A delightful find, small but savory
Foodies in the know from Cambridge to Marblehead have discovered Fusion Foods in Chelsea, a place that’s easy to drive past (as I have for years). It’s in a wedge of a brick building, next to a dry cleaner and across the street from Apollinaire Theatre Company.
After a recent visit, here’s my advice: Don’t let the location fool you.
When I see the word “fusion” plugged into a restaurant’s name, I expect a typical pan-Asian menu. But Fusion Foods looks, feels, and sounds more like an international food boutique.
Starting with the crisp white linen napkin — rolled, then loosely tied with twine — every aspect of the dining experience makes you want to return, or extend your visit beyond the meal.
Fushion Foods is owned by Melissa Vo, a single mom who emigrated from Vietnam in 1984. Starting when she was 9 years old, she learned from her mother the basics of cooking, such as cutting lemongrass, mincing garlic, and trimming fat from meat. Several years ago, she decided to combine her love of preparing good, healthy food with her desire to run her own business.
“My mother thought I was crazy,” Vo said, telling her that running a restaurant is “ ‘like being a daughter-in-law for the world. They’ll critique you on everything.’ ”
After Vo opened Fusion Foods as a takeout-only operation in December 2009, it seems customers had only one complaint: They wanted a place to sit and stay longer.
In 2012, Vo converted an office space upstairs for lunch and dinner dining, bringing in an architect to handle the redesign. The effect is a stunning layout that looks more French boutique than Asian restaurant.
There are two sitting areas upstairs with overstuffed chairs, a gas fireplace, and a couch. Vo said the restaurant can hold up to 45, including a six-seat bar area. Music from her personal playlist wafts overhead, a hip blend of international and popular music.
Vo’s focus is on “clean” eating, using fresh ingredients that draw on recipes incorporating Thai, some Japanese, and Latin dishes.
Prices are kept low; it’s cash only and bring-your-own-bottle (there’s an uncorking fee). Many dishes are marked “V,” available in vegetarian versions.
During a recent lunch at Fusion, my husband chose the tom yum soup ($5), a light, nearly clear hot-and-sour broth. Vo said it’s prepared with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf in the broth to add taste. With a choice of chicken, shrimp, or tofu, the soup is so packed with mushrooms, tomatoes, and garnished with scallions that Tom Thumb could have run across the bowl without falling in.
My choice, the Vietnamese hot and sour soup ($5), delivered a kick that made my nose run, but was not too hot. I chose chicken (there’s also shrimp, tilapia, or tofu) to go with the soup’s grape tomatoes, bean sprouts, okra, and pineapple, garnished with fried shallots and a cumin-like “rice paddy” herb.
The soups can be ordered in larger servings as a meal (price depends on contents, fish or chicken, etc.), though these regular-sized portions filled us.
We enjoyed the crispy salmon roll appetizer ($6), made from scratch. Though deep-fried, the four rolls are light and grease-free.
The lunch version ($7.25) has the rolls served over lettuce and baby greens, and accompanied by ginger brown rice topped with scallions.
Pad Thai ($9) is one of our family’s favorite dishes. Vo’s version is noticeably different, made on the drier side, with wider rice noodles, and tangier, with a spicy sauce on the stir-fried mix of eggs, fish sauce, chili peppers, bean sprouts, scallions, and roasted peanuts. For an extra $1, we added shrimp. There’s also chicken or tofu.
The plan was to have one tasting bite and bring leftovers home for our daughters, but we destroyed the evidence. Too bad for them.
Our table was covered with plates from the lunch rice dishes, all delicious (and all $7.25), available Tuesday to Friday.
The garlic beef (or chicken or shrimp or vegetarian) is a stir-fry dish with baby carrots, string beans (I could order them, covered in the garlic sauce, as a meal next time), onions, red peppers, zucchini, and broccoli, served with a side of jasmine rice.
The sauteed coconut curry lemongrass lunch offers chicken, shrimp, tofu, beef, or vegetarian mixed with peppers, pineapples, and red bell peppers over a bed of lettuce and steamed jasmine rice. Though we were getting full, it had a light touch of curry and wasn’t too creamy or rich.
Our last lunch dish, chicken pineapple fried rice (or with shrimp or tofu or vegetarian), mixed in eggs, onions, red bell peppers, and chunks of pineapple, and was the tastiest fried rice we’ve ever had, the rice actually crisp from being fried.
Vo’s attention to detail even applied to our drinks.
A creamy Thai hot tea ($3) was so good, I wished I had ordered a second cup to go. The raspberry limeade ($3.50) muddled fresh raspberries in a glass of clear limeade, making it look more like a festive cocktail — and our discovery of Fusion Foods a delightful find, one worth repeating.