“It’s like Bang Bang Shrimp,” our server explains when I ask about an appetizer called Firecracker Shrimp at Eighty 8 Asian Bistro, a sleekly stylish purveyor of fusion fare and BOGO sushi that opened in February in Cary. I can’t help but think it’s ironic that she uses the name of a famous specialty at a national restaurant chain as a shorthand description of a dish that likely has its origins in a locally owned restaurant like this one.
Then again, it’s a sign that the Asian bistro concept has firmly established itself in the American restaurant mainstream. In the span of a single generation, East-West fusion creations – from Bang Bang Shrimp to everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sushi rolls – have become a familiar part of our culinary vernacular.
Eighty 8’s starter list rounds up all the usual Asian bistro suspects, from traditional gyoza and crab wontons to contemporary fusion fancies such as spicy tuna nachos, ceviche martini, and sliders on miniature Hawaiian buns. You can get your edamame old school (steamed and salted in the shell) or new school (hummus, served with wonton chips for dipping).
I order the Firecracker Shrimp, and sure enough, it’s the familiar dish of batter-fried shrimp tossed in a blend of mayo, Sriracha and sweet chile sauce that sushi fans will recognize by yet another name: dynamite sauce. It’s a solid rendition, too, marred only by the fact that it’s lukewarm and the “crispy” batter has softened in the sauce.
This will prove to be a harbinger of things to come. On two separate occasions, a generally pleasant but insufficiently trained wait staff leaves no doubt that the level of service is not what it should be more than six months after opening.
The only outright disappointment that cannot be laid at the feet of spotty service is a seafood bisque so thick it might better be called seafood pudding. If it’s soup you’re craving, stick with Eighty 8’s properly pungent rendition of the tried-and-true hot and sour.
Lettuce wraps are a winning shareable starter, serving up an umami-rich sauté of minced chicken and water chestnuts on a bed of fried rice noodles, flanked by crisp lettuce leaves and two sauces (peanut and sweet chile). Bulgogi egg rolls are on the money, too, their crunchy wrappers filled with a savory hash of shaved rib-eye marinated in a Korean barbecue sauce. Salt and pepper calamari, tender in a light tempura batter, are not what the term “salt and pepper” traditionally calls to mind, but they’re nonetheless enjoyable.
The sushi bar offers a modest selection of traditional maki, nigiri and sashimi, but its prime target is clearly fans of BOGO sushi rolls, which are offered during weekday lunch hours and every night but Friday and Saturday. Eighty 8 sets itself apart from the BOGO crowd with a weekly Special Feature roll – like the Freddy Krueger (soft shell crab, red and green bell pepper and Sriracha topped with grilled salmon mix, and sweet and spicy sauces) that was featured in the lead-up to Halloween.
Fans can vote online for their favorite Special Feature, with those getting the most votes earning a return engagement. Top recent vote-getters include Tropic Thunder (tempura mango, soft shell crab topped with shaggy shreds of kani and drizzles of seafood sauce, sweet chile sauce and ponzu) and Dragon’s Roar (spicy tuna, fried calamari and Thai chile topped with kani, cucumber, chile, ponzu and ginger dressing).
Apart from a coffee- and Asian spice-rubbed filet mignon (which I didn’t try) and a grilled barramundi with mango salsa and miso broth (which I did, and liked), the most daring thing about the entrees is that you can get them with brown rice (and in some cases, a colorful medley of fried potatoes: white, purple and sweet) instead of the usual fried or white rice.
But the bulk of the entree offering is clearly aimed at delivering the comfort of the familiar in the form of orange peel beef, hibachi shrimp, house fried rice and the like. Judging by a perfectly respectable but unremarkable orange peel beef, the list is on target.
The menu also gives a brief nod to a current trend in the form of three classic noodle dishes: pad thai, lo mein and pho. As far as I can tell, the pho is the only Vietnamese dish on the menu – which comes as something of a surprise, given that owner/chef Dai Nguyen is a native of that country. It’s even more surprising when Nguyen proudly credits his mom for his cooking skills.
Then again, his pedigree also includes an uncle, Tham Nguyen, who owns several Shiki Asian Bistro (formerly Shiki Sushi) and TASU Asian Bistro locations around the Triangle.
Dai Nguyen himself is no stranger to the concept. In addition to working for his uncle, he owned Wasabi 88, a popular Asian bistro in Greenville, for nearly a decade before selling it last year to open Eighty 8 in Cary. Given his track record, it’s a good bet he’ll be able to iron out the new restaurant wrinkles at his latest venture.
1077 Darrington Drive, Cary
Cuisine: Asian fusion
Atmosphere: sleekly stylish contemporary Asian
Noise level: moderate
Service: needs training
Recommended: hot and sour soup, lettuce wraps, bulgogi egg rolls, grilled barramundi
Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner nightly.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.