When I first heard about Pallets Food and Bar, a pan-Asian eatery/watering hole located in a renovated mini-strip mall at the corner of Third Street and Roosevelt, I mistakenly thought it was actually named "Palates," as in sense of taste. Or maybe even "Palettes," as in an artist's painting palettes, because it was smack in the heart of the Roosevelt arts district.
Its real moniker makes more sense when you walk inside and notice that the walls in this place are covered with old, weathered wood planks, the kind used for making shipping pallets. And, of course, the word conjures overseas shipping to and from far-flung ports of call, and that takes even more sense when you see Pallets' menu. It's a smattering of offerings from Japan, China, Thailand, and Vietnam, though consistency is a problem when it comes to some of the entrées. Décor at Pallets is minimal, with a classic Buddhist wall shrine with food offerings being a focal point.
First and foremost, I'd say Pallets is a sushi bar that spreads into Southeast Asian cuisine for variety. And, from what I sampled, the nigiri sushi, sashimi, and specialty rolls featured fresh fish with a clean aftertaste. We tried the 10-piece Sashimi Sampler, which included two generous slices each of maguro (not "manguro," as the menu misspells it) (tuna), sake (salmon), hamachi (yellowtail), and tai (red snapper) — a light meal in itself for two people. I'm convinced the sampler had magical properties, since even the non-lover of raw fish in my group ate it and, even more astounding, liked it along with the simple spicy salmon roll we were served. On another occasion, we tried the masago sushi (smelt roe, which is very similar to tobiko — flying fish roe — which I don't see that often on sushi menus in this town). The generous mound of tiny orange eggs wrapped in seaweed were satisfyingly crunchy, with that unmistakable taste of the sea that makes it one of my favorites.
Pallets Food and Bar on Roosevelt Row: A Sushi Excursion Through Asia
Pallets Food and Bar
1011 North Third Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Sashimi Sampler: $15
Fresh Spring Rolls: 2 for $5
Orange Chicken: $7.99
Red Curry with Rice: $7
Diving into the more exotic listings, we rolled the dice on the Hula-Hula Roll, filled with tempura shrimp, avocado, mango, and cucumber and topped with sea clam and the ubiquitous "chef's special sauce," which was not a particularly distinctive shoyu-based drizzle. A riper mango would have made this roll way tastier, its sweetness playing off the creamy avocado and crunchy shrimp much better.
Leaving Japan, we ventured into China with orange chicken, battered and quick-fried pieces of meat drenched with a tangy orange sauce and served with a huge mound of fragrant jasmine rice that proved to be one of the best things on the menu, along with the Vietnamese bun bo xao xa ot, pieces of melt-in-your-mouth beef stir-fried in a lemongrass and chili sauce along with julienned carrots, red bell peppers, and onions served atop rice vermicelli.
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On a tip from neighborhood regulars seated next to us, we found out about the red curry entrée with rice, which for some reason was not listed on the dinner menu but was available for happy hour (Monday through Thursday from 3 to 7 p.m.). Our tipsters were not lying about how good it was. There wasn't a morsel of this dish left as evidence of what once were thin slices of white-meat chicken swimming in a sea of mildly spicy, coconut milk-based red curry sauce kept company by equally thin slices of carrot, bell peppers, onions, and bamboo shoots and flanked by steaming jasmine rice.
Too bad most of the other Vietnamese dishes we tried were disappointingly subpar. Essential fresh ingredients that distinguish Vietnamese cooking from all others are green herbs and vegetable accompaniments — collectively known as rau tho'm (fragrant leaves) — and lots of them: cilantro, spearmint, Thai purple basil, kinh gió'i (a lemony, furry, jagged-edged leaf that is positively addictive), and the strongly aromatic tia to (Vietnamese perilla), with bean sprouts, sliced fresh jalapeños, tiny red chiles, and pickled carrots or daikon thrown in for good measure. Other than the bean sprouts, jalapeños, and a lone sprig of Italian sweet basil that came with the pallid chicken pho, greens went missing in most of the Viet dishes ladled out by Pallets on all the occasions we visited.
Goi cuon (fresh Vietnamese spring rolls) promised shrimp, bean sprouts, mint, and a mysterious "green leaf" wrapped in a translucent rice flour paper. Only flecks of shrimp and mint (at least I think it was mint — there was so little it was hard to tell) appeared in ours, which were heavy on rice vermicelli noodles and bean sprouts. The peanut sauce served alongside the rolls was the only thing that merited more than a shrug. The painfully salty pho ga (chicken rice noodle soup) with bits of cilantro already in it was a first, the basic broth tasting like someone in the kitchen was using Knorr's Caldo de Pollo granulated boullion as a base. Bún thit nuong (charbroiled marinated pork with vermicelli and vegetables) couldn't have been more boring. Pork pieces were bland, with no trace of marinade, and the vegetables served with it were decidedly un-Southeast Asian — sliced tomatoes, with oversteamed broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. The nuoc mam pha (mixed fish sauce) that was supposed to be poured over all was wan, pale, and truly forgettable. Pallets' Americanized ode to Vietnamese food does a real disservice to this usually vibrant cuisine.
But for the sad Vietnamese menu items, I'd love to have a place like Pallets in my neighborhood. I'd go often for the reasonably priced food, the well-chosen variety, the pleasant wait staff, incredible beer selection, and relatively late hours. I have only two requests, however — don't pander to the American palate so much, and mas rau thom, por favor.