Introducing: Dinner at Rook

Former Oakleys Bistro chef Carlos Salazar helps the funky pan-Asian sandwich shop realize its street food soul.

There’s no denying that Rook (719 Virginia Ave., 317-759-5828) made a splash this summer with its Nikki Sutton-inspired decor evoking an abandoned Saigon street scene and its fun menu of Vietnamese banh mi stuffed with everything from Indian-spiced tofu to a tangy Thai sour sausage made in house and a traditional Vietnamese pork roll (cha lua) that’s crafted at the Smoking Goose. And while most followers of Indy’s food scene could appreciate the edge and verve of the place, they wondered if owner Ed Rudisell might have another ace up his sleeve as this place evolved and lived up to its forward-thinking design.

Enter chef and new co-owner Carlos Salazar to help this Fletcher Place sandwich shop express the real depth of its soul. A fresh-faced relative newcomer on the local culinary front, Salazar has most recently expanded his skills with innovative, playful dishes at Oakleys Bistro (1464 W. 86th, 317-824-1231), where he served as sous chef for nearly two years, as well as brunch favorite Tulip Noir (1224 W. 86th St., 317-848-5252) and Neal Brown’s popular Carmel pizzeria Pizzology (13190 Hazel Dell Pkwy., 317-844-2550).

Almost as soon as he installed himself in the kitchen in late August, Salazar was coining new dinner dishes that, while adding sophistication and breadth to Rook’s already funky menu, furthered Rudisell’s goal of making Asian street-food standards worthy of a night on the town. Diners still order at the counter in the evening, which can be a little awkward for larger parties, but the staff generally take over from there. Beers, mostly craft IPAs and a few Asian brews, are another welcome change that pair well with Salazar’s full-flavored, often rich fare. We recently dropped in for dinner, ordered a round, and sat back to enjoy some of Salazar’s dishes.

Of three dumpling choices, the XO mushroom version may have trumped the more unusual fried edamame-filled dumplings for being a bit lighter and having a tangy-umami rich sauce, though both made for tasty starters. A fusion of tender Korean bulgogi (tender strips of marinated beef) inside of Vietnamese-style crepes—here, tortillas—with a slightly sweet hoisin-like sauce were easily as good as any taco-truck snacks around town. (These were recently removed from the menu in favor of steamed buns stuffed with everything from fried sardines to Indian-inspired tandoori tofu.)

Definitely the most cheeky and calorie-rich of Salazar’s entrees was the pig face hash, though the pork cracklings definitely dominated, and while thinly sliced pickled peppers added a nice bite, this dish could have used a slightly more acidic sauce to balance the pork. A bit more balanced was a big warm bowl of noodles in a thick coconut milk sauce spiked with red curry. With more pickled veggies (carrots and radish), as well as bean sprouts, tofu, and crushed peanuts, this was a vegetarian’s dream (though you can add beef bulgogi now for a mere $2). The highlight came in the form of karaage: light, crisp hunks of fried chicken thigh with a bracingly sweet chili sauce, aromatic herbs, and just the right amount of white rice for starchy contrast.

For $2.50, we added the Filipino snack Turon, which was a golden wonton skin wrapped around black plantain and bits of tropical jackfruit. Gooey bits of melted brown sugar helped to make this one of the best versions of a dessert egg roll we’d had, and the packaging in a waxed paper sack made us feel we’d bought it off a vendor in Manila, though we were happy to be enjoying such spirited street food right off the Cultural Trail mere blocks from the heart of our own capital.