Char’d Southeast Asian Kitchen, 1571 E Debbie Ln, Ste 121, Mansfield. 682-400-8519. 11am-9pm Sun-Thu, 11am-10pm Fri-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.
It was only a matter of time before some enterprising person thought to do for Southeast Asian cuisine what Chipotle did for Mexican food. Whether or not you see this as a good thing depends, perhaps, upon your broader take on the relative virtues of dumbing down the nuances and subtleties of ethnic food cultures for the American palate — but there’s no doubt that the reduction of Vietnamese, Korean, and Thai gastronomy to flavor profiles on a build-your-own-bowl bar represents an arrival of sorts. Like the cuisines of Mexico, China, and Italy before them, these more recent arrivals to the North Texas foodie scene get to endure the same rite of passage, an assembly line of protein, starch, and sauce which promises not to wow us with anything we don’t already know about the food culture that produced them.
Char’d Southeast Asian Kitchen of Mansfield is doing precisely this, and if it sounds like I’m not particularly enthusiastic about the concept, I’ll concede that, taken on its own terms, the place does a fine job. When you advertise (as they do) that your food is healthy, handcrafted, and fresh, well, you’re already ahead of the curve if it’s true. Demanding that such a place also provide authenticity and excitement is exactly the kind of snobbery that landed Marilyn Hagerty a book deal.
A recent visit to the strip-mall location found the place bright, impeccably clean, and practically empty. An open-galley kitchen behind the assembly counter provided that kind of transparency that instills confidence in the wary, with all preparation being handled in plain sight. Cheerful young staff of the summer-job variety manned the stations and offered advice on the simple menu. A few stereotypical appetizers — eggrolls, edamame, and steamed bao — were followed by the bowls. Diners may choose from four suggested combinations (one each from Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, as well as a poke bowl) or build their own from a list of bases (including low-carb options of salad or cauliflower rice), proteins, vegetables, sauces, and toppings.
An order of open-faced bao dumplings, the spongy white steamed buns best known as delivery devices for Fuzhou barbecued pork belly, came two to an order. Fillings can be mixed and matched, and I tried mine with grilled steak in one and chicken in the other. A few odd leaves of spinach and a most unwelcome sriracha mayonnaise crowned the morsels, but the basics were good enough. One of the downsides to an assembly line restaurant (as opposed to someplace cooking food to order) is that steamed buns and meats prepared in advance get tough and less appealing as time passes. I suspect Char’d may be even better when the place is busy and food replaced quickly.
The Vietnamese grilled pork bowl was pretty good. It wasn’t better than similar items found at any of the numerous mom-and-pop Vietnamese eateries in that part of town, but it was fresh, clean, and tasty. Not everyone gets off on seeing beef tendon and fish balls on the menu, after all — but if Char’d is sticking to the greatest hits, at least the kitchen doesn’t water them down. Cucumbers and romaine lettuce were crackling fresh. Pickled carrots and daikon radish were tangy and tart. Fish sauce (served on the side) was the real deal, and the house red chile sauce was electric. The grilled pork wasn’t any worse for its brief detention in a prep-station pot — though again, I’d like to try it when the kitchen is busier.
The sunny space with a broad patio was a pleasant spot to hang out and watch the strip-mall denizens, some of whom wandered in from the gym next door after their workout. Char’d may be the perfect place to fuel up after a CrossFit session, with plenty of clean proteins and fresh vegetables on offer.
If Char’d isn’t exactly the kind of foodie destination that rings my bell, I found some solace in a dish of homemade green tea ice cream (one of three flavors made onsite) that was so wonderfully strong, so handsomely bitter that you could close your eyes and almost imagine you were eating dark chocolate.
Steamed buns $4.95
Vietnamese pork bowl $10.45
Green tea ice cream $3.50