Few things irritate me more than the term "Asian restaurant." Not because I don't love Asian food — I haven't met an Asian cuisine I dislike. But because Asia is an enormous continent with several dozen countries, including the world's two most populous. Asian tells me almost nothing of the food's origins or inspiration, and leaves me wondering whether the restaurant is indecisive or unfocused.
Or maybe it's the dining public that's indiscriminate, preferring what's general and satisfactory to strongly focused culturally rooted cuisine. Whatever the cause, Foo Dog has stepped into the Richmond dining scene offering Asian street food.
Sitting in the beautifully renovated old Main Art building at Main and Lombardy streets, Foo Dog is named after Chinese guardian lion statues, familiar fixtures in this country's many Chinatowns. Visually, the restaurant draws you in with a wall of glass facing Main Street, enticing Fan bar crawlers with its lively crowd, artwork, four televisions and scantily clad waitresses. It may not be a formula that works for everyone, but Foo Dog already has found a steady fan base.
The menu is divided into street food and ramen and noodle bowls. Refreshingly, all but one dish costs less than $10 unless you add extra ingredients. From the street food section, the restaurant's focus, there are hits and misses. In some dishes, meat that's cooked perfectly is masked by a sauce that tastes straight from a bottle. The miso glazed squid's ($8) three-flavor sauce is a dead ringer for Thai sweet chili sauce you can buy at the grocery store. That's an absolute shame, because Foo Dog cooks its squid with finesse — and that isn't easy. Similarly, the bao wow ($5) features remarkably well-cooked pork belly in a Chinese-style steam bun, but it suffers from a mediocre plum sauce.
In other dishes, however, sauce is an attribute. The shazam shrimp ($8) is elevated by its jalapeño honey aioli, which strikes a perfect balance of sweet and heat. And the beef satay skewers ($6) are tender and accompanied by a pleasantly sweet peanut satay sauce.
There's also some unevenness with the ramen and noodle bowls. Ramen's foundation is a complex broth, which is where Foo Dog's versions suffer. The Japanese ramen ($9) comes with pork broth that tastes more of seaweed than meat. It isn't bad, but the best ramen should have you savoring every sip, trying to understand the magic behind the flavors.
A far more enjoyable dish is the Malaysian ramen ($9), with its heavier flavors of curry, miso and coconut milk. The meaty chasu pork is the best choice of proteins to add, but skip the soft poached egg ($1), which on my visits is served soft-boiled, making it difficult to break up and suffuse the broth with its richness.
The noodle bowls are decent enough. East to west pad thai ($8) and Singapore curried noodles ($8) are enjoyable takes on these classics. Gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian diners are well accommodated.
Foo Dog's best asset is the culinary diversity it brings to the Fan's bar scene. During a night of revelry and roaming Main Street, inexpensive ramen and Foo Dog's street food would hit the spot. With a few improvements it's poised to be more of a destination spot on other nights too. S
1537 W. Main St.
Open 4 p.m. daily closed Monday
Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight (kitchen until 10 p.m.)
Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; kitchen until 11 p.m.