On my most recent outing I had the pleasure of dining at Eighty8 Asian Bistro in Cary, a sleek and modern space serving unique takes on recognizable flavors from all over the world. Chef Dai Nguyen dabbles in a number of cuisines in his kitchen, serving sushi and Japanese steakhouse-style entrees alongside classic Chinese-American dishes like General Lee’s and Mongolian. Kitchen manager Matt Gonzales invited my date and I to taste a variety of offerings that, as I learned over the course of the meal, display Dai’s attitude and style very effectively.
We got the chance to speak with Chef briefly and his perspective on authenticity stood out to me. Dai is a person who loves to please. He knows that a restaurant’s commitment to an ‘authentic’ version of the cuisine they represent sometimes comes at a cost, whether it be his freedom on the menu, his customers’ satisfaction, or his appeal to a wide base. To be blunt, and these are my words: there is not as much of a market for ultra-rigorous fine dining or totally foreign ingredients in the Triangle compared to other metro areas. Dai made it abundantly clear to us that he wants his food to be fun and accessible and that he and his staff will do their best to accommodate any diner’s request. I also want to give our server, Ryan, the lip service he deserves, as he was incredibly courteous and informative.
We started our meal with a take-out classic: crab wontons served with sweet chili sauce (6 for $7). The wontons were supremely crispy and crunchy and the filling struck a nice balance between smooth cream cheese and succulent crab. I might have preferred a little extra filling but I tend to think of crab wontons as a fried appetizer as opposed to a seafood-centric course, and on that front they certainly delivered. Next, my date enjoyed a steaming bowl of hot and sour soup, while I chose a house salad with ginger dressing. Tasting Eighty8’s execution of these classic dishes made me excited for the rest of our meal. The hot and sour soup was deeply flavorful, and my date appreciated its hearty ground chicken and unctuous, gelatin-rich consistency. The greens, cucumber, and cherry tomato in my salad were crisp and fresh, and while the ginger dressing was thin, it packed all the spicy aromatic ginger punch I expected and more. I also sampled their wasabi vinaigrette, house-made like all of their sauces and dressings, and it was sweet and pungent with a tasteful level of wasabi. Bonus points for ensuring the cucumber and iceberg were all bite-size, no knife necessary.
Since Eighty8 offers a pretty diverse menu, the staff thought it best that we try a dish from each of their different specialties – wok, sushi, and grill. To demonstrate their mastery of the wok, they prepared Mongolian beef and chicken ($15), served over rice sticks with scallion and steamed rice. Once again, Eighty8 knows their way around Chinese-American staples, as both my date and I agreed this was the highlight of the evening. The proteins were perfectly cooked and tasted of wok hei, the distinctive singe that makes stir-fried food so delicious and so difficult to master. The sweet soy glaze clung beautifully to each bite without being cloying, while the scallions and rice sticks provided texture. My date doesn’t usually prefer red meat, but we nearly came to blows over the last chunk of beef.
For our sushi course, chef Dai showed off his originality and his philosophy with a roll he called ‘the Italian Job’: shrimp tempura, mozzarella (!), and Thai basil inside, topped with proscuitto (!!!) and a balsamic relish. Sushi purists eat your heart out – this roll worked. As you chew, you start at the crisp and meaty shrimp tempura accented by floral basil flavors, then finish with the cured meat on top. Supporting the protein is the mild and salty mozzarella, the tender rice provides background, and the balsamic’s sweet acidity cuts through this huge bite (one bite, do it) and contrasts nicely with the meat and salt. It is one of the most unique things I’ve ever put in my mouth, and I would encourage anyone regardless of their sushi preferences to try it.
Our final course was what Eighty8 calls the fusion-style burger: a half pound patty on a sweet Hawaiian bun topped with provolone, spring mix, crispy wonton chips, and a Tzatziki sauce. Served with sweet potato fries, this is a huge entree for the price ($13). The size of the patty, however, meant the ground beef tended to dominate each bite. I could appreciate the flavors of each component and the way they fit into the dish’s concept, but the burger didn’t come together like I wanted it to. The fries were well cooked but both parts of this plate needed just a little salt. My date’s ‘Dragon’s Breath’ cocktail, which arrived quickly, washed down the last of the meal with a delicious, unconventional combo of sweet pomegranate juice and vodka accented by citrusy cilantro and a bit of spice from jalapeños.
Once again, thank you to Eighty8 for a very special dinner! It is a comfortable place to enjoy a meal whether you’re bringing a date or a big group, and everyone is sure to find something on the menu that piques their interest.
Note: From time to time we’re invited out to try a restaurant or to try certain products. This meal or items are usually comped, as these was. We’re under no obligation to write a positive review or any review at all when we’re invited out to try a place. Every review you see on our site will be an honest review of the place whether or not the restaurant provided us with the meal at their cost.
Nathan Griesedieck is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and Raleigh native who works in the transfusion service at Duke University Medical Center in Durham – a true-blue Triangle foodie in every sense of the word(s). He spends most of his downtime either learning and thinking about food, or in his (tiny) kitchen making it for his girlfriend and best friend, Sarah. You can find him on Instagram (@n8greasy).