The Flaming Volcano, when it appears, does not disappoint. A giant red-rimmed Vesuvius thrusts out of an icy, rum-laden sea, its ceramic crown literally aflame--thanks to a little Bacardi 151. With a conspiratorial wink, Biki the Bartender hands my wife, Kathy, and me two impossibly long straws. We gawk, we grin, we erupt in laughter. And then we suck it up. Because that's what good lizards are supposed to do at Pacific's Lizard Lounge, easily the best tropical bar in the area and a highlight of any visit to its host restaurant.
Pacific is a big brick place tucked into the northwest corner of Sterling's Potomac Run shopping plaza. It offers a smorgasbord of Pacific Rim cuisine--Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Singaporean and a token dish each from Malaysia and Hawaii. There is little to distinguish its plain exterior, and during the 16 months that Pacific has been open, I mistook the restaurant--with its name over a wave logo--as a pool supply store. Really. Luckily a friend recently recommended Pacific, the restaurant, largely on the strength of its margaritas, and off I went.
What I found was good and occasionally excellent high-end Asian, with an inventive, heavy dose of nouvelle American. The decor is sort of prissified Chinese Tropical--starched tablecloths and napkins set amid lots of bamboo, potted trees, a goldfish pond and garish tropical murals in an airy, bright space. Service was friendly and efficient. The spacious patio features a lovely rock fountain ("lotus pond," a waiter informed us). And then there's the incomparable Lizard Lounge--well, more about that later.
Pacific was opened in February 1998 by Louis and Ann Cheng, owners of the popular Chinese restaurant in Countryside that bears their name. The pan-Asian cuisine does include the likes of Vietnamese spring rolls, Pad Thai and Curry Delight. Each menu item is carefully labeled with its country of origin, and there is an entire page devoted to the "Chef's Favorite Chinese Menu"--although the executive chef, Bill Walden, formerly longtime chef at L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, is decidedly not Chinese. Of the non-Chinese dishes, there's a distinct crossover element--many dishes, while seasoned appropriately for the nation, have a nouvelle look and sound, seemingly designed to appeal to the palates--and wallets--of Northern Virginians. Consider, for instance, Filet Mignon Teriyaki ($16.95), or Pacific Grilled Mahi Mahi (15.95), or Indonesian Rack of Lamb ($22.75).
It isn't cheap, with entrees averaging $15, a couple of bucks less for the vegetarian and noodle dishes. Still, if you hit the right dish, it's worth every penny. We did hit the bull's-eye with an appetizer special, green-lipped mussels swimming in Thai basil, garlic and butter--fresh, hot and savory, with an oceanic tang that summoned the surf to this suburban diner. I love well-executed crispy Vietnamese spring rolls, which were on the menu, but opted to be adventurous and try summer rolls--soft rice crepes wrapped around shrimp, bean sprouts, herbs and rice vermicelli--and was sorry I did. They had an odd taste, a stray herb that I could neither identify nor embrace.
There was a brief though noticeable delay between the removal of our appetizers and the arrival of our entrees that our apologetic waiter attributed to the preparation of the shrimp special my wife had ordered. But Kathy's entree, six succulent giant tiger shrimp stuffed with spicy fresh lump crab meat ($19.95), was well worth the wait--superb, in fact. My Roast Pork Loin in Golden Nugget Sauce ($13.95), three medallions in a tasty honey peanut sauce, was fine. I had noticed that there was not a chopstick in sight at Pacific, and my pork provided a partial explanation: I needed a fork and knife for the burger-size servings.
The entrees are filling: The shrimp comes with roasted shiitake mushrooms and steamed noodles, the pork with sauteed vegetables and scallion pancakes.
Dinner for two, including appetizers, entrees, coffee and one Flaming Volcano, was about $72 plus tip. (An awful mathematician, I loved the tip chart provided on the credit card bill, which precisely estimated what a 15, 20 and, yes, 25 percent tip would be on our meal.)
What more of the lounge? I thought you'd never ask. Just off the main dining room, it, too, features murals, gently oscillating fans and kitschy verging on tacky--or vice versa--touches such as a rubber lizard lounging in a gilded cage on the bar. But the draw here is, of course, the drink menu, including such tropical classics as the Blue Hawaii, Singapore Sling and Mai Tai, as well as instant classics such as the F.V. And yes, you'll get the little umbrella stir sticks and fruit-on-a-sword garnishes.
The lounge also boasts swift, pleasant service, top-shelf liquor, three kinds of beer on tap, a way-above-average happy hour (Monday through Friday, 4 to 7 p.m.) with complimentary hors d'oeuvre, such as chicken satay with peanut sauce, sushi and scallion pancakes. And as unlikely as it sounds, the Golden Margarita here, served with fresh lime juice, Cuervo Gold and pink salt, is a serious contender for top honors in this neighborhood. (Watch out, Don Pablo's!)
So when all is said and done, if you're looking for a broad selection of tasty, authentic yet somewhat Americanized Asian dishes, Pacific--which is not a pool store--should be on your short list.
William Horne's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Address: 46240 Potomac Run Plaza, Sterling;703-404-5500.
* Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 12 to 11 p.m. Saturday.
* Credit cards: All major cards.
* Prices: Appetizers, $4.25 to $6.95; entrees, $8.50 to $22.75; daily specials; prix fixe menu available for $16.95 featuring appetizer, soup or salad, entree and dessert. Sunday champagne buffet, $18.95 for adults, $9.50 for children younger than 12.
* Miscellaneous: Catering on- and off-site; private dining room for business lunches or corporate functions; eat and smoke on the patio or at tables in the lounge.
CAPTION: Bill Walden, executive chef at Pacific, prepares pate a choux for dessert.