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West Coast Grill
*** 1/2 Out of a possible five

Tasty tweet: Asian fare a belly-pleaser

When Rick Hudelson of Fort Wayne told me about this place while trying to win a contest I introduced on Twitter to help me find a unique place to check out, I could hardly believe it.

He said he knew of a place that served the best seared pork belly he had ever had, and that place was – believe it or not – a burrito joint in the food court at Glenbrook Square.

He was right, he won the contest, and now I have let his secret out, because West Coast Grill was a real find.

The Grill opened in January 2012 featuring California-style burritos, and still does. The big chicken burrito was up to snuff, with a tender steamed tortilla stuffed with fresh crispy lettuce, onions, tomatoes, beans, rice, sour cream and choice of salsa (I wisely chose one with sweet corn), but what really makes this place special is the metamorphosis it has gone through since its debut.

Owner Lee Truong is of Chinese and Vietnamese descent and quickly started getting requests for Asian offerings from friends and family who frequented his food court stall. So he started making not only the pork belly, but also noodle and rice bowls, Vietnamese soup (i.e., pho) and more. So now, the burritos take a back seat to the Asian fare.

The success of those Asian offerings even has him planning to open a sit-down restaurant in the near future.

Truong also has a sort of secret menu that includes Peking-style duck rolls and Hainanese boiled chicken; the latter I have not seen offered elsewhere in the area. Those items require a call ahead to give him time to properly prepare them.

Hudelson was right about the pork belly: It was delicious. The chunks of fatty pork had a crispy, pork cracklin’ style top layer, the meat was melt-in-your mouth tender, and the layers of fat literally did melt in your mouth.

The belly was paired with a sweet, soy-based dipping sauce and plum sauce, but I really didn’t need either. The plum sauce was sour and not to my liking, but an employee said it was “good for digestion” of the unctuous pork, so maybe mixing a little in with the soy isn’t a bad idea.

Hudelson, a systems consultant for the Dulin, Ward & DeWald accounting firm, said he often carries out the belly, which is sold by the pound, with plans to enjoy through the weekend, but it usually doesn’t last past the first night. It wouldn’t last more than a few hours in my home, either, it was that good.

I did try the duck at West Coast Grill in the roasted duck entrée with yellow noodles. A bowl of ramen with red onions and cabbage from the burrito counter were joined by sliced mushrooms and crispy rough-cut chunks of bone-in duck. A little broth was heated on a wok and poured over this bowl, which could also be had sans broth with udon noodles or rice.

The duck – locally sourced by Maple Leaf Farms near Milford – was wonderful and had me picking up the pieces trying to pry every morsel of the crispy, well-seasoned skin, with its fat properly rendered, and the tender, rich meat off of each bone. There was just enough broth to soak the noodles, the cabbage gave it some crunch, and I cleaned my bowl with ease.

The pho also proved worthy of having again. It came in a large bowl with rice noodles, white and green onions, basil and mung bean sprouts with the staple lime wedges, Sriracha red pepper and hoysin sauces on the side.

The light beef broth was beautifully perfumed by the sweet basil, the noodles were spot-on, and the thin slices of beef were just a bit tough but still enjoyable.

The two chicken dishes I tried were both winners but did contrast with each other.

The soy sauce chicken and lemongrass chicken, like the duck, came in roughly cut, bone-in chunks like the duck. The soy had just a touch of the name ingredient, so it wasn’t too salty or overbearing. The lemongrass chicken also had a subtle lemongrass flavor – almost too subtle. The meat in both was juicy and easily fell from the bone, but the skins were much different.

The skin on the soy sauce was kind of chewy, like it would be on a roasted bird, but the lemongrass’ skin was rendered until crunchy like good old-fashioned fried chicken.

It was a tough call between the two, because I liked the more profound flavor of the soy but loved the crispy skin of the lemongrass.

I chose udon on the side with my soy sauce chicken and would choose udon over rice every time from now on. The thick noodles were some of the most perfectly prepared udon noodles I have had – not too soft and not too chewy. They were wok-sautéed with a few slivers of crispy onion, cucumber and carrot.

What really made the noodles shine was the well-rounded flavor the sesame oil, soy and other seasonings they were sautéed in gave them.

West Coast Grill offers bubble teas and smoothies, to which tapioca pearls and flavored jellies can be added. My favorite was the Hawaiian Green, a mix of honeydew melon and avocado. The bright green blended bubble tea was thick and rich like a milkshake from the avocado, and it had a real refreshing flavor. The Grill did, however, forget to add the staple tapioca pearls to it.

I also tried a couple of appetizers – tempura shrimp and a combination of steak and chicken “on a stick,” and both were pleasing with the kabobs being borderline fantastic.

The chicken was moist and nicely flavored by its salty-sweet Asian marinade, but the steak was shockingly tender, and I assume it had been worked over with a mallet before cooking to ensure its wonderful texture. Next time, it will be steak only.

There will be a next time, and I won’t only be having steak on a stick. The pork belly is a must-try for any foodie, and the promise of what the boiled chicken and Peking duck might bring have me dying to get back to the mall.

And for that reason alone, my wife should be thanking Rick Hudelson, too.

Restaurant: West Coast Grill

Address: 4201 Coldwater Road

Phone: 373-1888

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Pork belly ($9 a pound), roasted duck ($7.95), pho ($6.95), soy sauce chicken ($3.99), lemongrass chicken ($3.99), beef and chicken sticks ($3.99), tempura shrimp ($2.99), smoothies ($3.95), bubble tea ($4.25)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.