Discerning what’s special at fusion joint Mi Xao difficult

Mi Xao restaurant is at 1055 S.C. Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant.

In keeping with its “Wok In, Wok Out!” motto, Mi Xao shuns gratuitous frills on its printed menu. Other than a few colorful speech bubbles indicating which dishes are spicy and how to pronounce the Mount Pleasant takeout joint’s name (Me Gow), the most eye-catching design element is a thin red box framing a five-buck serving of steamed ground pork-and-garlic dumplings.

It’s not instantly clear, though, what the lone box is meant to convey. I asked the clerk if the appetizer was prominently squared because it was the most delicious dish on the list. Might chef-owner Anh Toan Ho consider the dumplings a house specialty?

The clerk shrugged. “I don’t know what’s special,” he grumped.

Having worked my way through both sides of Mi Xao’s menu, I’ve come to share the staffer’s sentiment, if not the underlying exasperation. While I didn’t encounter many dishes I’d refuse if a co-worker was picking up lunch, I also didn’t find a single dish which could help me deduce why local eaters have been lavishing love on the restaurant since it opened a year ago. If there’s anything at which Mi Xao excels, it’s averageness.

Yet for many diners, Mi Xao is a weekly habit. I suspect that’s because Mi Xao provides the proper foundation for lots of hot sauce and flights of culinary imagination. The kitchen is skilled at ornamenting every salad, noodle soup and stir-fry with enough rice vinegar, ginger and garlic to evoke a vague sense of pan-Asian cookery. But beyond the flavor baubles, the impersonation falters. Like a Xerox copy of a Xerox copy, Mi Xao’s renditions of classics such as pho ba and goi ga are stripped of the boldness and subtleties associated with the originals.

Take those steamed dumplings, hoanh thanh, which is more commonly translated as wontons. At Mi Xao, the glutinous rice flour dough is spread thick as a golf tee and carelessly crimped, so the schlumpy dumplings look as though they’re wrapped in rolls of baby fat. The gummy skin surrounds a nubbin of bland pork paste, which badly needs a spank of heat. Instead, the dumplings are served with a light, sweetish soy sauce alight with slivers of ginger.

Sugar is a recurring theme. It’s the dominant flavor of the House Special sauce, one of five sauces offered as a stir-fry medium. Patrons have their pick of carb (jasmine rice, brown rice, rice noodles or egg noodles) and protein (tofu, chicken, pork, shrimp or beef); onion, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, baby corn and cabbage come standard. Whichever sauce, brace for plenty of it. Pork dressed with House Special sauce was deserving of an illustration on the Candy Land board. Tofu prepared in a mild green curry was better, but the sloppy saucing resulted in a fusillade of ginger.

Soups are perhaps a safer bet. The thin tom yum kung, a dish rooted in Thailand, bobbed with head-on shrimp. Smoothed over by coconut milk, the chicken broth was a fine backdrop for a tangle of rice noodles. While Mi Xao frequently overcooks its rice, the noodles accompanying the tom yom kung and pho were sufficiently rigid to stand up to the steaming hot soups.

As for the pho, it was overwhelmed by flavors reminiscent of nutmeg and caramel, and distinctly lacking in the robust beefiness and smokiness that distinguishes the best slow-cooked broths of its kind. Still, for nostalgic eaters longing to go through the motions of garnishing their bowls with jalapeno rings, a bundle of bean sprouts, a few torn leaves of Thai basil and a satisfying squeeze of lime, the pho bo at Mi Xao is a decent, grease-free choice.

Traditionally, beef pho comes with slices of raw flank steak or cooked meat from other parts of the cow, but Mi Xao serves its broth with cooked flank. It’s likely that’s partly a concession to American tastes, and partly a reflection of how few diners eat their meals at the restaurant: Imagine driving home with raw beef and rapidly cooling soup, and you can almost hear the public health officials pulling out their hair.

Interestingly, the most successful dishes at Mi Xao are very closely linked to the environment — in spite of the restaurant’s reliance on Styrofoam boxes. The extraordinarily fresh herbs and shredded carrots underlying the shrimp green papaya salad and Coco’s salad — essentially a vegetarian version of the shrimp salad, dressed with ginger-soy instead of lime — offer a spark of bright color and crunch sadly missing from the rest of the menu. The salads, capped with bits of peanuts and fried shallots, taste wonderfully immediate.

As the restaurant’s devoted fans will no doubt insist, the salads are evidence of Mi Xao’s specialness. But for eaters who haven’t yet been swayed by Mi Xao’s charms, they may not be special enough.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.