There are some nights when you need to be quicker than a Bangkok taxi driver to get a good table at Taste of Asia - such is the reputation of this eatery that’s become one of Mount Maunganui’s worst kept secrets. For nearly a decade, Taste of Asia to use its original name, occupied tiny premises a couple of doors along the road, squeezing around 20 diners in like sardines, admit the owners, Mark and Lee Caldwell. Just under 6 months ago, in a smart move to grow the business, the pair moved into the bigger, higher profile premises a few doors along the road.
Le Cafe Taste of Asia’s decor - with softly-lit walls of a deep, restful red - is pleasant and unpretentious: this is an Asian eatery that thankfully spares its customers all the carving, gold leaf and gleaming buddhas that some restaurants insist on having, in a bid to conjure up an Oriental ambience.
That’s not to say that the restaurant doesn’t have the right credentials. The driving force behind the cuisine, says Mark Caldwell, is wife Lee – who’s a mix of Thai and Laotian. Her parents immigrated to New Zealand in 1979, and since then, her family has run no less than five Thai restaurants at different times.
With that sort of background, it’s not hard to see how the Caldwells wound up running the original Taste of Asia, typically described as ‘a tiny restaurant with a big reputation.’ The couple don’t even advertise – they don’t have to. Le Cafe Taste of Asia has a very loyal local following, as evidenced on my visit by the elderly woman who rushes past my table to invade the busy kitchen and hug a smiling Lee, for an exchange of ‘Happy New Year’ greetings.
There are two Thai chefs working in the kitchen, but firmly steered by Lee Caldwell. What we cook in the restaurant says Mark ‘is basically what we eat at home.’ Lucky them.
The recipes do differ from traditional Thai dishes, Mark says, in that for example, ‘we concentrate more on taste than (chilli) heat.’ Popular dishes include Kinnaree Chicken, grilled chicken breast marinated with Thai herbs, and coconut cream and served with seasonal vegetables, and peanut sauce. Locals seem to have a thing for coconut, as another is Pad Met Mamaung – chicken, beef, pork or seafood, cooked with cashew nuts, coconut milk, chilli and seasonal vegetables.
The dishes are sensibly, reasonably priced to compete with popular Zeytin, the Middle Eastern restaurant just down the road. Le Cafe’s menu has more than 20 main rice dishes, priced from around $18 to $22, and another five noodle dishes, and four fish dishes. It is mainly Thai food with some Malaysian and Vietnamese influences. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Asian food will spot familiar dishes like nasi goreng, laksa, and Thai green curry, but there are also dishes like Vietnamese soup, and quirkily – Mongolian Garlic Lamb.
Le Cafe Taste of Asia (why does the name have a French twist? I forgot to ask) involves no less than five family members, including two sons and a daughter with striking Eurasian good looks. Mark, who wisely gave up a trade years ago to join his wife in the enterprise, performs front of house duties. He heaps all the culinary credit on wife Lee, he first met at school in Wellington.
Le Cafe is fully licensed with a good selection of white and red wines that Mark Caldwell reckons is hard to better at the Mount. But you can also BYO for a modest corkage charge. The bar is also well stocked with a variety of Thai and other Asian beers.
The restaurant lends itself to the Mount’s sultry summer evenings, with front doors that open out onto the street for al fresco dining. Rather sit by the beach? Le Cafe has big takeaway menu. If you’re dining in, we suggest be there early, as tables fill up fast.
Le Cafe Taste of Asia is at 94 Maunganui Road, downtown Mount, open 5 pm til late, tel 575 4555.