Rockford's Bamboo specializes in food from Thailand, Laos

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By Joan Neeno, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

ROCKFORD, Ill.—My husband, Richard, has wanted to try Bamboo Asian Noodles and Tapas Bar for at least a couple of years.

The Rockford, Illinois, restaurant specializes in Southeast Asian cuisine—meaning Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian food.

As someone who grew up with crispy chow mein noodles and canned Chinese vegetables, I still have a lot to learn about Asian food. By contrast, Richard's father, Dr. Katsumi Neeno, is first-generation Japanese-American. He grew up eating rice—rather than the instant mashed potatoes of my childhood—and he loves bowls of slurpy noodles in broth and the fish roe that I scrape off sushi. It's comfort food.

Richard opened a new world of flavors to me. Some I have enjoyed, and others are tastes I've yet to acquire. Southeast Asian food is still somewhat of a foreign land to me, although I've had more exposure in recent months.

Honestly, I thought Bamboo was a Japanese restaurant—as did my father-in-law, who was looking forward to sushi when we invited him to dine with us.

Bamboo wasn't quite what some of us had expected, but we adapted quickly. Dan and Shawn joined the Neeno family for dinner. Dan had performed with his band at Bamboo several years ago and was eager to try the food.

It's a long and somewhat narrow space that's dominated by the bar on one side and seating on the other. With exposed brick and hardwood floors, it's a lovely but loud place. Luckily, we sat at the back of the restaurant, which was quieter.

We started by sharing the Bamboo appetizer platter ($11), which came with two each of crab rangoon, egg rolls, chicken satay and chicken wings. All the pieces were large enough to carve up and share between six people. I particularly liked the crab rangoon: lightly fried wontons filled with cream-cheesy goodness. My least favorite was the wings, which were fairly pedestrian.

The Asian tapas are meant to be shared, but we mostly kept to our choices. The portions were large enough for a meal.

I ordered the garlic black pepper shrimp ($9.50), a stir fry of shrimp, straw mushrooms, cilantro, red and green peppers and onion. It was served with steamed rice, although you can choose fried or sticky rice for an extra fee. The sauce on my shrimp was excellent. It was flavorful but not overpowering.

Richard ordered one of my favorite dishes—salt and pepper shrimp ($9.50). The shrimp were dipped in a salt and pepper tempura batter and lightly fried. It's sort of like popcorn shrimp with a lot more flavor. Bamboo does a good job with it.

Dan and Shawn ordered scallop dishes. Shawn chose the blackened scallops ($12), which were seasoned and seared and served with a ginger garlic sauce and peapods. She enjoyed the bolder flavor, which did a nice job of bringing out the mildness of the scallops without obliterating them with spice.

Dan's seared scallops ($11.50) were milder in flavor, although they were served with a homemade sweet chili sauce that I thought might be a bit spicy. It wasn't. The assortment of mixed vegetables stir-fried with the scallops gave the dish a nice crunch.

My mother-in-law, Joan (yes, there are two of us in town), ordered the Thai basil shrimp ($9.50). They were cooked in a spicy red basil sauce with bell peppers and onions. While Joan was expecting spicy, it was hotter than she bargained for. She was a good sport about it, but I could tell it was burning her tongue.

Dr. Neeno ordered the house duck ($10.50), a crispy duck breast served over a bed of mixed vegetables in a white wine sauce. He must have liked it; he ate the entire dish. Of course, he wouldn't say it was better than OK because it wasn't the Japanese food he was craving.

Our server was attentive and helpful. The cocktail menu was extensive, and the vibe of the place was relaxed and comfortable. My in-laws and Dan and Shawn happily exchanged stories about their experiences in Japan. We lingered way past Dr. Neeno's usual bedtime—the conversation was too good to call it a night.

So even if we ate Southeast Asian, Dr. Neeno got his Japanese evening after all. Next time, we'll make sure there's a sushi bar.

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