. With good reason, as dark woods feature heavily in the décor, offset by gray-hued stone on the interior wall (perhaps faux stone, I didn’t go up and touch it). It’s a look that could get dark, but large outward facing windows and the single, open dining space serve to air things out. In short, it feels classy and intimate, but not hunkered down. And certainly fairly casual with both a sushi bar and alcohol bar rounding out the interior.

The menu lineup is billed as traditional Chinese, some Thai and sushi, and that seems to be a pretty apt description to me, though I admit my only experience of Chinese cuisine is American. It’s worth noting, though, that the menu itself doesn’t really regionalize or segregate, except when it comes to sushi. That is, there are standard sections for starters, soups, salads, sides, entrees and chef specials with no internal division as to what comes from each tradition (except Japanese sushi entrees).

Still, there’s not a lot of unfamiliar ground here, with the stars being beef, chicken, pork or shrimp (or a choice thereof) in a variety of recognizable dishes. That includes things like General Tso’s chicken, Mongolian beef, Mu Shu pork, coconut shrimp and red, green and yellow curry.

One handy note, though, is that in this era of gluten awareness, many dishes are very clearly marked with a “GF” to denote being gluten free. And I’m not just talking a token selection here. Five of the 13 listed entrees qualify, as do three of 10 chef specials. More than a third of sushi creations and half the dinner entrees based on them are also gluten free. That’s not a bad ratio, really. In the same vein, there’s a whole section for vegan friendly options (largely veggie or tofu). It’s that sort of thing that makes you think an espoused promise to use organic and local ingredients isn’t just lip service. There seems to be a real commitment to quality and catering to healthier eating choices.

Of course, if you just want to load up on sushi, fried rice and familiar Chinese favorites, well, that’s fine, too. It’s not hard to do.

THE DISH

Orange chicken ($11, lunch set)

To explain a bit, the lunch menu includes dishes that can be ordered as just a lunch or lunch set. Just a lunch ($9) gets fried or steamed rice. The set includes that as well as either an egg roll or spring roll and choice of salad or soup. Seemed worth the upgrade to me, and the egg drop soup proved me right. It wasn’t runny as it sometimes can be, but thick and hearty. And the fried strips served with it only added to the heft. The pork egg roll was spicier than expected, but no complaints there. And the orange chicken itself was great. Generally sweet and citrusy, it’s also cooked with red pepper for a little punch. Additional stir fry veggies included zucchini, peppers and — I think — squash. Two orange slices for garnish actually added a nice zest, too. At $11, it may seem a touch high for lunch, but the portion is generous enough that you might also take some home. (sw)

Godfather roll ($14)

Included on a menu insert labeled opening sushi specials, it was unclear whether this creation would be a regular addition. The server mentioned it being popular, and it’s not hard to see why. Creatively presented with pieces arranged around a martini glass (and the tail piece in the glass for effect), this roll included tempura battered lobster, asparagus and crab and was wrapped not in rice but in thinly sliced and layered cucumber. Each bite was a touch sweet, but not overly so. It’s worth just using the skewers used to hold the pieces together and just forgoing chopsticks entirely. The complete taste of the whole bite at once, with its multiple layers of flavor, is the only way to go here. And it’s darn good. (sw)

Pad Thai Rice Noodles ($12)

Though I’m by no means an authority on pad Thai, this offering at A.W. Lin’s seemed lighter than most. The sauce wasn’t heavy or creamy, and that was probably owing to its status as a gluten-free dish and the absence of a thickening agent like flour. The sauteed basil and red onion only added to the airy effect. The heaps and mounds of rice noodles meant a diner would fill up quickly, and this pad Thai positively reeked of basil, in a good way. It had a sweet aftertaste, and no hint of heat. Overall a simple dish, simply prepared with delicious results. (mt)

IN A NUTSHELL

With yet another restaurant in the Promenade at Chenal comes still more dining options. This time it’s A.W Lin’s Asian Cuisine, specializing in traditional Chinese food, some Thai and sushi. The broad menu includes more than a token selection of veggie, vegan and gluten-free options to entertain a variety of tastes.

Location: 17717 Chenal Parkway H-101, Little Rock

Phone: (501) 821-5398

Web: https://www.facebook.com/AwLins

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Prices: $5-$25

Alcohol: Full bar

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