What’s in a name?
Well, if you’re Skillets Kitchen & Sports Bar, your moniker turns the tried-and-true sports-bar formula on its head. The 2-month-old restaurant, bordering the mad rush of Arlington’s South Cooper Street, chooses to emphasize the virtues of the “kitchen” before the “sports bar” — just as its name reads.
But fear not, oh rabid sports fans. Skillets — formerly a BFF Asian Grill & Sports Bar — provides plenty of flat screens for cheering on all manner of sports events, from the obscure to the downright depressing: the latest Rangers loss.
So, lucky for us long-suffering sports lovers, Skillets’ focused, yet eclectic menu hits a bunch of doubles, triples and the occasional home run with its offerings.
And what exactly is the kitchen pitching? For starters, it’s all about healthier eating, preached by its restaurateur-entrepreneur creator Charlie Pham, behind not just the BFF mini-chain but also Arlington’s Pho 95. Pham insists that Skillets’ pantry be stocked with organic ingredients from Whole Foods and Sprouts. There’s much less deep-frying and more salutary steaming and grilling in Skillets’ kitchen. For instance, the Skillets menu has banished BFF’s deep-fried egg roll in favor of a lighter, rice-paper-enrobed summer roll.
Of course, the menu hasn’t abandoned the sports-bar staples of a chicken Caesar salad, pick-your-flavor wings, four different burgers, and a Philly steak sandwich. But then Skillets’ menu grabs its culinary passport, with stops in New Orleans for Cajun shrimp cocktail, New England for clam chowder, and Mexico for chicken tacos.
Momentarily mesmerized by the dining room’s design motif of a ceiling studded with fiber optic dot-lights twinkling in a planetariumlike star-scape, along with an entire rain curtain wall recalling an Amazonian waterfall, I perused the menu, and leaned toward its predominantly Asian selections — many of which earned BFF Asian Grill so many ardent patrons.
And with my first bite of the organic summer rolls ($5), I had the epiphany that I might never order another everyday egg roll again. Wrapped in translucent lettuce and rice-paper leaves, these 3-inch rolls are havens for percussively crunchy carrots, cucumbers, and green and red bell peppers, all poised for dipping in a sweet-and-spicy chile-based sauce that did lack a desired giddy-up of heat.
Skillets’ chicken potstickers ($8) were so authentic — and yummy — that they could easily be served from any dim sum cart creaking through some eatery in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Six of these crescent-shaped pouches presented a tender, wonton exterior giving way to a creamy, chicken-flavored stuffing. And these vessels were just begging to be dunked in their soy-forward sauce.
The Korean style short rib ($15) was long on earthy taste and supple tenderness, though slightly stingy on portion size. But maybe I was simply greedy for more of these succulent morsels of braised meat. Its neighboring hillock of garlicky mashed potatoes, laced with the meat’s braising liquid, dwarfed the meat, but that’s a petty quibble with one of Skillets’ tastiest dishes.
My Skillets protein tour, after stops at chicken and beef, was rounded out by the ground pork for the Vietnamese bistro burger ($10). Easily several inches tall, this burger came housed in a miracle of a bun that managed to be simultaneously pliant, yet sturdy enough to support the vertical architecture of a thick, grilled pork patty, a thatch of pickled daikon, and a poker-chip-stack of cucumbers and carrots with cilantro, all swabbed in mayonnaise.
And I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to order another cluster of prosaic French fries with my burger if Skillets’ potato wedges are the alternative. They were as meaty as the burger’s patty, boasting the crackling outer skin of perfectly executed English “chips.”
I found the presentation of Skillets’ chicken tacos ($12) beguiling: Three soft-shell tacos came half-filled with chunks of garlic-and-lime-infused chicken, swaddled in a heat-seeking sauce — the latter born from the inventive tinkering of the head chef. On a separate plate were three ramekins filled with an avocado-based salsa, black beans and pico de gallo. Once I combined that trio of ornaments into the waiting half-moon tacos, the resulting sensations of sweet, heat, meat, creaminess and the pico’s tart zing, all alchemized in my mouth to glorious effect.
Though I’m not much of a dessert person, the red velvet cake ($6) beckoned me. A serious, 2-inch-tall wedge alternated two ruddy layers of moist cake, separated and topped by an ivory-tinted frosting. The cake and the frosting played as gooey good friends, but they were almost overshadowed by the shirt button-sized macaron sitting, beretlike, on the cake’s corner.
After I pried the macaron from its sugary mooring and delicately chewed it till it melted, these final sensations from my Skillets meal removed any lingering skepticism over whether healthful and decadently tasty cooking were mutually exclusive.
At Skillets, anyway, they coexist in utter harmony.