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Hope St. Asian restaurant serves a dish for all

Apsara Palace Restaurant combines tastes from China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand

On a crowded Saturday night at Apsara Palace Restaurant, a steady stream of patrons winds its way through tables of diners to the counter in the back corner, where a smiling woman forks over bags of food and tells other hungry customers to come back in 45 minutes for a table.

Variations on “Sorry about the wait, honey” are her friendly refrain, but most accept the delay willingly, congregating by the front door with friends and bring-your-own beers.

It’s a telling encapsulation of this intermittently delicious and exceedingly economical pan-Asian hub on Hope Street, mingling bustle with elegance and a keen sense of familiarity. Patterned cloths adorn the tables, but only underneath sheets of paper. And gold-framed portraits of Chinese vistas look down on a dining room that straddles the intersection of neighborhood carry-out joint and sit-down restaurant.

When the menus arrive — which could take a little while because there aren’t always enough to serve every table — Apsara’s multi-hyphenate identity becomes clear. The Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai fare ranges from lo mein to pad Thai to Vietnamese bee boong, a coconut- and peanut-infused stir fry.

Extensive as the menu is, you might expect some hits and misses, and the dishes flying out from the kitchen mostly bear that out.

An appetizer order of nime chow — a throwback to the days when the Blue Room stocked the spring rolls — yields vegetables, rice noodles and sprouts wrapped in tight cylinders of rice paper. Every ingredient bursts with freshness, and an accompanying splash of sweet peanut sauce elevates the bite.

Puffs of crab rangoon are just as satisfying. The fried exterior is crispy but light, giving way to a center of fluffy cream cheese studded with pieces of crab. Thai chive dumplings ooze their rich, onion-spiked centers in the best way.

But for every culinary triumph, there’s another disappointment. Lort, a miniature version of an eggroll, has a nicely flaky exterior, but its tightly packed stuffing of taro and peanut is dense and dry. And steer clear of the vegetable ravioli: The Italian name might conjure visions of interesting fusion cuisine, but it arrives on the table a limp rendition of an Asian dumpling — poor flavor and worse texture.

Entrees are generally more successful, though the servers sometimes stagger them poorly. But the range of options is so broad that anybody can find a favorite. Udon noodle soup is soothing and tasty, if not exactly revelatory. Hunks of silken tofu swim alongside a medley of thick noodles, broccoli, bok choy and carrots in a lightly salted broth. Make sure to squeeze a dash of lime juice from the accompanying accoutrements — it livens up the comforting bowl.

Some dishes fall just short of greatness. Initial bites of “chicken strange flavor” more than live up to the mystique of the dish’s name, as a smoky and sweet sauce reminiscent of barbecue punches up a topping of baby corn, snap peas and other vegetables. But diners who dig a little deeper will begin to wonder why the kitchen didn’t treat the middling strips of chicken buried at the bottom with the same care.

There are some protein problems in vegetarian dishes, too. Broccoli and egg are intertwined with ribbons of pan-fried egg noodles in a delicious mound of food, but the pieces of tofu mixed in are few and far between.

Such flaws are easy to overlook, though, in Apsara’s convivial atmosphere, where waitresses hug customers they know and use an endearing “Honey” to those they don’t.

Even more than the ambiance, Apsara’s greatest draw may be its price scheme. Appetizers are mostly under $5, with appetizer bowls of soup running under $2.  Entree prices are almost uniformly in the single digits, and the portions are so large that dinner will double as lunch tomorrow.

At prices like that, Apsara is hard to resist. And if patrons choose their dishes wisely, this charming, busy restaurant is well worth the bus ride up Hope Street.


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