DURHAM -- Mention that you've found a restaurant with no menu, little service, bare walls with hardly any décor in a somewhat dirty setting and you're likely to garner negative responses.
Despite all these apparent setbacks, Bali Hai on Wake Forest Road in Raleigh is a hidden jewel in the Triangle dining scene. The Mongolian grill's opening 23 years ago filled a culinary void.
When I learned that the Park family planned to open a second restaurant in Durham, closer to my home, I was ecstatic.
The Durham location, which opened on Ninth Street in May, is a vast improvement over the original store in virtually every category except taste. Faced with competition in recent years (primarily from CrazyFire, which has stores throughout the Triangle since bursting on the scene two years ago), the homegrown original has revamped its image. The staff now wears polo shirts emblazoned with the Bali Hai logo. There's now a menu, with expanded choices such as appetizers and add-ons. And the Ninth Street restaurant, while simplistic with its approach, has a nice décor with lanterns and a few Asian paintings on the yellow walls and a pseudo-hut around the round circular girdle-like grill where the food is cooked before your eyes.
In short, the Durham Bali-Hai is everything the original Bali Hai was not.
But even the Raleigh store recently got an upgrade. There's still no menu that I saw, but the store has a cleaner more professional appearance, including a nicer grill counter and better ventilation.
The food is clearly the main attraction at both. The basic premise is you choose how many bowls you want ($6.50 one bowl, $8.50 two bowls and $10.50 three bowls) and then pile them high with frozen chunks of turkey, beef and pork and a variety of vegetables, such as pineapple, tomato, green pepper, onions, carrots, potato slices, cabbage, zucchini, celery, and sprouts.
For $2 to $3 extra you can add chicken, lamb, calamari, crabmeat, clams, scallops or shrimp and for 50 cents extra you can add noodles.
You then choose between one of six sauce combinations -- house sauce, a blend of oriental spices, soy sauce and other flavors; sweet and sour; spicy (1 to 10); a combination sweet and sour and spicy; and curry.
Unlike Crazy Fire that offers innumerable concoctions through 17 spices, 14 vegetables, 12 meats and 24 sauces that you mix yourself, the chef does the sauce and spice preparation at Bali Hai.
While there are far fewer choices, it is also a lot less intensive and the outcome more certain.
At Bali Hai, I know when I request a "13" spicy on the 1 to 10 scale that it'll will be excruciatingly hot, just the way I like it. I'm talking hot on the heart-pounding, blood-rising, tear-swelling, sinus-opening variety.
However, I've found I only really enjoy Bali Hai for its hot food and even then only the higher level spicy is worth it. Cayenne pepper is the main ingredient for the spicy food and the chefs will cake your items in it if you so desire.
The appetizers and dessert pack more punch. There are five appetizers ($2.50- $3.50) to choose from but for $8 you can get a sampler platter that includes two pieces of four items. The chicken Bali Hai, lightly battered in a thick sauce consisting of oriental spices, citrus juices and sake and covered in onions and peppers was both sweet and spicy and by far the best item at the restaurant. It would be nice to have this available as an entrée.
The Portobello spring rolls, with Portobello mushrooms, mixed vegetables and rice noodles, were light and crisp while the cilantro spring rolls, wrapped in transparent rice tortilla and stuffed with carrots, lettuce and cucumber chunks and rice noodles tasted more like a lettuce wrap but was also a refreshing starter that was not too heavy.
The small lightly battered shrimp skewers had a slight kick.
Perhaps because of the lack of flavor in the main dishes and also because they are unique to Durham, the appetizers were actually the best part of the meal.
There are also a few desserts. The Banana Spring roll ($2.50), tasted sort of like an apple turnover with a banana substitute. Four banana slices were rolled up in a fried wrap and covered in honey and nuts.
At Bali Hai, once you look beyond the surface, the food sizzles enough to make you forget the downsides.
BALI HAI 811 9TH ST., SUITE 170 DURHAM 416-0200
2414 WAKE FOREST ROAD RALEIGH 828-3103
Hours: Monday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.;Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Handicap Accessible: Yes
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