Tui Dubois at her restaurant Asian Combo in Biddeford. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A note to the 30-something couple sipping orange-ombré Thai iced tea ($4.50) at Asian Combo last week: Thanks for the earworm.

Since I stopped by this converted residential home on Biddeford’s Pool Street, I haven’t been able to get your new, improvised lyrics to a B-52s’ hit song out of my head. Allow me to paraphrase: “If you see a neon sign at the side of the road/ It says ‘Bubble Tea’ at the Laab Shack!”

I groaned when I heard the pun the first time, as I sat nearby, nursing my own malty, purple-tinted taro milk tea ($5.50) and chewing on springy crystal boba (not my favorite; I prefer the dense, fudgy and opaque cassava pearls). But who am I kidding? It was funny. I just wish I could think about this new Southeast Asian restaurant and not hear Fred Schneider’s voice in my head.

That my memories of Asian Combo are so intertwined with a song says something important about my dining experience. Had all the dishes I tasted at this casual, counter-service restaurant been knockouts, I suspect the food would be my most vivid memory of my midweek trip to Biddeford.

Instead, I remember a confusing meal ordered from a menu of Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese dishes, along with a few Japanese and Chinese American plates thrown in for good measure.

Calamari basil with rice, left; pho, right; and crispy pad thai with tofu, bottom center, at Asian Combo. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Are all the different cuisines where the name ‘Asian Combo’ comes from?” I asked the lightning-quick server behind the counter as I placed an order for calamari basil with rice ($17.95), a too-salty stir-fry of red peppers, basil, green beans and deep-fried calamari rings. “No, not at all,” she replied, pointing to a divided carryout container. “It’s from our lunch box specials.” The “combos” in question turn out to be bento-esque meal-deal bundles of an entrée, an appetizer and a miniature salad ($15.50).


A less interesting origin story, perhaps, but a smart business decision for a restaurant just down the street from the University of New England campus. “At lunch, we get so many students in here, and they all just want bubble tea and lunch combos,” she said.

At dinner, each of the combo components is offered a la carte. I sampled a few, including chubby shrimp spring rolls ($10.95) that caught me off-guard – was I tasting Italian radicchio alongside springy vermicelli and cucumber? Yes, it turns out. The same spring mix Asian Combo uses for its bento salads gets wrapped, unadulterated, into these spring rolls. I’m all for experimenting with locally bountiful ingredients, but bitter radicchio is a terrible addition to a spring roll, especially an otherwise-bland little parcel offset in flavor by a single, forlorn mint leaf.

Another puzzling dish was the crispy pad thai with tofu ($14). I think I know what’s going wrong here, but I’m still not sure why. (I reached out to interview the proprietors of Asian Combo three times but received no response.)

Often called “mee krob song kreuang,” this crispy-noodle version of pad Thai is normally made with torn cubes of mee krob, sweet-and-sour wheat noodle snacks (think funky, savory Rice Krispie treats) in place of linguine-like rice noodles. But at Asian Combo, the kitchen uses skinny, unseasoned wheat vermicelli in place of mee krob. As it fries, all the components tangle together into a jumble of crunchy noodles that are both dried-out and a serious challenge to eat.

Fortunately, my Asian Combo story comes with a heartwarming plot twist. Let’s start with the fried banana dessert (kluay khaek, $8.95), a stack of several buttery, wonton-enrobed parcels of soft, ripe fruit, drizzled in sugary syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds. There’s real skill at play here, both in selecting bananas that are ripe enough to soften without disintegrating, and in deep-frying the little packages to a perfect, delicate shade of brown. Two very sticky thumbs up.

Tui Dubois adds pho broth to a bowl. “This phenomenal pho is on equal footing with the best I’ve eaten in Maine,” says our critic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Then there’s the pho. Asian Combo’s version is deeply aromatic, with a few droplets of oil still bobbing on the surface and a whisper of natural sweetness to the broth. Stirring in a dash of hoisin and a spoonful of hot chile sauce along with torn holy basil, bean sprouts and sliced jalapeños, I discovered unsparing portions of rare, shaved ribeye and still-supple rice noodles. This phenomenal pho is on equal footing with the best I’ve eaten in Maine.


On the strength of its superlative beef noodle soup, it would be easy to propose that Asian Combo reconceptualize itself as a pho-only café. But wait … there’s yet another complication in the form of fiery, minty Isan-style laab gai ($15.75). This protein-packed herb “salad” delivers punches of astringency from lime juice, umami from ground chicken and generous glugs of fish sauce, followed by a soothing, mellow nuttiness from toasted rice powder (khao khua). If you’re a fan of heat, this is an ideal dish to order spicy – even up to Asian Combo’s overstated “fire alarm” level – along with a bowl of sticky rice ($3.50).

I wish I could ignore the unevenness of Asian Combo’s menu, a bimodal distribution of complete clunkers and enchanting, nuanced dishes, without much in between. Does it even out? On balance, probably. I certainly plan to return, but with a clear ordering strategy: I’ll be aiming for a bowl of that gorgeous pho and a bountiful plate of scallion-flecked ground chicken salad.

Laab Shack, baby!

Ta Young pours taro milk tea over the boba and ice at Asian Combo. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


WHERE: 169 Pool St., Biddeford, 207-284-1111

SERVING: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m, Tuesday to Friday; noon-8:30 p.m., Saturday & Sunday


PRICE RANGE: Appetizers & salads: $8.50-$15.75, Entrees: $14-$24.95


VEGETARIAN: Many dishes


BAR: None


BOTTOM LINE: Pan-Asian restaurants can be hit-or-miss, often over the course of the same meal. Biddeford’s Asian Combo, a casual, counter-service restaurant on Pool Street that opened in October, is no exception. What’s different here is that, among slapdash fresh rolls with off-putting radicchio and lackluster crispy pad thai, are a few first-rate dishes. If you visit, snag one of the dozen tables and order a bowl of pho, rich and warming with tender slices of shaved beef gliding through the currents of rice vermicelli; it’s some of the best in the area. And don’t stop there: The sweet, crispy wonton-wrapped fried banana dessert and fragrant, minty ground chicken laab are also knockout dishes that make a drive to Biddeford worthwhile.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of seven recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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