- BOWLED OVER: The mala beef shank casserole offered up tender meat, tofu and vegetables.
A.W. Lin's has been around long enough, going on six years, to become an institution in The Promenade at Chenal. It has an interesting atmosphere, somewhat of a mix between chain and local, having sprung from a group of Nashville, Tenn., restaurants in which the owners used to have a stake before moving to Little Rock. It's spacious, almost cavernous, and dimly lit. The attempted mood is fine dining, but with casual touches (the big-screen TV above the bar and big-box-store decor) that suggest a calculation toward mass appeal.
The menu, described as modern Chinese, sushi and Thai cuisine, boasts something for everyone, including a variety of small plates, bigger casseroles and familiar classics, like Mongolian beef and lo mein. Encouraged by our waiter's bragging on the sushi chef, we decided to start there. The "Tuna Lover Roll," spicy tuna and "crunchy" (bread crumbs), topped with white tuna, red tuna and albacore, was light and delightful ($12). The spicy tuna inside was exactly that. The heat creeps up on your tongue ever so slightly after the bite is long gone. A light sprinkling of tiny, crispy fried onions made for a nice touch of texture and the "chef's special sauce" — an orangey-brown drizzle — added umami.
We had less luck with the "Beijing Style Duck Lotus Buns" ($6). We had been warned by our server that this dish was not his personal favorite: not enough duck, he said. He was right about that, although it wouldn't have been our primary complaint. The steamed buns were pillowy and tasteless, dotted on one side as if from a package. We could have done with less of that, maybe by half. Inside, the duck was a bit overdone. The green onions and cucumber, along with a touch of hoisin sauce, were tasty enough but could hardly lift the weight they'd been given to carry.
For the main course, the pork spare ribs with garlic sauce ($15) offered little in the way of redemption. We expected a small rack of braised spare ribs, maybe with a crispy, spicy, oven-finished crust. Instead we were very surprised to see only a plateful of battered, fried and bony chunks. The ribs had been cut into bits — bone, fat and all — and deep fried. "Difficult to eat" is understating it. Every bite was a guess, the fried batter having rendered meat and fat indistinguishable. The only way to tell the difference was by touch. The edible pieces we were able to pinch off were quite tasty, but left us with greasy fingers.
The mala beef shank casserole ($15) was listed as a chef's special, and special it was. It packed the most flavor of any dish we tried. Beef shank, tofu and vegetables were cooked in a small casserole until everything was tender. The mala sauce is an absolute vision. It was rich and brown and carried a deep, spicy flavor that lingered on the tongue. The presentation of the dish was great, too, contained as it was in its own little pot and topped off with a hearty sprinkle of fresh cilantro. However, as far as we could tell, the dish lacked the advertised tofu and the only vegetables we could taste or see were a few carrots. The meat, though tender, was fatty and probably could have done with a longer cook to render some of it away.
We were itching to like A. W. Lin's, given all we'd heard about the restaurant over the years and the occasional picture we'd see pop up on social media. Our meal had its bright spots — the mala sauce and sushi chief among them — but ultimately we left deflated. It has been reported elsewhere that a new location is on the way and a menu change is afoot. We're hoping the former will bring renewed focus to the latter.
A.W. Lin's Asian Cuisine
The Promenade at Chenal
17717 Chenal Parkway
Quick biteThe sushi never let us down and the chef is flexible. Try the Snow Mountain Roll ($12). It's a roll filled with tempura shrimp and topped off with shredded snow crab meat. We requested an addition of avocado and cucumber, which they happily arranged. It's a hearty roll, with plenty of flavor.
Hours11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Other infoFull bar. Credit cards accepted.