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Asian House

In a word: Demand a smallish portion of their supply.

The specs: #00785  
1 Dempsey Rd., 53714
Details at Asian House on Urbanspoon
Official web site, Yelp

Latest Asian House news and reviews

JM ate the sweet & sour pork with fried rice and a soda.
Nichole ate the orange beef.
The bill was $20, or $10/person, plus tip.
JM gave a Asian House a B-; Nichole gave Asian House a C+ (see our grading rubric).

Economist Tyler Cowen has a new book out, "An Economist Eats Lunch." His six rules for dining out are refreshingly honest, direct, and free of the Gilt-y sheen that can suffuse food writing. We thought Asian House might be a good place to reflect on his rules. We hopped on our bikes and headed to the strip mall by Woodman's East to find this new-ish Chinese carryout place.

1) In the Fanciest Restaurants, Order What Sounds Least Appetizing

2) Beware the Beautiful, Laughing Women

These first two Cowen Rules didn't really apply, since Asian House is neither fancy nor were there any other customers. There was, however, a beautiful, laughing woman behind the counter.

3) Get Out of the City and Into the Strip Mall

Done.

4) Admit What You Don’t Know

We failed at this. Instead of asking if there was a house specialty, we went for our baseline crab rangoon, egg roll, orange beef, sweet and sour pork, and vegetable fried rice.

Crab rangoon and egg rollThe egg roll was included in the price of our meal, and was perfectly standard: decent cabbage and bits of red-tinted pork in a crisp wrap. The rangoon were not so great. The filling tasted fine and crabby, on the savory side. But little care had been taken in the presentation - some of the pockets hadn't been sealed shut, nevermind fancily folded.

We used the pint of sweet-and-sour sauce for dipping the appetizers as well as the deep-fried bits of pork in JM's entree. Here again, the dish was very uneven. The pieces varied widely in size, leading to uneven doneness. Most had a cube of roast pork inside a sometimes-gummy shell of dough. Sometimes we got one without meat, a kind of pork-flavored donut hole. The fried rice was OK, but was the only thing we didn't bother packing up.

Sweet & sour pork, veg fried rice

Orange beef is one of Nichole's go-to dishes. This one was more batter than beef, and though the sauce was not overly salty and there were many visible red pepper flakes in it, the dish had virtually no kick. The photo below doesn't give justice to the best part, the generous portion of excllently steamed, fresh broccoli (OK, that didn't make it home either).

Orange beef

5) Exploit Restaurant Workers

This is how a couple like us can get 2-3 meals for $20 at a place like Asian House. Like we said, there were no other customers during our visit, so the woman behind the counter came out to chat with us. She sat down at a corner table stacked with textbooks and asked how our bike ride went. It had been glorious, especially by Olbrich, and we asked if she'd been to the gardens recently. She never had - too busy with the restaurant - but "maybe Sunday." She told us she'd come here recently from the big city as a personal favor to the cook. "But if I don't like it I'll go back."

We're not saying anyone's being exploited, but there's definitely a personal, emotional  investment here that goes beyond mere employment. And also results in some of the friendlier, better service we've received in Madison.

(And beside all that noise, if you're a downtown restaurant worker, please consider filling out WRC/ICWJ's survey for the Just Dining Guide. The project is getting underway this summer - more details are in the State Journal article.)

6) Prefer Vietnamese to Thai

N/A.

The idea of opportunity cost is abdundantly displayed in this meal. If we lived closer, we'd visit here more regularly, but the added cost/time of the trip does not offset the smallish gains in customer service.  Also: fresher fare is better here than deep fried foods.  If we want an eggroll, we wouldn't pick this place, but if want something fresher we might.  There is the cost of delivery relative to dine-in relative to to-go (Asian House's dine-in area is really very nominal, so to-go may be a better option). Finally, there is the opportunity cost of choosing Far Eastern Asian vs. other kinds of cuisine, which begs the best economics question of all: What's for dinner?

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Though I'm a longtime reader and Madisonian, I'm temporarily in DC with my boyfriend, who lives there. He swears by Tyler Cowen and has gotten me hooked as well while I'm in the District (and environs). His full blog is here: http://tylercowensethnicdiningguide.com/

He brings a different perspective to food writing and to eating, since he--as an economist--looks for the most bang for the buck. Which is one reason why a corollary to his Six Rules applies only to fancy restaurants: order the most unusual thing on the menu.

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