By Nancy Powell
Here is a well-known fact: if an Asian eats at a pseudo-Asian place, there has got to be some legitimacy to it. In the case of the new Natural 9 Noodle Company inside Morongo Casino, this distinction carries some weight, although knowing what you are getting yourself into makes the experience much more palatable. You see, a Chinese chef has conceived and cooked the pan-Asian comfort food dishes on Natural 9’s sizable menu, and so naturally Asians will gravitate towards a place like this than, say, the Panda Express at the food court. And Natural 9 does represent the Asian experience much more accurately than a Pei Wei, Pick Up Stix or Panda Express.
When you enter Natural 9, you peruse a large menu mounted on blonde-wood beams (a nod to the Japanese minimalist tradition of Zen). Once you’ve decided on your course of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or Thai dishes, you proceed directly to the order counter (supplementing with an iced-coffee, Tsingtao beer [or Corona if you don’t know any better] or hot sake). You take your number to any one of the cafeteria tables in the roped-off dining area and wait until the server brings piping hot bowls of noodles to the table. Only the dishes come one-by-one rather than altogether, which disturbs the viscosity of this well-oiled machine. And the non-Asian servers do occasionally get orders confused.
As to what to eat, skip the starters and spend your money instead on Beef Pho ($11), a cloudy but aromatic, star anise-steeped bowl of comfort that arrives with seven thinly-sliced, tender medallions of flank steak, which cooks in a matter of minutes from the steaming broth. The aroma of fresh basil and cilantro as both hit the slow-cooked and flavorful broth is enticing, despite the hefty price tag for a dish you could get within city limits for half the price. But hey, you are in the middle of a desert where Vietnamese food is hard to come by.
One fusion entrée that is hard to come by even within city limits is the Kimchi Fried Rice ($11), a hefty platter of garlicky rice flecked with sweet bits of barbecued pork and lightly-spiced leaves of Napa cabbage. Natural 9 uses a fresh version of the fermented vegetable versus a more aged-variety, resulting in a milder tasting, but equally satisfying, dish whose flavors should prove more approachable for kimchi-averse audiences.
As for reaching out to Chinese audiences, of which there are lots at Morongo, Natural 9 does offer some seasonal specials like Steamed Fish Filet ($14) with vegetables and Congee ($10-$11), rice porridge served with a side of fried dough sticks. The rest of the Chinese entrees are Americanized favorites like Kung Pao Chicken, sweet and sour chicken or pork or wok-fried favorites like chow fun or fried rice.
If you’re seeking the more authentic experience, stick with the standard noodle dishes like pho. Rarely do these disappoint. If you order smartly, however, you can stretch those hard-won dollars to feed two and still have leftovers that are palatable post-microwave.
Natural 9 Noodle Company, Morongo Casino, 49500 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, (951) 755-5620; www.morongocasinoresort.com/dining/tntnat9. AE, MC, V.