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Paper Lantern
Out of a possible five
Ryan DuVall
The Vietnamese noodle soup - Pho Tai Bo Vien with rare beef and meatballs -- from Paper Lantern in the Shoppes at Coldwater along Coldwater Road.

Nice cure for fusion confusion

I have never been a big fan of the Asian fusion trend.

It is simple, really. I would rather go to a place that makes a few dishes perfectly than go to a place that does dozens of dishes just OK. And in Fort Wayne there is a wealth of ethnic restaurants, so I have a favorite Vietnamese place, a favorite Korean place and a few favorite Chinese places, so there is no need for me to go to a place that does it all.

But then I tried Paper Lantern on Coldwater Road. And there I found a few fantastic Vietnamese offerings, a tasty Korean appetizer and a new must-try noodle dish from China. So I guess there is always an exception to the rule.

The dish that I have already been back for and will be a regular part of my rotation was the Singapore Noodle. Although it is named for the island country, it is actually a Chinese/Cantonese dish.

Rice vermicelli was seasoned with yellow curry powder and stir fried with egg, sprouts, green peppers, carrot, green and white onions and either chicken or beef. The curry was in the right amount so you don’t have to like curry to love the dish.

The beef was fork tender and plentiful, the noodles were not too oily like many stir-fried noodle dishes, and the vegetables were fresh. It also really took on the pan-roasted flavor from the wok, adding a level of umami flavor. I also suggest adding shrimp – for just $1.50 – as they were big, sweet tail-on beauties.

From Vietnam came a wonderful appetizer that actually made for a perfect lunch salad. The goi – Vietnamese coleslaw – had finely shredded green and red cabbage, lotus root and carrot, cilantro and mint all dressed with a sweet-tangy clear dressing. It was topped with chopped peanuts and it, too, can be had with just vegetables or with pork, chicken, shrimp or a combination. I had mine with shrimp that were cut in half and had the perfect texture and sweetness to go with the fresh veggies and sweet dressing.

Another Vietnamese staple – pho – won favor. Paper Lantern serves a huge bowl of spice-infused and seasoned broth and it had just the right amount of rice noodles. I chose the Pho Tai Bo Vien, which included thinly sliced rare steak that fully cooked in the broth and chewy little split Vietnamese meatballs. It included the customary garnishes of Thai basil, sprouts, jalapeno and lime, and was a really nice bowl of soup.

The best bowl of soup, however, was the gratis egg drop that could be had preceding each dinner entrée. This egg drop soup was more egg than broth. It was bright yellow, thick, rich and pretty simple with just a few green onions on top, but it was heavenly. The so-so hot and sour option was far inferior.

My Korean find was also an appetizer, but it, too, would be great for a light lunch. The three Korean tacos had flour tortillas filled with marinated beef that had the signature Kalbi marinade flavor – soy sauce, sugar and vinegar.

The beef was tender and nicely caramelized around the edges and the taco was also dressed with sliced cucumber, cilantro, red and green cabbage and tomatoes, which I found unique for an Asian taco. The ingredients played well off each other and I didn’t use much of the “house sour cream,” which I suspect had a little Sriracha hot sauce pepping it up.

As tender and tasty as the beef was at Paper Lantern, the pork was even better.

The Vietnamese banh mi sandwich was better here than it is at a place that specializes in them. The thinly sliced pork was juicy, tender and perfectly seasoned so it was the star of this sandwich, which was made with a nicely toasted baguette, pickled daikon radishes and carrots that added a vinegar punch, cilantro, crunch cucumbers and just a little olive oil mayonnaise.

The rice vermicelli – bun in Vietnamese – also highlighted the delectable sliced pork. Cold rice noodles were joined by crisp shredded romaine lettuce, sprouts, cucumbers and Thai basil, and topped with the pickled daikon-carrot mix. The noodles are also garnished with fried onions, green onions and crushed peanuts. It was a salad-meets-noodles masterpiece.

The Chinese dishes I tasted were just OK. The Yu Shan Chicken had nice, tender chunks of white meat mixed with still-snappy white onion petals, carrots, green peppers, bamboo shoots and mushrooms. It had a little heat and was decent.

The Beef and Scallops dish, however, lacked any heat even though it was said to be spicy on the menu, and was actually rather sweet with a hint of garlic. The beef was also a bit tough and sinewy.

The best Chinese dish was the Orange Chicken, which I ordered for my children as an afterthought. The chicken was crisp and enjoyable, there was orange peel visible in the brown sauce and the essence of that orange permeated the sauce nicely. Another positive was that lo mein noodles could be had on the side of the Chinese offerings instead of steamed rice.

Paper Lantern’s fusion was not relegated to the food. The drink menu featured Vietnamese iced coffee, Japanese bubble teas and fruit smoothies and sodas. Tapioca pearls, bursting boba juice bubbles or flavored jellies can also be added to any of them. And all of the ones I tried were perfect with no skimping on the extras.

Located in a building that was once home to Schlotzky’s Deli and a short-lived pancake house, Paper Lantern has been gussied up a bit, but it is pretty obvious it was once a fast-food joint. The orange paint scheme is attractive and gives it a newer look, but the dated banquet-style furnishings and drab wood accents could use replacing.

The service was outstanding. The folks there really seemed to appreciate the business given it is still relatively new, and were very helpful in describing the menu and answering any questions.

Put it all together and it was a fusion of success that will have – and has had – me going back for more.

Restaurant: Paper Lantern

Address: 4610 Coldwater Road

Phone: 471-4990

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Korean tacos ($7.95), soup ($1.50), shrimp slaw ($6.95), pho ($7.50), pork bun ($7.95), banh mi ($4.25), Yu Shan Chicken ($5.95), smoothies ($4.25)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (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 or at the “JG Food” page on Facebook.