My brother is a bachelor, and over the course of a month, I spotted the same brown paper take-out bag on his dining table again and again.
It was from Tin Drum Asia Café, the new brightly colored restaurant that took over the location of a different Chinese eatery in the strip mall across from Regal Augusta Exchange Cinemas, also home to good eating from Jimmy Johns, Barberitos, Roma’s and Tutti Frutti. I stop by there often for a quick lunch or dinner or a cup of yogurt for dessert, so I was curious about Tin Drum and how it would hold up to my standards for Asian cuisine.
I must say first of all that no restaurant Asian food can compare to my mom’s home cooking. Not to say that there isn’t great Asian food to be had, especially in bigger cities. What I’ve found is, the bigger the city, and the larger the Asian population, the more authentic the Asian food. Atlanta is good, New York is better and San Francisco is the best. Restaurant Asian food is just different. I can’t even think of it in the same category as home-cooked Asian food. In fact, I often divide it into subcategories:
• Mall Asian: greasy and fried and gloopy with sauce – but Big Mac good when you’re in the mood for it
• Asian buffet: a weird conglomeration of international foods, all jostling for room on your plate – fried rice, stir fry and sushi, next to pot roast, bright yellow mac and cheese, and a pink square of salmon (some versions can be abysmal, others crazy-good)
• Classic/Southern Asian restaurant: Americanized versions of classic Asian dishes (many Asian restaurants in Augusta fall into this category).
• Fine Asian restaurant – a more upscale version of Classic/Southern Asian, featuring Asian-inspired cuisine that can sometimes be amazing.
In short, restaurant Asian is just its own thing. I often don’t have high expectations for it, but I enjoy it for what it is. After all, who hasn’t wanted fried chicken smothered in creamy brown almond “gravy” at some time or another? I have to plead guilty on that one. It may not be authentic, but there can be a time and a place for it. Sometimes I’m surprised by unexpectedly great dishes in the most unlikely places.
If you’re checking out an Asian restaurant, it’s a good sign if Asians are eating there. I took it that way when we ran into our Asian friends Paige and Gary and their daughter, Rachel, at Tin Drum during the middle of the week. They had just gotten their food, but invited us to join them.
According to the Web site, Tin Drum launched in 2003 in Technology Square on the campus of Georgia Tech. Now a franchise with several locations in Atlanta, and now Birmingham and Augusta, it’s got a young, college vibe, with its shiny white floors and brightly colored walls. A photomural is splashed against the largest far wall – an image, I assume, from the original Tin Drum location, of diners happily ordering and eating.
We grabbed the equally bright and shiny menus from a rack on the wall, then queued up to place our order. I chose the Tin Drum curry, chased with a bottle of fresh ginger ale, while my husband, Sean, ordered an assortment of tacos and an orange mango soda. Other menu offerings include appetizers and soups, salads, fried rice, stir fries and noodles. Vegetarian or gluten-free menus are also available, and along with specialty sodas, Tin Drum also offers the usuals.
Tin Drum takes its name from the “Tin Drummer” of ancient Asian culture, who would walk through the village every morning beating on his tin drum, calling people to gather at the local café to fuel their bodies while he entertained them with the day’s news and events.
The menu’s newspaper style echoes that theme, as does the restaurant’s interior. It was loud and echoey even with just the six tables inside. Great acoustics for a tin drummer, but a little difficult for Paige and I to hear one another on this busy weeknight.
With all the talking, Paige, Gary and Rachel had barely had time to dive into their dishes before ours came. Mine was a large bowl filled with rice smothered in a caramel-colored chicken curry sauce, prettily decorated all around with a ring of fresh spinach leaves. The chicken was fried (naturally), and the sauce was creamy with a true Asian curry flavor – more gingery and warm than the typical harsh yellow Indian curry. The spinach added freshness, and the rice was nice and firm, just the way I like it.
Sean’s taco trio – shrimp, beef and pork – came in individual baskets with a simple presentation. Each was a flat tortilla with a generous scoop of meat and sauce, garnished heavily with shredded romaine. The beef was coated in a tangy Asian barbecue sauce, the pork had a distinct peanut flavor, and the plump fried shrimp had a white, slightly sweet sauce that reminded me of coconut.
The first sip of my fresh ginger ale nearly took my breath away, but the hot ginger flavor calmed down after that first sip and ended up being a good match with my gentle curry. The orange mango soda was perhaps a touch too sweet.
As we walked out, Paige was enthusiastic about coming back, and to be honest, so were we. Was it authentic Asian food? No, not at all. And I have a suspicion that I might tire of it quickly if I ordered it as often as my brother. Though I enjoyed the food, the sauces had the same base notes about them, something I’ve noticed in other Asian franchises.
But as a quick stop for a tasty bite that would fit the budget of a college student, a growing family or a bachelor, Tin Drum is fun, fresh and flavorful.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Tin Drum Asia Café, 1149 Agerton Lane, Suite 006 (across from Regal Augusta Exchange Cinemas)
HOURS: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
SECOND HELPING: (706) 736-6095, www.tindrumcafe.com or find them on Facebook