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Posted on Sun. Jun. 08, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Food, service stars at stellar grill

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West Coast Grill

**** 1/2

Out of a possible five

$

They say you can never have too much of a good thing.

And when it comes to West Coast Grill, it has never been more true.

I fell in love with the Grill last year when a reader suggested I try the Glenbrook Square food court stall. What looked like any regular burrito joint at a food court turned out to be home to some unique and flavorful Asian dishes.

When I heard owner Lee Truong was planning to open a brick-and-mortar version on South Calhoun Street, I could not wait to see what surprises I would find there. And there were plenty of surprises, but none as big as the looks of the restaurant.

Truong turned what was once a ragged, out-of-date spot across from Walgreens that had previously housed a couple of Burmese restaurants into a clean, modern, flashy space that is one of the sharpest stores in that area of Calhoun Street.

What caught my eye first was the glass case next to the cash register where crispy red Peking-style ducks and crispy pork bellies hang from hooks. It is the kind of thing you find in Chicago's Chinatown and certainly something you will not see anywhere else in northeast Indiana.

The digital menu boards over the counter pop with photos, the tables and booths are new, and the entire restaurant is subdued without a bunch of corny decorations cluttering it up. It could easily double as a coffee shop or be home to about any type of restaurant.

But West Coast Grill isn't just any restaurant.

My favorites from the food court booth were all there, but the burritos have taken a back seat to the Asian fare and aren't even offered at this new locale.

There were two new items I had to try – one that sounded great and one that scared the heck out of me.

The duck drums replaced the duck wings at the mall spot. Truong found that duck wings were too small, bony and hard to eat, so the drums – legs – were the way to go. And they were addictively delicious.

Supplied by Maple Leaf Farms in Milford, the drums were battered and deep fried. They looked and had the same crunch as broasted chicken, but the duck meat was much more rich and flavorful. I could eat a dozen of these with no problem. A zesty ginger sauce or sweet plum sauce was offered for dipping, but I just ate them plain like good old fried chicken.

The scary item was something I have never seen on a menu and is one of the few foods Andrew Zimmern of “Bizzare Foods” fame will not even eat – durian.

The meat of this prickly tree fruit is offered in smoothies at West Coast Grill. Truong made me smell the fruit first to ensure I wouldn't back down. And, yes, it did smell terrible. Imagine the dirtiest smelliest feet you can and then imagine them soaked in rotting onions.

That is sill probably not quite as foul as the durian.

It was hard to get past that smell, but once I managed to gulp down some of the smoothie I realized its allure. It had the stringy texture of pineapple, a mild sweetness and a pronounced melon finish. It was tasty, and its flavor improved after eating some of the salty Asian dishes.

The awful smell never left and there was not a gum or mint in existence to improve my breath after eating it, but I would not rule out having it again. If I do, I will probably try it the way I overheard a pair of young Asian women ordering it during one of my visits – mixed with avocado.

Speaking of avocado, a smoothie I must order again is the Hula-Hula. This mix of mango and avocado was tremendous – sweet, tangy and creamy – and it smelled wonderful.

I called ahead during my first visit to the new West Coast Grill to make sure I could get the crispy Peking-style roasted duck. It was clear Truong takes a lot of pride in the duck because the service he provided with it was exemplary.

He carved the duck tableside and packed the meat into little soft, chewy, steamed lotus buns with shaved green-onion spears and a drizzle of plum sauce. The skin was super crisp with a nice layer of unctuous fat underneath, the meat was moist and succulent, the onions added zest and the sauce added sweetness. It was magical.

And if that wasn't enough, Truong asked if we wanted him to make noodle soup from the bones and carcass. That soup was also wonderful with ramen noodles, fresh basil, vegetables and big meaty shitake mushrooms in the duck-infused broth. I ate every drop of it, too, and added some of the leftover crispy duck to it once the buns were gone.

Although I am a sucker for crispy duck, I had to have some pork belly, too. Sold by the pound or in one of the restaurant's dishes, I had mine as part of the Japanese pan-fried noodles.

The belly had a thick layer of crispy fat on top like a crackling, was fatty, tender, juicy and wonderful. The noodles were nicely seasoned with sesame oil and soy, and had green peppers, onions and cabbage mixed in, all of it dusted with toasted sesame seeds.

The regular udon noodle entrée was also great. These thick, pasty noodles were not sautéed or coated with anything, but still had a lot of flavor. They came with fresh basil, julienned carrot and daikon radish, cucumbers, chopped onions and crushed peanuts in a sort of cold salad form similar to Vietnamese bun.

Another new dish I tried was the wonton soup and it, too, exceeded expectations. I am so accustomed to bad wonton soups that come gratis at Chinese places that I forget how good it can be.

At West Coast Grill, this gorgeous bowl of soup was packed with al dente, meat-stuffed wontons, chopped green onions and a plethora of those big shitake mushrooms that added depth.

In lieu of the burritos, the new West Coast Grill offers hibachi bowls, which are basically burritos without the tortilla. I chose the Unforgettable with chicken and got a nice-sized bowl with rice in the bottom, chopped lettuce, red and green peppers, fresh cilantro, corn, a little sour cream and grilled chicken and white button mushrooms.

It was a tasty and healthy combination, but I am not sure I would ever choose it again over the noodle dishes.

I know I would not choose the ginger chicken again. It was as plain and unexciting as the other dishes were vibrant and exciting. The chunks of chicken were nicely seasoned and cooked well so they were still juicy. The chicken was joined by button mushrooms and served atop plain white rice. It was basically a dummied down hibachi bowl with a little extra ginger kick.

That was about the only thing dummied down at this new full-service West Coast Grill. Truong is what made it so special, too. I don't know that I have ever met a happier restaurateur. If a sitcom needed a happy-go-lucky restaurant owner, he would be perfect. He was grateful and clearly loves what he does and that has rubbed off on the folks that work for him.

Add that to the new décor and phenomenal not-seen-anywhere-else delicacies, and there is really nothing not to love about the place.

Restaurant: West Coast Grill

Address: 2310 S. Calhoun St.

Phone: 744-7999

Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu

Menu: Duck drums ($3.99 for 2), roasted whole duck ($20), unforgettable hibachi bowl ($9.75), pork belly pan-fried Japanese noodles ($6.95), ginger chicken ($6.75), smoothies ($3.95)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).


Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.


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