(Want to get scared? Look at the red ant. Does it scare you? It did to me before.)
Ahh...Red Ant Cafe. Just the name brings up childhood memories of the past. Back then, we had a favorite restaurant to eat "Cha Wong Gai" (Tea flavored chicken- more soy sauce related though). That place then closed shop sadly to our dismay. Luckily then Red Ant Cafe opened up and from what we had heard the tea flavored chicken was just as good as our old favorite. Guess what? It was. So, we ended up eating at Red Ant Cafe frequently in its San Gabriel location, also hitting the nearby Lilac Bakery and Snack Pop for delicious bread and boba which had freshly made tea in it. Snack Pop was a favorite. Not only did we get to talk with the person behind the counter, she knew what we wanted and we talked. Their boba was soft, sweet, chewy, and WARM. Their tea was not the ultra milky and sweet that you see in most boba shops. Then, Snack Pop changed owners, and with that, that was the end of visiting Snack Pop. It was almost the end of drinking boba for us (with the exception of the rare Ten Ren or Pa Pa Walk boba tea). Red Ant Cafe still was a frequent favorite afterwards- whether it be their iced lemon tea or their soups and chicken, we kept going back for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We even had a graduation night dinner there. But sadly....
The San Gabriel location closed down about two years ago after the graduation dinner in June of 2007. We were sad ourselves. How would such a restaurant with such success (full lines during the weekend, et cetera) and popularity close down? It is just like Macaroni Grill. Everything looked fine. Yes, they did seem to get a bit less customers with their weird VIP stuff they that promoted (which never came true), but otherwise why did they close?
That question is still today a mystery. But we did remember they had a second location, in Rowland Heights, after looking at restaurant.com for gift certificates. This week, after a doctor's appointment, we were debating where to eat. After all...whatever restaurant we chose would be the first restaurant in Rowland Heights to be reviewed on Eat. Travel. Eat! . Would it be the popular Earthen Restaurant? Boston Cafe?
No. We decided on Red Ant Cafe because its fare was a notch lighter as well as healthier, which would be perfect for the sick me. So we parked at its entrance in Diamond Plaza. First impressions? Empty. Not just Red Ant, but the whole strip mall itself. How was parking that easy to find??? (Before, completely filled up)
So we walked in and took a seat. As we noticed (and you can see by the photo), the restaurant was quite small with only about 20 tables for the whole restaurant. Square footage was also smaller compared to the San Gabriel location. It also didn't feel as theme-y compared to San Gabriel- in San Gabriel the restaurant was quite dark during the day and night with the reddish Red Ant logo on one side (which I took a picture of as you can see in the first photo of the post). However in the Rowland Heights location (here), it felt like a typical HK cafe but made nicer with modern accents and the special Red Ant glass with florescent behind it.
Even the employees felt different here at Rowland Heights. At San Gabriel, the employees were younger and seemed to be more upbeat. Here, the manager was sitting at her laptop, not serving customers. The sole employee who was serving for all the tables (with the chef coming out at times) looked a bit tired, and not very smiley or upbeat in energy. It was only 6 when we visited....
The salt and pepper shakers kept up with the modern upbeat feel though. Look at the design! Again, one of the things I love about Red Ant is their quirky design features. They like Ikea stuff. This I do not know if it is was from Ikea. Maybe? Did think the design was quite interesting. Our water cups for hot water were also interesting- black with classic look to them. If you can not notice, the table actually had butcher paper on it (like what you would find at Macaroni Grill). On the bottom is a regular yellow tablecloth.
We settled down and looked at the menu, and it was quite similar to before- health section, meats section, special lunch section, daily special section, and other similar sections. However, the added sections were the set menu section and a "summer"section with noodles and special deals. We looked around back for our favorite dishes and decided to order, which was quite easy after we were able to flag down our server which only came out at time to time.
So while one dining companion set off to go see the stuff available in the very large Diamond Plaza (after all we have not been in this strip mall for at least two years now!), my other dining companion and I waited for the food to come. Actually, I would have gone out to see the stuff available, but then, the waitress came to the table with one bowl of soup. For me! You see, the Mix Grill set dinner (7.95 if I remember correctly) came with a bowl of ham and corn cream soup (served in the exact bowl that Souplantation has...). It was similar to Garden Cafe's version of ham and corn cream soup but this had more pieces of ham (which were still flavorful by the way) and corn. Slight bit of white pepper and dried parsley which was already added into the soup made sipping the soup even more enjoyable, especially since the evening was quite nippy.
It was a smart move not to go out shopping around for me, as my Mix Grill with their House Curry Sauce came quite quickly! I was shocked with the size. The plate had 2 medium pieces of pork chop and 2 medium pieces of chicken chop, and came with a small plate of rice (a "healthy" rice which has a bit of black rice in it is also available for extra charge). What was interesting at first glance was the Curry sauce as it had a bit of red oil on top of it. The oil was actually what you would find in jar of tom-yum soup base- extremely flavorful, spicy, with plenty of lemongrass flavor. House Curry sauce itself though was coconut-y, fragrant, and mildly spicy, with a thick viscosity. In terms of the chicken and pork chops, both were juicy and tender. The chicken chop had the signature crispy skin like experienced at the San Gabriel location, and the pork chop was fragrant and flavorful like at San Gabriel. What was also prominent too was the original flavors of the chicken and the pork as well as a light seasoning of salt. Very delicious by itself (the meats are available by themselves during breakfast) but it was even better with a bit of the curry sauce and rice. Cabbage and carrots served on the side were nothing special and were bland, but with curry sauce and the tom-yum flavored oil (mainly poured onto the cabbage) the flavor improved.
I had quite enough for a second day's lunch as long as I packed more rice. That lunch was muy bíen (very good) with the fragrant flavors of the curry and the bursts of flavor from the meat. I seem to like curry a lot these days as seen by my recent posts (here, here). After all it is helping with my sickness. I felt energetic after eating this, before I was in a tired and unhappy mood.
The moment of truth though with this Red Ant Cafe was the Tea Flavored Chicken (Cha Wong Chicken). It is the dish that originally made us want to go to Red Ant Cafe, and is also one of their specialties. In reality, the dish is more about the soy sauce and chicken in my opinion although the dish is called "tea flavored"which is a bit true. Impressions? It was the SAME as our beloved San Gabriel location which closed down other than at first glance. The skin did not look brownish like before but that was the lighting of course. Anyways, as we bit in, we found soft, tender pieces of chicken coupled with a not too sweet or salty, light, but rich in depth soy sauce which was perfect with the chicken and rice. Instead of a peatip garnish this had cilantro instead. Yes, yes, yes! This was EXCELLENT. Similar to our old favorite, Golden Lotus.
Of course with all the meat, we had to have some vegetables, so we ordered the Baby Bok Choy in Pork Bone Broth. There was plenty of baby bok choy which was not oily at all with a slight crisp to it. When it arrived, the entire dish was extremely hot with plenty of the scrumptious pork bone broth- at least 2 soup bowls worth that they provided (horray). The pork bone broth was an attraction by itself. Very porky and not very rich/salty but slightly "sweet" with some veggie flavor to it. I was constantly drinking it by itself during the meal as it was just so tasty! By far different than the salty "supreme" sauces that you find at other restaurants. This is actually not salt flavored but a broth with multiple dimensions. Want more? Ask :).
Which we did ask for the extra broth was for this dish: Japanese Mushroom and Macaroni in Fish Broth. This dish cames with a TON of bouncy and chewy macaroni (basically filling the bowl with just macaroni) coupled with mushrooms- button, king oyster, and shitake, along with small pieces of green bean and green onion and the also delectable fish broth. What makes the whole dish flow is the fish broth, which is not too rich or thick but is flavorful with a bit of similarity to the pork bone broth. One thing that there is too much of in comparison to everything else is the macaroni, which filled the bowl and allowed for little fish broth. So, we asked them to give extra like we did at the San Gabriel location. They obliged and did without extra charge. Yay! More tasty fish broth to drink and to go along with the macaroni. Also one of my, as well as my dining companions' favorite dishes to order at Red Ant Cafe.
As you can see, the food was excellent. After all, we ordered our favorite dishes that we constantly ordered at Red Ant Cafe's San Gabriel location. But then why were there so little customers (only 4 total with a large group coming with the manager treating them- business affiliated?)?
Well, it seems like the Rowland Heights crowd doesn't really like Red Ant Cafe according to the Yelp reviews. With so little customers, I do not see why they kept this location in the first place. San Gabriel's location not only had a large customer base but was popular.
So, we asked our waitress. She did not know a thing, but did know these two Red Ant Cafes were related. Mystery unsolved for now. However, we found another great place for food! Now only if Red Ant Cafe was closer to us :).
Red Ant Cafe
1370 Fullerton Rd. Ste 102 (drive past New Capital Seafood Restaurant and you will see it towards your right)
Rowland Heights, CA 91748
Tel: (626) 581-1370