“Fast casual” Asian dining in Bearden
by Gay Lyons
The Breath of a Wok , a recently published study of wok masters in the United States, Hong Kong and China by Grace Young and Alan Richardson, describes wok hay as “the breath, energy or spirit that comes from the artful cooking of food in a wok.” Because food prepared in a wok should always be cooked swiftly and served immediately—before the energy dissipates—this technique is perfect for fast casual dining.
Wok Hay Fresh Asian Diner, opened locally in June, is part of the “fast casual” dining trend. These establishments offer speedy service, reasonable prices, fresh ingredients and pleasant ambiance. I liked the Asian industrial décor and contemporary look of the place—shades of burnished gold and muted orange with large red disks suspended from the ceiling.
After contemplating our options in front of a large menu around the corner from the entrance, we placed our order and paid at a counter, but I was pleased to discover that the food is brought to the table. I like table service, so they get bonus points for this. In addition to soft drinks, tea and water, Wok Hay also offers wine and bottled beer—more bonus points.
Since spring rolls are a pretty basic item, we decided to try those, reserving more exotic appetizers such as seared ahi tuna and black bean ribs for another visit. I wanted to try the crispy dumplings too, but since the spring rolls must be ordered in pairs—two for $3.50 and four for $4.95—we stuck to the spring rolls. The appetizers sound enticing enough that it’d be tempting just to order several of these to share.
We tried both soups on the menu: hot and sour, offered in a cup or bowl, and wonton, offered only in a bowl—a very large bowl. While some of the salads, especially the spinach mist salad, and the noodle and rice bowls were appealing, we decided to bypass these and try the stir-fried “Fresh Classics.” For these, diners choose chicken, beef, shrimp, scallops, vegetables or tofu and one of 11 complementary sauces—some spicy, some not—served with white or brown rice. We selected chicken with spicy Sichuan vegetables and shrimp with Cantonese lemon sauce.
We had barely sipped our pinot grigiot when—adhering to the “fast” in fast casual—our food began to arrive. The spring rolls were good—hot, crunchy, filled with bean threads slivered with tiny carrots and mushrooms. After a test dunk in the accompanying sweet chili sauce, I decided I liked mine best plain.
I love hot and sour soup, so I was surprised that the cup of dark, somewhat smoky-tasting hot and sour soup with chunks of beef and mushrooms—described as Wok Hay’s signature version—wasn’t as appealing as the large bowl of wonton soup, a pale delicious chicken broth with spinach, carrots and several plump pork dumplings.
The shrimp with Cantonese lemon sauce was a bit of a disappointment. I was drawn to its description as “a light and tangy lemon sauce,” but while the sauce had a tanginess that revealed itself slowly after several bites, it was thicker and heavier than anticipated, reminiscent of the consistency of sweet and sour sauce—not what I’d call light. The chicken with spicy Sichuan vegetables was better. Crispy carrots, green and red peppers and green beans were mixed with mushrooms, baby corn and chicken in a tasty, well-spiced sauce.
Because we ran into friends who didn’t object to my stealing a few bites, I was able to sample a few other things. I liked the lettuce wraps—at least I liked the filling, a mix of chicken, almonds, water chestnuts and mushrooms, the lettuce having been consumed by the time I wandered over, fork in hand. I also liked the vegetables with yellow Malaysian curry sauce. The chicken with big orange dragon sauce and sesame seeds was reminiscent of the Cantonese lemon sauce, quite flavorful but too thick for my taste.
My favorites turned out to be the rice bowl and noodle bowl we picked up as “take-out” food another day. The thin Singapore noodles tossed in peanut sauce with tiny tomato chunks, Napa cabbage shreds, carrot slivers and scallion slices was a delicate, dainty dish. The teriyaki rice bowl—brown rice mixed with large pieces of carrots, Napa cabbage, pineapple and onion laced with wilted spinach—was heartier and equally tasty. The big-enough-to-share portions are definitely a bargain at $6.25. I’m looking forward to trying the fire cracker rice—a spicy dish of rice, almonds, snap peas, carrots, sprouts and egg—and Sichuan chop-chop noodles, described as “a dish to die for, egg noodles topped with a spicy dark sauce and cool julienne cucumbers.”
I enjoy a leisurely dinner, but sometimes you need something fast. At Wok Hay the food is prepared quickly and brought to the table or packed into nifty little takeout boxes long before the wok breath disappears.