If Chipotle Mexican Grill served Southeast Asian food instead of Tex-Mex, it would look a lot like Monsoon Asian Grill in Nampa.
Monsoon, which opened earlier this year in a strip mall near the Ford Idaho Center, is a quick-service concept specializing in customizable rice and noodle bowls of the Thai and Vietnamese persuasion.
Nick Duncan, a longtime Boise-area chef and restaurant consultant, opened the fast-casual eatery in partnership with Billy Pothikamjorn, owner of Mai Thai in Boise. Their goal was to come up with a place that tantalizes taste buds with the vibrant flavors of the Indochinese peninsula, but without all the fuss of table service and menus that read like novellas.
Interior design elements include rustic-looking tables that Duncan built himself (now that’s a busy chef!) with reclaimed wood from an old barn in eastern Oregon. Other wood features accent the eatery here and there, mixed with plenty of shiny stainless steel surfaces to give it a modern feel.
Those in a hurry will surely like the order-at-the-counter system. The build-your-own bowls and Chef’s Signature Bowls are designed to be affordable, healthy and come out of the open kitchen in about two minutes — unless the place gets busy, and then you’re looking at around five minutes, tops.
A plethora of prepared items are kept hot, cold and ready-to-go behind a glass sneeze guard at the counter for everyone to see. The scratch-made choices include various meats, rice and yakisoba noodles, assorted sauces (aromatic coconut milk-infused curries, peanut sauce and more), veggies and Thai-style garnishes. Plus, the restaurant recently added drunken fried rice and rice noodles to the starch lineup. As you can see, diners are in charge of what they choose to eat at Monsoon.
You would have to dine here 750 times to try all the possible menu combinations with the customizable bowls. That kind of mathematical dining equation probably doesn’t enter the mind of your average person — unless they have “A Beautiful Mind” — but it’s good to have choices in this day and age, when people like choices. Carnivores, vegetarians (vegans as well) and the gluten-free crowd will find plenty to eat at Monsoon.
Things can get confusing in the ordering line for newcomers, but after a visit or two, diners typically get the hang of it.
One afternoon, I went for a custom-made bowl of Vietnamese-style pork ($7.85) atop the drunken fried rice. If you go this route, you will need only to choose the protein, starch and garnish because the dark-hued fried rice boasts a hodgepodge of zucchini, bell pepper, onion, big chunks of garlic and fluffy egg curds. Since I doubled the meat on my order (add 2.50), the bowl came heaped with tender shreds of wok-seared pork loin that gets marinated with fermented fish sauce, honey, shallot and black pepper. A garnish of sweet and vinegary cucumber relish dotted the top of the bowl.
I tagged on a side of Isaan-style mushrooms ($1.50) to give the bowl some umami earthiness. The thick-sliced button mushrooms — seasoned with finely ground Thai peppers, lemongrass, mint and soy sauce — were seared around the edges and full of flavor thanks to the sizzling wok.
Those who enjoy Pad Thai should try a bowl of yellow curry chicken ($7.85) plopped on Thai-style rice noodles and garnished with a chunky, brick-red chili sauce. Once again, you won’t need to pick a veggie option with this starch choice because the flat rice noodles get stir-fried with sliced scallion and other veggies in a sweet and spicy sauce. Adding some crushed peanuts on top would be a nice touch, though.
Another good pick is a bowl of Vietnamese pork ($7.85) atop a mound of nutty-tasting brown rice, hit with a hot and sour red curry, then topped with wok-seared kernels of corn and fresh coconut shreds and a tangy khoa soi garnish (pickled mustard greens mixed with shallot, scallion, cilantro and dried Thai chili pods).
I could go on and on about the customizable bowls. But sometimes diners just want menu choices made for them (all that thinking at the counter can hurt one’s brain), and that’s when the Chef’s Signature Bowls come into play.
The Jungle Bowl ($9.95) is a jumble of ginger-cilantro jasmine rice, lots of chili-spiced beef (tender eye of round cut) and saucy sour red curry, finished with wok-fried corn and coconut, and a drizzle of piquant chili-lime dipping sauce.
Those counting calories should go for the Work Out Bowl ($8.95), a mound of chewy brown rice smothered with yellow curry-tinged grilled chicken, stir-fried drunken broccoli, citrusy peanut sauce and finely chopped cucumber relish.
Ordering the Street Bowl ($8.95) will get you a tangle of yakisoba wheat noodles covered with the aforementioned Vietnamese pork, stir-fried squash and bell pepper, fragrant orange curry (a blend of yellow and red curries infused with thick coconut milk) and a verdant khoa soi garnish.
Let’s not forget about the vegetarians. A good choice for the meatless crowd is the Siam Bowl ($8.55), an amalgam of Thai brown rice, big chunks of organic tofu (marinated with lime and spices), yellow squash, wok-seared chives and bean sprouts and sweet and salty pad see ew sauce. The tofu on its own isn’t overly exciting (go figure), but it quickly absorbs the aromatic teriyaki-like sauce.
There’s no seafood option to speak of on the protein list, but Duncan and his staff serve finfish and shellfish specials, including grab-and-go sushi (a new program the eatery recently rolled out) and an occasional spicy green curry shrimp bowl.
If all goes well for Duncan and Pothikamjorn in Nampa, the Thai food-cooking duo would like to open other Monsoon Asian Grill locations around the Treasure Valley.
James Patrick Kelly is the Statesman’s restaurant reviewer: Email Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monsoon Asian Grill
Address: 16003 N. Idaho Center Blvd., Nampa
Phone: 208- 606-9298
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Menu price range: Build-your-own bowls and Chef’s Signature Bowls $7.85-$9.95
Libation situation: Monsoon doesn’t serve alcoholic beverages, but it offers strong Thai iced coffee, sweet and creamy Thai iced tea and an array of bubble (boba) teas. Try the salted cream boba with black tapioca pearls. It’s delicious.
Delivery? Yes. Monsoon’s drivers deliver within a 3-mile radius of the restaurant. You can also get food delivered from Yelp Eat24 and Eat Street.
Kid friendly? Yes. Kids like choices, especially picky eaters.
Wheelchair accessible? Yes
Opened: April 2017