Location: 2018 E. Carson St., South Side 412-251-0228
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $2-10; entrees $7-13
Fare: Chinese American
Atmosphere: Minimalist Asian
When a new Chinese restaurant opens, we get excited. For a few reasons, we were especially looking forward to eating at Lin's Asian Fusion. For one thing, it's been a long time since Chinese zodiac placemats and fortune cookies have graced East Carson Street. For another, peering in the storefront windows had whetted our appetites for Lin's minimalist, modern aesthetic. And the fact that it bore a family resemblance to the décor at Wai Wai, a Chinese restaurant we like in Bloomfield, turned out to be more than coincidence: Wai Wai is run by the sister of Lin's owner.
The spare elegance of Lin's interior is punctuated by wood-framed displays of Asian objets d'art on the walls and a storefront that connects diners to the East Carson Street scene, even as they're slightly elevated above the fray. We also appreciated the kitchen pass-through, which followed a jog in the wall to create a pleasing peek into the chef's domain without revealing too much.
Lin's approach to its menu, however, is maximalist. The menu board posted on the back wall is approximately the size of a queen-size bed; it has to be, as the list follows the Chinese-American restaurant tradition of erring on the side of epic. And, despite the "Asian Fusion" attached to Lin's name, most of the dishes are Chinese-American standards.
We did spot an appetizer we've never seen before: avocado spring roll. With their light, almost brittle wrappers and luscious filling of avocado pureed with cream cheese, these cigar-size rolls were simple, satisfying studies in the pleasing contrast between crisp and creamy.
Cream cheese also made an appearance in that classic Chinese-American appetizer, crab Rangoon. Here, the sweet and creamy filling, molten from the fryer, was just right, but the wrappers were somewhat soaked with fat, and tough at the edges where they'd been pinched shut. The fried dumplings fared better, with substantial, savory ground-pork interiors and wrappers that were browned to perfection: crunchy and flavored by, but not saturated with, frying oil. Angelique wished only for a more complex dipping sauce, but the soy sauce had enough salty-sweetness to please Jason.
The "home style" chicken wings similarly revealed a knack for deep-frying. They were coated with an ultra-crispy, lightly-seasoned crust that locked in the moisture of the meaty poultry inside. The hot-and-sour soup could have used more seasoning; it was bland at first bite, although the heat built with subsequent spoonfuls.
We were eager to try Lin's vegetables, but apparently we were not the only ones. The first dish we ordered, Szechuan string bean, was out. Well, then, we would have eggplant in a spicy garlic sauce. Strike two. Our apologetic server suggested pad Thai. The dish arrived studded with green peppers -- sorry, we're pad Thai traditionalists -- and saturated in a sauce that was as sweet as candy. Even with a generous squeeze of lime, Lin's pad Thai tasted like dessert.
Thai basil tofu was more successful, with distinct herbal notes, but the slices of jalapeno were so hot, they unbalanced the flavors whenever they got scooped up in a bite. Minced chilies would have been more effective at providing measured heat throughout this dish; sliced ones could have been served on the side to be added at the discretion of the diner.
House special Cantonese pan-fried noodle promised one of our favorite things: crispy noodle cake, as a base, with mixed meat and vegetables on top. The stir-fry components were well cooked and balanced, with the inclusion of imitation crabmeat surprisingly successful. But the noodle cake was inadequate to its load; though its edges remained crispy, its interior was mostly sodden with absorbed stir-fry sauce. This consisted of the more-or-less standard Chinese-American brown sauce, pepped up with the slightly sweet black pepper notes of Cantonese cooking.
The sense that Lin's kitchen had an unusual capability with brown sauce was reinforced by the fish with black bean sauce, in which the distinctive earthy, tangy notes of fermented legumes kicked up the standard brininess of soy. The fish consisted of discs of flaky white flesh, battered and fried, plus tofu cubes to round out (or stretch?) the protein, as well as red and green peppers for crunch.
Ultimately, Lin's stylish atmosphere was a welcome update on the traditional Chinese-American dining experience, but the menu and the food were both old school.