Presentation is not the point at Lowell’s venerable Southeast Asian Restaurant, a neighborhood eatery tucked away in a Market Street storefront. The crudely carved dragons over the doorway (poised as if to say, “Here there be crab Rangoon’’), the modest décor, and the distinctly nontrendy — if informative — name of the restaurant itself speak of plain food and decent service.
That impression was reinforced when we started with an order of the appetizer “Combination A’’ ($9), which included the crab Rangoon, spring rolls, goi cuon (Vietnamese “salad’’ spring rolls) and beek gai (chicken wings). We also sampled the khang pong, or tempura veggies appetizer ($7). The plates came out piping hot, with a sheen of oil, and everything seemed to blend into a series of golden-brown nuggets. Yet the taste of each item (except perhaps the chicken wings) was different, and subtle, enhanced by various dipping sauces, including an outstanding peanut curry sauce. The tempura was especially delicious, with its crispy covering over fresh veggies and sweet potatoes, and remained so even as the dish cooled. The appetizers set the tone for the rest of the meal: great taste that belied a somewhat bland appearance.
Southeast Asian has an extensive menu, featuring the dishes of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma (the former name of Myanmar). This has been the case since the restaurant was established more than two decades ago to cater to the growing immigrant population of Lowell. Kathy Xayyamountry, owner for the past three years, has kept up this multicuisine focus with attention to authentic foods, seeing harmony in catering to a variety of tastes. The source (and relative spiciness) of each dish is carefully noted on the menu.
Our party felt that the best way to experience the restaurant was sampling a large number of the dishes; given the reasonable prices, this is an extremely affordable option for families and big parties. (You also may opt for the restaurant’s popular luncheon buffet served Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $8.)
During the evening hours you can match soups, such as the tom kha gai, (Thai chicken soup) ($11, $3.25) with noodle dishes ($8, $9) or Thai curry dishes ($9, $10) as well as specialty poultry, beef, and seafood entrees.
A standout was the pad kee meo ($10), a Thai noodle dish with Chinese broccoli. It was served wafting the heady scent of basil; the greens are blended spectacularly with the thick, chewy noodles. The gang kheeow whan ($9), or green curry, ordered with tofu, came with a pleasant flavor and a good assortment of vegetables.
Most of the dishes, even those ordered as mild, had a kick to them, but the biggest kick came from phat prik gra pao ($9), chopped chicken quick-fried with chili pepper, Thai basil, and onion. Touted as a “bowl of fire,’’ it certainly could have been accompanied with a fire extinguisher for the heat it generated, hardly quenched with the accompanying bowl of rice.
We also sampled a plate of vermicelli rice noodles, ordered with chicken ($8), one of the variety of toppings offered. It was a slight disappointment. While the portions of chicken were generous (if a bit dry and bland), we had to excavate the bean sprouts and lettuce buried under the very sweet noodles. Still, the dish was cooling to the brave souls tackling the bowl of fire of the phat prik gra pao.
The meal’s end also brought a bit of surprise. When the waiter brought out the bowl of Thai tapioca ($3), the gray, watery dessert with its bobbing bits of glutinous dots looked unappealing. But the tapioca’s icy temperature and sweet, sharp flavor was entirely refreshing, a lovely antidote to the heat of the meal and the melting August temperatures outside. The Laotian soybean custard cake ($3), an eggy, lightly sweetened dish cut into moist cubes, went down easily, a fitting finale.