It's been nearly 20 years since the late Kenny Saio opened the doors of Stir Fry Cafe and began to reveal what would become a multi-cultural and transformative vision for Knoxville's culinary life. Two of Saio's other restaurants, Mango and Cha Cha, not only introduced refined Pan-Asian fusion cuisine and the glories of tapas to the city, but they also served as crucibles for a generation of chefs, barkeeps, and service professionals who remain a part of Knoxville's food and beverage landscape.
Mango and Cha Cha have long expired, yet Stir Fry remains with its core menu relatively unchanged—which may be the secret to its longevity. It doesn't hurt that the current master in the kitchen is Jason Shelton, whose food awakening happened in Saio's kitchens in the '90s; so, like many Knoxvillians, he's grown up with this menu.
Of course, there have been additions and changes over the years. Like almost every Asian spot, whether the food is from Bangkok or Beijing, sushi is on offer. A Chesapeake Bay style entrée is available, fish tacos are on special on $2 Tuesdays, and there are a wide selection of bottomless noodle bowls for the famished. Despite the cross-cultural variety of the kitchen's output and style, Stir Fry walks a nice line with the fusion ideology, which can often have an unhappy ending with a poorly executed confusion of novelty with quality.
By and large, the food remains quite good. Some dishes like the Drunken Noodles seem overly familiar nowadays, yet the freshness of Curry Rama remains as delightful as it was 20 years ago. The sushi options cover a lot of bases, from the Tiger Roll—a decidedly sweet mix of lobster and crab salad topped with eel sauce and spicy mayo—to the very flavorful Triple Threat Tuna that features tuna poke, white tuna, and ahi that's redolent of sesame and ponzu. If sashimi turns your crank, it's worth trying the crudo—it's a noteworthy Italian twist on raw fish. Other new additions are smile-worthy—especially the house-cut taro chips. The nutty potato alternative gives a pleasant crunch and makes a fantastic partner for a fine red-curry graced salsa that speaks volumes about the glories of properly seasoned, garden-fresh tomatoes.
It's easy to get lost in the lust for the new and improved—especially in this era of profligate food trends—so it's refreshing to find that one-time innovators, now old friends, can still satisfy and surprise with fresh ideas and proven favorites.
Mahi Mahi Fish Taco: While the ubiquity of the fish taco can induce ennui, Stir Fry's version is a lively accomplishment. Skillful grilling keeps the fish's distinctive flavor recognizable, moist, and meaty as opposed to other local versions in which the protein is indistinguishable or fried beyond recognition. Mr. Shelton's well-executed style of the required condiment, slaw, is made in small batches throughout the day to keep it happily fresh, crisp, and lively.
Port-land Roll: One prefers to avoid the word genius, but this roll's textural triumph almost demands it. Tempura Portobello and cream cheese are wrapped inside rice, capped with roasted portobello and topped with a bright cucumber mignonette. The cream cheese and roasted mushrooms offer a texture similar to the lush, silky quality of sashimi. It's a flavorful creation and a rare example of well-considered fusion.
Bacon and Chorizo Fried Rice: This is just madness—and it's all the better for it. This smoky, salty, chewy delight that's topped with butter-slathered scrambled eggs is a decadent and beautiful way to brunch. Forget the chop sticks and eschew the fork—you'll want a big spoon. Brilliantly, the savory sensory overload gets bright pops of freshness from a scattering of green peas; otherwise it's a smoky festival that's slick with just the right amount of fat. Save up your indulgences for this extravagance—it's worth every calorie. And if you're a fusion nay-sayer, this is one helluva way to eat your words.