For years, the KFC/Taco Bell on Broadway in Somerville sent fumes of chicken and hot grease wafting through the neighborhood. Of course, we love fast food as much as the next roly-poly American, but when the outlet was suddenly boarded up, few tears were shed.
There were plenty of other dining choices nearby. This section of Broadway, on the outskirts of Winter Hill, is choc-a-bloc with ethnic eateries — Mexican, Brazilian, Italian, Creole, El Salvadoran, and Ethiopian, to name a few.
And then there are our neighborhood townie bars, the hangouts where regulars watch the game and sip a brew. Some of the restaurants are better than others, but all add to the diversity of the neighborhood.
Early this year, a partnership took over and remodeled the vacated KFC building, bringing Asian cuisine — Thai, Chinese, Japanese — and a fresh attitude to the corner. Opening in February, the small space has been transformed into a cheerful refuge for take-out and eating in. Perhaps the emphasis is on take-out orders, but there is enough room to seat 22 people comfortably, and the large windows add to the sense of depth.
The décor is simple, with bright red chairs and a few lotus plants, but the energetic service, the cheery “You got it!” that often punctuates your order, adds immeasurably to the Lotus Xpress Xperience.
Fine dining, this may not be, but there’s something very fresh and very tasty in most of the Lotus Xpress dishes. Generally, the eatery offers what we have come to expect in a Pan-Asian menu, offerings like crab Rangoon ($3.75 and $7), General Gao’s chicken ($8), vegetable tempura ($7), pad Thai noodles, ($8.50), seafood udon noodle soup ($8.75), and an assortment of sushi nigiri, maki rolls, and special maki rolls. All these are familiar dishes and yet all are done very well, cooked to order with an emphasis on freshness.
During the course of several visits, we sampled appetizers, including an $8.75 special that included three choices plus rice. We opted for spring rolls, crab Rangoon, and dumplings; you can also get chicken fingers, spare ribs, shrimp tempura, and beef teriyaki.
The spring rolls were slightly greasy; the crab Rangoon was luscious with a creamy inside and crunchy exterior; and the dumplings were savory, if a bit greasy as well.
Hands down, the star dish here is the pad Thai, which comes with a generous amount of plump shrimp and juicy chicken and doused in a sweet sauce. It’s a filling dish for $8.50. But herein lies a dilemma — should you get the soft or crispy noodles? We’ve tried both, and the crispy wins by a thread. There’s something about the contrast of the crunch with the sweet that makes the dish stand out.
Lotus Xpress also does a fine job with maki, such as the avocado maki ($3.75), tuna maki ($4.95), and salmon maki ($4.50). The Idaho maki, ($4.50) made with sweet potato tempura, was a delight and a good choice for the vegetarian in the crowd, or even a nonveggie, as the potato has a rich, filling quality. Another surprise was the Philadelphia maki with salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber ($5.75) — the cream cheese blended expertly with the other ingredients.
A disappointment was the spider maki ($7.95) with fried soft-shell crab, avocado, and cucumber; the crab was mushy and did not have the fresh taste of other offerings. Better was the caterpillar maki ($8.50), a bright, cheerful arrangement of eel, cucumber, and avocado.
Lotus Xpress also has a variety of other dishes, including chicken (all $8), beef (all $9), seafood (all $9.50), and vegetable (all $7.75). And judging from the number of patrons it is already attracting, Lotus Xpress has been welcomed by the neighborhood. With its reasonable prices, it’s a good bet for a family or a bunch of hungry friends.
And if you really miss that fried chicken odor, order the chicken wings ($7.25), which come out piping hot and juicy, with a slight tang that might just please Colonel Sanders himself.