Three years ago, Subarna Bhattachan and Alejandro Lule opened La Parrilla, 814 Mass., a "Nuevo Latino" restaurant specializing in the foods of Latin America.
Since then, Lawrence diners have beaten a steady path to their door, having developed an appetite for La Parrilla's hearty rice bowls, empanadas and fish ceviches.
The restaurateurs clearly have a hit on their hands. During the lunchtime rush, there's usually a line of customers waiting patiently to order a range of inventive or traditional dishes whose inspiration is derived from many different countries and cultures: Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru.
But in the back of their minds, La Parrilla's co-owners always had another dream: to open a restaurant featuring the homey, simple foods Bhattachan had grown up eating in his native Nepal, and the rich blend of Southeast Asian dishes Lule had grown to love while earning his stripes as a cook in San Francisco.
In mid-August, their dream came true. The business partners embarked on a new venture: Zen Zero, 811 Mass., an Asian noodle shop and restaurant offering the cuisines of Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan with some Indian, Malaysian and Chinese influences mixed in.
And it would appear Bhattachan, 34, and Lule, 32, have struck yet another chord with Lawrence diners. The restaurant, located almost directly across the street from La Parrilla, is attracting a steady crowd at both lunch and dinner, with servers carrying one deliciously presented plate after another from the small, galley-style kitchen.
"We thought there was a niche in Lawrence for a noodle shop," Bhattachan said. "We felt like there was a market, and people here like to try different things."
Spicing it up
The co-owners described Zen Zero as a Pan-Asian restaurant encompassing the favorite foods of Asia and the Pacific Rim, plus some fusion dishes combining different traditions.
But the heart of the menu is built around noodles which, like rice, are a staple component of meals from this region. So at Zen Zero, you'll find a variety of noodles presented in soups, salads, stirfrys and curries.
"People eat noodles across Southeast Asia, and they eat curries in Thailand, Vietnam, India, China, Japan and Malaysia," Bhattachan said.
The menu also features the straightforward "street foods" of some of these countries, such as satay dishes from Thailand, which are marinated, skewered and grilled meat kabobs served with a peanut sauce; and momos, Himalayan dumplings stuffed with vegetables or meat and served either steamed or fried.
Bhattachan explained that in Nepal, momos are the equivalent of a hot dog with relish or an oversized pretzel that you might buy from a street vendor in an American city: They're common and satisfying.
Each of the cuisines that play a role on Zen Zero's menu has its own distinctive taste and ingredients.
Thai dishes, for instance, typically rely upon coconut milk, peanuts, curry, lemongrass, galangal (Thai ginger), chilies and fresh basil. The essence of Thai cooking is a balance between different sensations, such as sweet, sour, spicy and mild.
Where Westerners typically use salt to spice up a dish at the table, Thais rely heavily upon fish sauce, a spicy, pungent flavoring somewhat akin to soy sauce.
Nepali cuisine, meanwhile, favors the use of onions, garlic, ginger, cilantro and curry. In that regard, it's similar to Indian cooking.
One thing diners will find plenty of at Zen Zero is spice, put to use in different combinations and calibrated to the individual customer's taste. The heat can be turned up or down on request.
Some of the spices are familiar, while others are more elusive to pin down.
"We use a lot of spice seeds: cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, cardamom pods," Bhattachan said.
The menu also calls upon some vegetables that customers might not be used to eating, such as daikon, choy sum, gailan (Chinese broccoli), Chinese eggplant and baby bok choy.
In some dishes, aspects of different cuisines are blended together, a style known in cooking as fusion. One example at Zen Zero is flank steak marinated with green papaya, which contains an enzyme called papayin that tenderizes the meat.
Using green papaya in a marinade, Bhattachan said, is somewhat of an Indian style, while the flank steak is an ingredient sure to please more Western tastes.
With a menu like Zen Zero's, Lule said, "the challenge is you have to work harder than usual. You have to teach the cooks and servers the different tastes and cooking styles. They need to learn one flavor from another."
Learning the tricks
There's no real secret to creating good, Pan-Asian dishes. Aspiring chefs just need to master a few basic techniques, Bhattachan and Lule revealed.
Preparing Asian meals calls for high heat and a short cooking time, which sears in flavors and caramelizes sauces.
"The trick with making the curry dishes is when you get your coconut milk, don't shake up the can. The coconut cream is on the top, and the coconut water is on the bottom. When you shake it, it becomes coconut milk," Bhattachan said.
"For curries, you want to use the coconut cream as your cooking oil, then you add the curry paste, then sau it until the oil starts breaking through. Then you can shake up the can and add the coconut milk."
Many of the ingredients used at Zen Zero can be found at the Oriental Supermarket, 711 W. 23rd St. If customers can't find a particular product, the store is happy to order it for them.
If you're going to tackle Pan-Asian cooking at home, it's a good idea to have a Chinese wok and a steamer available, Zen Zero's owners said.
They each have their own favorite dishes on the restaurant's menu.
"I like momos it's something I grew up with, and I can never get tired of it. I also like our Penang Curry and satay choy sum (a leafy, green vegetable)," Bhattachan said.
Zen Zero's Penang Curry is a Malay-style curry with coconut milk, peanuts, lime kaffir leaves and fresh basil.
Lule prefers the Dry Chicken Curry Thakali-style, a traditional Nepalese curry with onions, ginger, garlic, garam masala and tomatoes, served with jasmine rice, rahar ko dahl (yellow lentils) and grilled tomato chutney.
"It's like my cooking: It's very simple," he said. "Three or four ingredients, and it tastes really good."