You spot a new sign on the storefront of a strip mall near your home: Able Bar & Grill. Hungry and curious, you stop in for a bite. With visions of a burger, a beer and maybe a little sports TV dancing in your head, you step inside.
OK, it was my head. And it was my jaw that dropped the first time I saw the menu, not long after Able Bar & Grill opened in December. Posted on a chalkboard just inside the door, it was entirely in Chinese. Clearly, I thought, this is not your father's bar and grill.
Unless Dad is Chinese, it turns out. Able's Bar & Grill is named for owner Able Li, who came to Raleigh from Liaoning province in 1998 to attend N.C. State University and stayed on to pursue a career as a software engineer. He longed for the foods of his homeland, though, especially the street foods and hot pots that are a way of life in China, but scarce in these parts.
And he missed karaoke bars, which explains why you won't be watching any spring baseball in this bar and grill. Instead of TVs tuned to sports, overhead screens at either end of the compact dining room light up with karaoke lyrics every night beginning at 9 p.m. There's an eclectic mix of songs in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and English, and everyone is invited to join in the fun.
Technically, Li's offbeat eatery does fit the definition of a bar and grill. A small bar at the back of the room offers a modest selection of beer, wine and mixed drinks.
There's a grill, too, but you won't find any burgers on it. The closest thing to traditional grill fare on the menu (thankfully, there's a bilingual version) is listed as "franks." They're just what they sound like: hot dogs without the bun. But here, they're cut with shallow slits and seasoned with a peppery spice mix before grilling.
Mostly, though, what you'll find sizzling on the grill are the kebabs that are a familiar street food in many part of the world. At Able, they're marinated in a pungent blend from the Xinjiang region that includes cumin, coriander, chiles and Szechuan peppercorn before grilling. They're not lip-searingly spicy unless you ask for them that way.
Beef, lamb and chicken kebabs are all toothsome and a bargain at $4.50 for three bamboo skewers ($3 for chicken). If you have an adventurous palate, do yourself a favor and order the chicken hearts. Marinated for hours before grilling, they're surprisingly tender, with an umami-rich, almost beefy savor.
Order peanuts from the appetizer section, and you'll get a bowlful of boiled peanuts tossed with diced celery, carrots and scallions - a crunchy combination that should win over a few converts from the "I've tried boiled peanuts and I don't like them" school. Chinese salad, a colorful tangle of julienne carrot, edamame and slivers of tofu skin in a refreshingly light dressing, is a must.
An order of eggs, on the other hand, produces hard-boiled slices that have been steeped at low temperature in a "secret" brew, but still come off as bland to this Western palate. Maybe it's an acquired taste.
There's absolutely no reason to shy away from the hot pot, though, a fondue that's served for two or more. You'll be brought a platter laden with Asian vegetables, enoki mushrooms, tofu, seaweed, cellophane noodles and the meat of your choice (raw shaved beef or lamb, or seafood cakes). Cook these to your liking in the divided pot that contains two simmering broths: a mild Northern Chinese chicken broth, and a spicy Szechuan brew made from beef bones. If you'd like a smaller portion or if you'd prefer not to cook it yourself, you can order individual bowls of the Szechuan hotpot cooked in the kitchen.
Li is especially proud of his handmade dumplings, and rightfully so. He makes several variations, including the lip-smacking pork and cabbage dumplings I devoured recently. They're a steal, too, at $6.95 for a dozen.
The dining room is modestly furnished, and the fluorescent lighting isn't particularly flattering. But Li and his friendly staff provide all the warmth the place needs. "I try to make everybody feel welcome, like they're sitting in my kitchen," he says. He succeeds.
Indeed, you can call it what you like - bar and grill, Chinese street food eatery, karaoke bar, a friend's kitchen - Able Bar & Grill is a most welcome addition to the local dining scene.