Restaurant review: Lily’s Asian Cuisine

By Columbus Alive
From the July 5, 2012 edition

My first impression of Lily’s Asian Cuisine amounted to being caught off guard. It arrived via this advice from people I’d never seen before who were leaving as my dining companion and I were walking in: “Guys, it was great, get a lot!”

I don’t need to be told twice to overeat, but that’s what amazingly happened when, after being seated in this bare-bones and bare-walled strip mall joint, an adjacent table started chatting us up like we were old chums. Out of the blue, these strangers suggested, “Whatever you guys order, make sure you get some sushi, too!”

Maybe Lily’s uses some kind of mind-controlling secret ingredient, because after eating the food that inspired this unusual cheerleading behavior, I’m going to act the same way. Here goes: Guys, head to Lily’s for abundantly portioned and well-prepared Pan-Asian favorites and even better Indonesian fare. Oh yeah, and to make fast new friends (whether you want ’em or not) who will call you “guys.”

Lily’s menu is one of those big and unwieldy documents that touches down in Thailand, scoots through Japan and strolls around Chinese takeout classics. It’d take the better part of a year to eat your way through it, but because the menu’s home base is Indonesia, that’ll be my focus.

Appetizer-wise, the nice Risol ($3.50) were two crisply fried egg rolls with pleasant bread-crumbed textures. Inside was an almost creamy, semi-sweet filling of minced chicken, cabbage and carrots.

Now fast forward to the Indonesian Dishes section and Lily’s must-try entrees. Rendang ($9.50) was a feeds-two serving of long-cooked, tender beef cubes bound in a tight and nuanced sauce with integrated flourishes of galangal, chili pepper, coconut milk and a faint, shrimp paste-delivered funk. I loved it.

Ditto for the killer (half of a possibly brined) Marinated Fried Chicken ($9). Its golden brown, crispy skin led to fall-off-the-bone meat with gentle but effective seasonings (such as turmeric) that never interfered with the homey taste of expertly cooked poultry. Like the Rendang, this biggie came with good rice topped with crispy fried shallots plus fresh and pickled cucumbers and a dollop of shockingly hot (but delicious) chili paste. Bonus: It was also served with a bowl of terrific — and chicken-y — curry soup/rice sauce holding big wedges of fried tofu.

Those same smile-inducing sides accompanied the unusual yet aromatic and winning Empal (Fried Beef Steak, $9.50). Kinda like Indonesian beef jerky, these darkly crusted, thickish pan-fried slabs were fairly tender, redolent of galangal, tamarind and garlic and were intriguing, semi-exotic fun to rip into.

My favorite non-Indonesian selection came from the “Lily’s Special Rice” section and bore the deceptively boring name of Roast Pork on Steamed Rice ($9). Man, that humdrum moniker did it no justice. This was a knockout dish of succulent, five spice-kissed pork belly hunks with slightly sweetened chicharrones-like crackly crowns. These were paired with Lily’s ubiquitous but good white rice plus a mass of perfectly sauteed bok choy anointed in sesame oil.

Oh yeah, and following some neighborly advice, we got some sushi, too (the simple but fresh and nice-priced Tuna Avocado Roll with a surprisingly spicy mayo, $6.50). Guys, it was good!