Sleek Surrounds and Asian Food at Buddha Lounge
Seldom has a restaurant name been more apt than Buddha Lounge. Industrial leather banquettes, cozy semicircular booths, plush padded bar stools and lots of twinkling light fixtures play off deep crimson walls and tablecloths. Once the sun goes down, it’s hard to tell whether you’re walking into a club or a restaurant. And among all the décor are Buddhas. Everywhere. On just about every table, in little nooks and crannies, on the bar and standing in an unused corner. They come in all shapes, sizes and types, leaving you to wonder if you accidentally walked into a Pier 1 Imports.
Just as varied as the Buddhas is the menu. Vietnamese cuisine and sushi are most heavily represented, with some Thai, Chinese and American dishes thrown in for good measure. You can even get fusion Tacos de Buddha ($6 for three) as an appetizer or bar snack, with beef, pork or lemongrass chicken in corn tortillas and served with salsa.
1504 E. North Ave.
Handicapped access: Yes
CC, RS, FB, LT, GF
Hours: Su-W 11 a.m.-12 a.m., Th-Sat 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
True to the lounge feel, the appetizer menu is large and full of dishes easy to share. Eight potstickers with your choice of filling for $6 seems like a great deal, but the dumplings are smaller than most you get around the city thanks to the thinner, more delicate wrappers. Egg rolls ($8) are wrapped in thin skins that stay flaky and light when fried, as opposed to the thick, doughy version at many Chinese spots. Choose the pork and shrimp filling over the vegetarian version. Crab Rangoon ($8) are homemade and shaped into a little square pocket with no shortage of filling. Spring rolls ($8) were fresh and without the dried-out rice paper skin that can plague them, but they could have used more vegetables and pork and less lettuce.
Comforting Vietnamese pho ($11-$14) is a big draw here and, while it only occupies one spot on the menu, can be customized. First, choose your size: small is quite large and sufficient for most people, especially at lunch. Then choose between beef, chicken or vegetable broth and any meats you like. If you choose beef pho, it will come with thin slices of raw beef that cook in your broth. Add brisket if you enjoy fattier cuts or tendon, which is plenty tender. The beef in the meatball option is coarsely ground and minimally worked, giving it a texture closer to an Italian meatball than the dense, springy meatballs commonly used in pho. The beef broth is dark in color and heavy on the fragrant star anise and cinnamon. Definitely use the provided lime wedges to bring a little acidity to your bowl. They’re not skimpy with the Thai basil, but herb lovers might want to ask for a bit more cilantro.
The sushi menu centers around rolls, from simple, traditional ($7) style with your choice of seafood to more elaborate creations like the midnight roll ($12) with tuna, salmon, mango and black rice.
Thai and Chinese-American portions of the menu stick to favorite dishes like pad Thai ($12) that’s sweet and saucy and pepper steak ($12) with an abundance of green bell peppers in a dark, rich sauce with grass-fed beef slices. Quizzically, you can also get a half-pound Buddha burger ($10) or loaded fries ($6) topped with nacho cheese sauce, bacon bits, jalapeños and a sunny side up egg. If you’re in the mood for a sandwich and fries, at least get the banh mi ($12), a massive 14-inch baguette of pork or pâté and sausage with pickled veggies and mayo, instead. It even comes with fries.
Wash your meal down with a bubble tea smoothie ($5) in flavors like almond and kiwi, or choose from the full bar including 10 taps, which is what I suspect most people do, whether they’re watching football on the massive TVs in the bar or taking advantage of the generous happy hour specials.