January 23, 2006 1:04 AM | By Adam Roberts | 5 Comments

Service with a Smile, Service with a Sneer: Cafe Asean & Sparky's

Context matters. You can eat the best food ever made, but if you're eating it in bicycle shorts surrounded by mimes playing Kenny G music on kazoos it probably won't rock your world. That's because the trappings that surround a dining experience often play a bigger role than you're willing to acknowledge. Take, for example, the trappings that surrounded our meal at Cafe Asean:


I pass Cafe Asean all the time and it always seems alluring from the outside. It's on 8th St. or 7th St. or one of those streets near 6th Avenue on the way to the Village. It has that welcoming hand-painted sign you see above and when you enter the room it's homey without being too cutesy. I met Kirk and Diana there last week right before school started.

Our waiter struggled with the language a bit but I found that endearing. We asked for suggestions and he helpfully offered them. I ordered green curry which you can see here:


It was still bubbling when it came to the table. I found it a bit too spicy, even though I'd ordered it mild. As a testament to the charm of the place, I didn't care. And thus we offer up our first piece of data: pretty good food in a charming environment.

Let's flip that on its head now and visit Sparky's on Lafayette, just north of Houston:


Stella suggested Sparky's because she used to go there in Brooklyn and "it was great." James suggested it too because the Chowhounders really like it, though they prefer the Brooklyn one over Manhattan.

Walking in, I felt like I was walking into a prison cafeteria. This feeling was confirmed when I said to the man behind the counter: "Hey, how's it going?" He greeted that with a sneer. [See post title!]

We ordered our food and sat at a table filthy with the remnants of the last burgers eaten there. Scattered pieces of onion and pickle.

But the food was really good. I liked the burger:


Brian W. writes on the Flickr picture: "Man. That looks unbelievably good. Was it unbelievably good?"

Yes, it was, though the patty by itself looked a little grayish. There was also a flavor component in the burger I couldn't quite identify. I thought it might be veal. Let me ask James Felder on IM.

Me: Do you think there's veal in their burger?

James: I've never had their burger, but would be quite surprised if there was anything other than beef in it.

I agree with him but there was something gamey about that burger.

When it came to fries, James suggested I order them well done. I've never ordered fries well done before but I'm glad I did:


They were... well done.

Meanwhile, the ladies I was with enjoyed their food too. There's Stella with a vegetarian hot dog and Diana with her own bacon cheeseburger, stuffing their faces:


This is the kind of food that's hard to mess up. And when it's not messed up, it tastes good.

So in conclusion, I could be talked into going back to Sparky's but my hesitation would be based purely on the environment. Alternatively, I'd gladly go back to Cafe Asean even though my curry was too spicy.

And that my friends is a scientific study on the effect of environment on meals dined out by The Amateur Gourmet.


that burger and those fries look amazing. by the way, cafe asean says it's 'southeast asian', but what country is the food exactly? because green curry is thai but that doesn't seem very like the tradition thai green curry.

Why would veal make it taste gamey?? Veal being baby beef, shouldn't that make any distinct taste of a meat less intense - sort of like lamb vs. mutton?
If nothing else, veal should make it more expensive though...

Cafe ASEAN stands for "Association of Southeastern Asian Nations" which is an official trade organization in southeast asia that includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Phillipines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

I love the place, and the owners became friends over the years when I lived in NYC, and I used to eat there regularly (it's on West 10th Street, btw, off that little triangle between 6th Ave and Greenwich). The garden is a wonderful spot to spend a summer evening relaxing and eating good food.

That, Adam, is my kind of "scientific" study! My boyfriend and I stumbled upon Cafe Asean last June when looking for a spot to have dinner with an old friend of mine, and we too really enjoyed it. We sat in the garden in back - as mentioned above by saltshaker - and it was lovely! Not the best Thai / Vietnamese-ish food I've ever had, but a place to return to, definitely.

Tried Cafe Asean yesterday (I remembered it from this post and dragged my friends there from school) and the food was really decent. Pretty much the same price as eating at the generic restaurants that everyone at nyu goes to and the atmosphere is so much more relaxed. Perhaps not two thumbs up (the service was a little off) but definately at least a thumb and a half!

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