Don’t let the name fool you. Nice Bowls is not another newcomer in the rapidly growing category of trendy restaurants specializing in healthy bowls. You won’t find a scrap of kale or a grain of quinoa here, or a single item on the menu with the word “power” in it. Here, the bowls are filled with plain white rice.
In fact, Nice Bowls — an unassuming mom-and-pop eatery in a tiny 12-table space formerly occupied by a Chinese takeout shop — is about as far from trendy as it gets. Pop, in this case, is chef Harry Dong, a veteran of more than a decade in area restaurants, including Sushi-Thai (both locations) and C & T Wok in Morrisville. His wife, Stacy Sun, helps out in the dining room and sets a warmly welcoming tone for a streamlined but efficient wait staff.
The restaurant’s full name — Nice Bowls Asian Cuisine — is more revealing, though I wouldn’t recommend using it as a guide to ordering. Sure, the menu devotes sections to Thai and Japanese cuisines.
And yes, you can get your General Tso’s chicken fix here. You’ll find it among an abridged selection of Chinese-American favorites under the Chinese Dish heading. But it’s clear (and it became even more obvious to me after sampling some mediocre Thai dishes) that the chef’s heart lies in cooking the authentic regional specialties of his native China.
These account for the bulk of Nice Bowls’ extensive offering, with dozens of dishes inviting you on a cross-country tour from Szechwan chicken hot pot to Cantonese chow fun to Shanghai-style bok choy. Szechwan dishes dominate the itinerary, while categories labeled Griddle Cooked, Pot au Feu (clay pot casseroles) and Served on a Sizzling Iron Plate offer intriguing side excursions.
The mysteriously named “five vegetable mixed,” one of a mere handful of items in the list of authentic appetizers, will get your tour off to a rousing start. The dish turns out to be a bright, crunchy medley of julienne carrot, cucumber, scallion, peanuts and cilantro, glistening in a sheen of chile oil and served cold.
If you’re feeling adventurous, “thin sliced pork belly” (translation: pale, unctuous ribbons of garlic-braised pork belly, spangled with scallions) is another worthy destination. Try to order “bean sheet jelly with assorted vegetables,” however, and your server will likely steer you away if you didn’t order it in Chinese. Probably a good idea to take the hint.
Stay in Szechwan, if you like, for your main course. Try the one labeled simply “Hot Hot Hot” if you dare (I didn’t). Less intimidating — but still rewarding — destinations include three pepper chicken, shredded pork with garlic sauce, and fish filets in hot chile oil, featuring grouper in a fiery broth slicked with chile oil and liberally sprinkled with Szechuan peppercorn.
Alternatively, you might head over to the southeast coast for a first-rate rendition of Cantonese style salt and pepper shrimp, tossed with red and green bell peppers and scallions — and yes, meant to be eaten shell and all. Or shoot up to northern China for gently spiced stir-fried lamb with cumin.
And by all means, ask your server to help you explore the secret treasure map (aka the list of specials written entirely in Chinese characters on a board on the back wall of the dining room). You could be richly rewarded, as I was recently, with Shanghai-style sweet and sour pork ribs. Bone-gnawingly good beneath a sesame-spangled mahogany glaze of sauce, this proved to be one of the two most memorable dishes I have yet to come across at Nice Bowls.
You’ll find the other favorite tucked in among a small, motley collection of dishes (stir-fried cauliflower, pork intestines and tea tree mushrooms, to name a few) in what appears to be a catch-all section labeled “Griddle Cooked.” The dish is called crispy potato chips, and I can practically guarantee it’s not what you’re thinking. Even describing it requires an educated guess or two. Potatoes, sliced just thick enough to puff up when deep-fried, are then stir-fried with carrots, wood ear mushrooms, lotus root and bell peppers in a light, medium-spicy sauce. The only thing these potato chips have in common with Lay’s is that they’re addictive.
Given the burgeoning success of authentic Chinese restaurants in the Triangle, I’d like to think it’s no longer necessary for them to piggyback their cuisine onto the popular “Asian Cuisine” concept in an attempt to broaden their appeal. Nice Bowls, for one, would be a better restaurant if it ditched that part of its name.
As it stands, though, Thai and Japanese cuisines account for a substantial minority of the offering, so I’m compelled to incorporate them in my star rating. Feel free to add a half star to that rating if you’re going strictly for the Chinese food.
In that case, I’m confident that the fortune in the fortune cookie I got the last time I ate there will apply to your experience: “You will have a close encounter of a surprising kind.” And, even if you just walked in looking to order a power bowl, the surprise will be a pleasant one.
Nice Bowls Asian Cuisine
4224 NW Cary Parkway, Cary
Cuisine: Chinese, Thai, Japanese
Rating: 3 stars
Atmosphere: small, unassuming strip mall Chinese restaurant
Noise level: low
Service: efficient and eager to please
Recommended: five vegetable mixed, pork belly with garlic, fish filets in hot chile oil, Shanghai sweet and sour pork ribs, crispy potato chips
Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly
Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.