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Saturday, November 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fair
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Asian One focuses on Thai and Hmong entrees
Two doors, two cuisines

Credit:Linda Falkenstein

There's no shortage of Asian restaurants in the State Street-campus area, and the relatively hidden Asian One, in the old King of Falafel space, may find it hard to stand out. Literally.

Despite having two doors - one on Gilman and one just off University - neither seems like the front entrance. The main entrance is on West Gilman Street, but from looking at the doorway, you'd think the place was some kind of speakeasy or secret dining club. The back door, near a small parking area (for delivery vehicles, not you), has the larger sign, but there you enter behind the kitchen, along an awkward, narrow strip of tables. The more spacious main dining area looks worn, and missing whatever decoration it was that the recently departed King of Falafel was using to spice it up. A big flat-screen TV mounted over the bar is often tuned to a soccer match.

But, if you can look beyond the externals, Asian One has something going for it. It bills itself as serving "Traditional Thai and Hmong Foods," although the menu itself does not mark which is which. Thai-style curries and noodle dishes like pad Thai figure heavily on the menu. The Hmong influence is seen in lemongrass-heavy, peppery dishes and sauces. Three pho soups are joined by a sweeter tom yum soup. Rounding out the choices are standard Asian-American restaurant fried rice and stir-fry dishes.

Start with a spring roll, which can be ordered with a ground pork, vegetable or shrimp filling. These were freshly made, with strips of egg, cucumber, rice vermicelli noodles, carrot shreds and pork sausage crumbles - pick the sweet and sour sauce rather than the too-sweet house sauce.

The Hmong chicken wing appetizer, here called Angel Chicken Wing, is a deboned chicken wing, stuffed with the ingredients of a Viet-style egg roll - ground pork and transparent bean thread noodle - to the point of it almost exploding, then deep-fried in a light batter. The result is a very crispy exterior with a soft, savory interior, served with a lacerating cilantro/chili/fish sauce that transforms the Angel Wing into something devilish.

Also good, for those who enjoy a heat assault, is the pungent, incendiary larb, a cold "salad" made with a ground beef that is more like chopped steak than hamburger (also available: chicken or pork). Beware: Very fragrant purple and green onions are the second primary ingredient in larb. I'd cut this with a side order of the sticky rice ($1.50) if I had it to do over again, as much as I appreciated the flavor. (For the record, this was ordered "medium" for a spice level.) "Yum," a sister salad on the menu, is similar, but with the inclusion of bean thread noodle.

Skip the one-note pad Thai (phat Thai), which was mostly noodles with trace amounts of chicken, tofu, and bean sprouts (and no peanuts at all).

The five curries, all available with choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu or shrimp, are a much better option. The yellow mussamun curry came nicely balanced with green beans, potato, carrots, baby corn, bamboo shoots and white meat chicken, with a rich coconut milk sauce. The potato - perfectly done, soft without falling apart - absorbs the sauce; it's a star. Here, the ordered medium spice level was more like mild.

The pa-naeng (red curry with peanut sauce) was also good; note that the squash curry here is basically the mussamun curry with squash added, which is okay as long as you know what to expect.

The phat cashew nut, a basic stir-fry with cashews, ordered with tofu, was very good for the kind of also-ran entree that many kitchens don't pay enough attention to. Carrots, peppers and bamboo shoots came in a brown sauce that was creamy, as if coconut milk had been added.

Asian One's prices are hard to beat, with most of the generously sized entrees priced at around $7. Add one dollar if you want shrimp as your protein. A couple of dishes, like the sweet and sour fish (a deep-fried whole fish with all the earmarks of the better Asian One entrees - lemongrass, galanga), shoot all the way up to $10.50.

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