Try these nine delicious destinations for food from all over this exotic region.
By Lin da Lamb
Photos by Sall y Taylor
With all the options for Asian cuisine in and around Columbia, the exotic has become the familiar. But even if you have a favorite spot for sushi, or spring rolls, or spicy red curry, it’s always fun to explore. That’s why we want to tantalize you with options
featuring Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Filipino foods.
By all means, think beyond the buffet. Some of our suggestions will lead you to elegant surroundings, while other restaurants are so unassuming, you’d normally drive past them. Take the plunge and you won’t regret trying something new and getting a taste of Asian culture.
Important tip: Not all of these restaurants have closely maintained websites. Be sure to check Facebook for official and unofficial pages featuring information, customer feedback and photos.
2249 Sunset Blvd., West Columbia
From the first sip of soup to the last bite of tempura cheesecake, Mai Thai leaves diners satisfied with fresh ingredients and generous portions. Tangy, hot-and-sour tom yum soup features bits of floating vegetables along with your choice of chicken, shrimp or tofu. Steamed dumplings are perfection, stuffed with shrimp, pork, shitake mushrooms, onions, bamboo shoots, celery and water chestnuts, and served with a sweet soy sauce.
Other popular entrees include the pad Thai and the veggie-packed drunken noodles. Mai Thai’s curry dishes are thin-sauced but flavorful, arriving at the table in cute bowls brimming with bamboo shoots, ready to ladle onto heart-shaped servings of rice.
Want dessert? The cheesecake in a delicate tempura-fried batter, served with chocolate and raspberry causes, is delectable. You might snag a cupcake from the bakery section – not terribly Thai, but one is made with taro, an Asian root vegetable. Or, just for fun, try bubble tea, a sweet concoction with jelly-like spheres in various flavors.
807 Gervais St., #103, Columbia
Did someone say happy hour? SakiTumi, off a little alley in the Vista, is a fun destination if you’re looking to combine Asian food with socializing. (Perhaps not the best choice for a quiet heart-to-heart.) The fish is fresh and the menu is extensive and eclectic, with grilled options and party-perfect cocktails. Dishes from the grill include seared tuna and tuna tacos, a lobster and filet combo, several stir-fry variations and a Kobe burger.
You can try Oishii, a sushi-sashimi sampler; the $49 Taka Okami sampler to share, or any of the enticing sushi variations. One is the Gamecock roll: tempura fried chicken, cream cheese and red bell pepper, wrapped in rice and sprinkled with tobikko (fish roe) and black sesame seeds. From the creative bartenders, consider the house Pomegranate-Ginger Martini or the Ecstasy Martini (pomegranate vodka, peach schnapps, cranberry and pineapple juice, served in a chocolate-rimmed glass).
1505 Charleston Highway, B-4
West Columbia, SC
Tucked away in an old shopping center, Golden Chopstix is a delightful surprise. Vietnamese food, with its fresh ingredients and minimal use of fats, is one of the most healthful cuisines. Here, it’s prepared to order (and there are Thai dishes on the menu, too). You can try a comforting bowl of pho, the classic Vietnamese soup with rice noodles, chicken, pork or beef, and sauces for seasoning.
A popular meal is the Vietnamese Bun. “Bun” doesn’t mean bread in this case, but thin rice noodles. They’re layered in a bowl with lettuce, cucumbers and your choice of meat or shrimp, garnished with a bit of pickled carrots, chopped peanuts and cilantro. It’s fresh and crunchy. A light dressing comes on the side.
Frosty beers include two from Vietnam and others from Laos, Japan and Thailand. One regular recommends the coconut chicken as a delicious fusion of Vietnamese and Thai. Nothing is more than $13.50.
2135 Devine St.
This upscale but comfortable “Thai bistro” is appreciated, not just for its superb food, but for its cozy atmosphere and high-quality beer and wine selection. You might want to come back five times to savor all five varieties of curry. The red curry is particularly lush and memorable. Daily specials sometimes provide offbeat selections such as catfish or boar. And if you think you don’t like tofu, you haven’t tried Baan Sawan’s tofu satay with its savory peanut-flavored sauce.
The sauces here are intensely flavorful. Entrees are $17 and up. Specify the level of spicy heat you prefer for any dish, and they’ll do their best to satisfy you. Even if you keep it mild, there are so many exotic flavors to enjoy, including ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime, coriander – all the traditional touches that make Thai food tantalizing.
Hot 4 Wings/Filipino Flair
5454 Sunset Blvd., Lexington
The small eatery where Paul and Linda Kaserman started by selling their versions of All-American wings has morphed into something rare: a Filipino restaurant in the Midlands. They still offer wings, along with burgers, fries, salads and sandwiches. But they’ve gradually added interesting dishes from Linda’s native Philippines.
It’s a sumptuous cuisine with Chinese and Spanish influences. Fried lumpia rolls come with a tangy sauce, while crispy pork belly hints of lechon, a traditional, whole-pig celebration dish in the Philippines. Savory adobo chicken or pork is simmered in a vinegar/soy marinade, while pork menudo is slow-cooked in a tomato/vegetable sauce. Tapsilog is a Filipino breakfast specialty – some say, a hangover specialty. But it’s served all day: rich, sweet-sour meat of your choice served with rice, tomatoes and a sunny-side-up egg. Or try pancit, with chicken, steak, shrimp or veggies in a nest of thin rice noodles.
Most Filipino food is not too spicy; sprinkle on some hot sauce if you like. The depth of flavor is addictive.
655 St. Andrews Road, Columbia
For many fans of Japanese food, a craving for sushi or sashimi invariably leads to this traditional Japanese eatery off Interstate 26.
In this case, “traditional” does not mean boring. You’ll find creative versions of sushi and sashimi that are as beautiful as they are fresh and tasty. You can also choose starters such as seaweed salad, traditionally cooked Japanese dishes and perhaps a bottle of sake to accompany your meal.
For a large group, a giant serving boat lets everyone pluck out delicacies of their choice – including seafood, California rolls, tempura shrimp and vegetables. Feeling adventurous? Online reviewers praise the Black Dragon Roll, a concoction created with crab, smelt roe, tempura crumbs, mayo, eel, avocado and eel sauce. Note: There’s also a location in northeast Columbia, at 224 O’Neil Court.
8 locations – check online
Miyo’s first location – on Main Street, behind the South Carolina State House – was nothing fancy. But even the simplest serving of brown rice was probably the best you ever had.
Now, Miyo’s has eight locations in and around Columbia, and they tend to be the kinds of elegant destinations you think of when combining good Asian food with a special occasion or a business lunch – whether it’s the airy restaurant in the Village at Sandhill, M Grille in the trendy Vista, the open-feeling Miyo’s in Harbison, or the new M Kitchen on Columbiana Drive.
Over the years, Miyo’s has branched out from Chinese cuisine to include dishes with Thai, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese influences. Thus you’ll find ceviche, sashimi, sushi, spring rolls, tempura, refreshing salads, hot and spicy offerings and vegetarian specialties. Some restaurants are centered around bars that create imaginative cocktails, such as a lychee martini. Or try one of the many varieties of tea, including the spectacular Blooming White Tea.
Certain higher-priced entrees (Chilean sea bass, pan-seared duck breast) are available only at some locations. If you’re feeling indulgent, you might skip the fortune cookie and finish with a dessert made by a local bakery.
1616 Decker Blvd., Columbi
The fun of Korean cuisine is in its variety. In addition to the add-ons that often accompany traditional dishes, there’s amazing variety in the 12-page menu at O-Bok, one of the Korean options along Decker Boulevard’s International Corridor. Hot and spicy, sweet and sour, fried, rice and noodles, salads and stews, meat or fish or vegetarian. You get the idea – there are enough options to keep you coming back.
Savory Korean barbecue does not mean meat that’s shredded, but rather marinated, seasoned and grilled (or roasted). Bibimbop, the traditional rice-meat-egg-veggie dish, comes with eight little side dishes including carrots, seaweed, bean sprouts and a spicy sauce. A compartmentalized dinner box with BBQ beef short ribs also features a salad with peanutty dressing, tiny egg rolls, sushi and kimchi – a traditional Korean side dish of fermented cabbage or cucumber, here prepared with a heavy dose of red pepper.
Camon Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar
1332 Assembly St., Columbia 29201
Camon offers authentic Japanese food in an atmosphere that feels urban, yet serene and cozy. Classic sushi and sashimi – including negiri, which is made with vinegared rice – are the show-stoppers. They include classics such as a California roll (avocado and crab) and more exotic offerings featuring eel, octopus, squid and sea urchins.
Appetizers include gyoza (pork dumplings that can be steam or fried), chicken skewers with a teriyaki glaze, and a grand seafood salad. Vegetarian entrees are an option, or you can have your beef, chicken, fish or shrimp grilled or fried in classic tempura style. Entrée styles include teriyaki, sukiyaki and yakizakana (fish lightly seasoned and grilled). Check out the early bird specials, 5-6:30pm Tuesday-Saturday.
702 Cross Hill Road
Is pad Thai your go-to Asian dish? If so, you’ll find a splendid version of it at Basil Thai, a modern, casual dining restaurant across Devine Street from the Gamecock Bi-Lo. Its rendition of the national dish of Thailand includes rice noodles that have been stir-fried with chicken, shrimp, eggs, bean sprouts, scallions, peanuts and pad Thai sauce. Squeeze a wedge of lime over everything to brighten the flavors.
Basil Thai’s founders are a pair of Cambodian-born brothers who got their start with a Charleston eatery and now have a regional chain of four. Favorites also include puffy fried wontons, stuffed with meat and cream cheese and served with a sweet and sour sauce, Crispy Red Curry Duck, and Three-Flavor Fish, deep-fried and served with a garlicky sauce.
Prices go up at dinnertime – but on the bright side, you also might feel more free to indulge in a fun cocktail like a “Thai-tini” or “sake-tini.”