It was 1999 — the year the Euro was established, “The Sopranos” premiered, and Britney and Christina were rocking the charts long before meltdowns and getting “Dirrty.”
I was sweet 18 and excited about Pacific Rim Asian Café, the new Asian restaurant that had just opened on St. Paul Street. On a steaming-hot day, I grabbed a bottle of spicy Reed’s Ginger Brew (hard to find at the time) from the drinks case and ordered a noodle bowl at the counter. That bland dish marked the last time I tried Pacific Rim — until now.
In 2011, owner Rich Brandt closed up shop after his landlord decided to renovate the space where Pacific Rim had long resided. (Guild Fine Meats will open there in August.) But Brandt wasn’t done with pan-Asian cuisine. This past spring, he approached Sky Burgers owner Stephen “Sky” Kenney about taking over the lower Church Street space.
The inquiry came at the right time for Kenney, who was ready to get out of the business. In May, the new Pacific Rim opened, complete with a patio area for outdoor seating and room inside for DJs to spin on weekends.
With a more modern but still inexpensive menu, the Church Street Pacific Rim is not the same restaurant that disappointed me more than a decade ago. In the intervening years, both of us have grown up. Still, neither of us is perfect.
On my first visit on a Sunday evening, the weather was ideal, and the patio was nearly full at 8:30 p.m. I elected to sit inside by an open window to enjoy the breeze without fear of bugs. Our server, Lily, was friendly and helpful as we discussed the menu, divided into appetizers, soups, salads, noodle bowls, entrées and pho. Gone are the eggrolls and curries that previously occupied a significant portion of the bill of fare.
In place of an appetizer, we started with an order of one of the new items — Asian tacos. Kogi BBQ food trucks popularized this fusion idea in Los Angeles in 2009, but Pacific Rim’s was the first iteration I’d ever seen on a Burlington menu (read about a second in this week’s Side Dishes).
Fillings include marinated tofu, chicken curry and sesame beef, plus occasional specials. I was sad to find out I had missed a spicy pork taco, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the ones I did get to try. The chicken curry was pleasantly spicy and redolent of lemongrass. Shredded cabbage, red peppers and carrots lent it a fun crunch that contrasted with the chunky chicken.
I was even more taken with the sesame-beef taco. The thin slices of meat were tender and imbued with a sweet, slightly acidic sesame sauce. Once again, the cabbage slaw filled out the taco, this time with bean sprouts adding an extra burst of moisture.
Not that the taco needed more juice — it was dry enough to pick up yet dripped profusely as I bit into it. No matter. At $7, I plan to make the simple dish a new workday lunch staple.
I ordered kalbi, thin slices of beef short rib, as one of my entrées, but was surprised to find nary a bone on my plate. It was only when I got my bill that I confirmed I’d ended up with bulgogi instead. Suddenly an earlier impression made more sense: I’d told my dining partner that I felt like Pacific Rim was scratching my bulgogi itch better than any of the other restaurants serving Korean food in the area.
Korean barbecue is my lifeblood, my ultimate, lifelong obsession, and one of the hardest things about living in Vermont is going without it. The beef at Pacific Rim can’t possibly replace the real thing, but the marinade hit the right spots of fruity sesame and ginger. I just wish there had been more of that flavor. The bulgogi was the first dish I tried at the restaurant that tasted right, but at 40 percent intensity.
Still, when I’m desperate, that bulgogi will be my go-to meal until I can make it to a big city. The side of crisp kimchi added a nice splash of mild spice, and I liked the sweet pickles that rested beside it, but I was somewhat nonplussed by a pile of shredded cabbage, onions and carrots. Completely unseasoned, it wasn’t flavorful enough to be part of the meal or pretty enough to be a garnish.
I was similarly struck by the lack of flavor in the cold peanut noodles. To say that the sauce tasted like unmitigated peanut butter would be giving it too much credit. I barely tasted peanut, let alone the subtle build of spice I expect. A single small slice of lime wasn’t enough to provide the citric boost the noodles needed. Worst of all, the wet, mushy tofu broke apart in my chopsticks as I foolishly attempted to consume it.
Later that week, I walked up from the office for another round of Pacific Rim at lunchtime. One large table was filled with students, but the restaurant was otherwise quiet. I considered ordering a mint-cucumber martini with vodka and pear juice, but knowing I had to return to work, I went for the ginger lemonade. It turned out to be sweet but with an overwhelmingly bitter aftertaste, which was especially annoying given its $5 price tag.
My mind was elsewhere, though. I wanted to try another Seoul-style dish that, like Korean tacos, has recently become popular in the U.S.
I’m talking yangnyeom tongdak, the spicy chicken wings you may have tried at urban chains such as KyoChon or Bonchon Chicken. They’re usually blazingly hot with a sweet gochujang undercurrent. Pacific Rim’s version kept the sweetness while having only enough heat to make my lips tingle. Yet I couldn’t stop eating them. Sure, the wings were calmed down for baeg-in (that’s “white people” to us baeg-in), but, like the bulgogi, they had a basically correct flavor profile at a lower intensity.
Next, it was time to try a Pacific Rim classic. The sesame-grilled salmon was lovely to look at, easy to imagine as a plate at a restaurant that charged far more than Pacific Rim’s $11. Unlike the restaurant’s Korean dishes and country-specific options, such as Burmese noodles and Malaysian curry, the salmon dish suggested only America to me.
The pink, glazed slab of fish sat in a pool of sticky-sweet teriyaki sauce. I asked my server if that was the “Korean dipping sauce on the side” mentioned on the menu, and she confirmed that it was. Still, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the sugary fish dish. Spiced broccoli salad cut through sweet sauce, and I appreciated pickled cukes on the side, along with a bowl of nicely cooked rice.
While the salmon didn’t knock my socks off, it seemed worthy of a Michelin star compared to the bland soba nori noodles. Yes, Japanese flavors should have a measure of austerity. But that principle doesn’t justify soba nori noodles without nori: I dug around unsuccessfully for a trace of seaweed. The bowl containing the seemingly dry noodles turned out to hold a small amount of sauce at the bottom, but all it did was leave an oily sheen on the buckwheat noodles and the omnipresent julienned carrots, cabbage and red pepper.
Dessert options were limited to scoops of mango sorbet and what my server told me was “green fruit” ice cream.
“Do you mean green tea?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said and walked away.
I decided to forgo both and head back to the office.
So what did I learn from my two visits to the new Pacific Rim? The noodles I tried were as disappointing as they were back when we were eating like it was 1999. However, since the rebirth of the Burlington staple, it’s gotten some things right.
Introducing trendy dishes to the Queen City was a smart move, and they are executed well enough to keep me happy until we get the real deal. Asian tacos and Korean wings, we’ve got a date.
Pacific Rim Asian Café, 161 Church Street, Burlington, 881-0643.