Wok ’n’ roll
Before eating at Wok Chinese Cuisine recently, it had been a while since I’d set foot in a Chinese restaurant. Over the years, I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, and San Francisco — all places where it’s easy to find first-rate Chinese food. Here in New Mexico, distracted by green and red chile, this beloved culinary tradition has sort of slipped my mind, so it was fun to go to Wok and revisit old favorites like hot-and-sour soup, fried wontons, and what their menu calls General Tao’s chicken.
Wok sits next door to Dr. Field Goods Kitchen, in the shopping center just west of Jackalope on Cerrillos Road. Walk through the door and you’re hit with that familiar aroma — a combination of steamy rice, stir-fried seafood, and sticky- sweet sauces — permeating a relatively small interior that feels compact and warm on a winter day. The space is arranged in a split level: tables and chairs on the lower floor, tables and booths above that. The padded booths are a little tight, and if you’re a long-legged person, you’re likely to feel cramped.
Wok obviously has a loyal fan base: witness the wall of happy-customer photos. Both times we visited, for a weekday lunch and a weekend dinner, the place was humming, with drinks and food coming and going in the hands of servers who were really being kept on the run. The menu here is huge, running to 126 numbered items under categories that seem slightly random: Wok Special, Soup, Appetizer, Sizzling Platter, Poultry, Seafood, Vegetable/ Tofu, Lo Mein, Fried Rice, Egg Foo Young, and Lunch Special. (There are no desserts — just fortune cookies.) There are nightly specials, too, though the availability of those can be hit or miss. During our dinner visit, for example, Wok’s special board advertised roast duck. Our questions about it — was this a whole duck or duck slices? — seemed to puzzle our waitress, who dashed off to the kitchen and then returned to report that there wasn’t any duck after all.
For lunch, we started with hot tea and a beer — Wok serves a limited slate of big-brand wines and beers, including Kirin, Sapporo, Heineken, and Sutter Home — before settling on two lunch special combinations: soup, an egg roll, two pot stickers, and a main dish. (The prices for this special vary, depending on the main dish you select.) My hot-and-sour soup had a nice dark color, good chicken-broth flavor, tofu chunks, carrots, seaweed strips, more chicken skin than chicken, a gelatinous shine, and a too-mild level of spicy heat. Both the egg rolls and pot stickers were ordinary: a bit on the oily side, with cabbage serving as the dominant filling in both.
My dining companion ordered orange chicken, while I tried the General Tao’s. These dishes were quite similar, and neither really stood out. In both cases, chunks of chicken had been battered and fried to a tough consistency and then coated in a sweet, glistening goo. The orange chicken tasted almost candied. The General Tao’s was made with small hot red chiles, which added some welcome heat as a contrast to the sweet, and the chicken had been tossed with coarsely chopped onion and bell pepper.
During a dinner trip with three people, we started with several appetizers, which are sometimes the most interesting things on a menu. First up was an order of cheese wontons, which were very tasty and attractive, with each wonton skin pinched into a crown shape. There were six of them — a generous amount — and inside each was a good, tart blob of cream cheese, with the whole assembly fried to a nutty, delicate brown.
We also liked the scallion pancakes, thin pan-fried pieces of dough flecked with scallions. They were served with two sauces: a sweet orange sauce that shows up often alongside Wok dishes and a tangy combination of a soy-based sauce with pepper flakes that was a perfect accent. We also liked the vegetable tempura, which featured a very delicate batter on pieces of carrot, zucchini, onion, mushroom, and broccoli. Least popular of the four was the salt-and-pepper crispy calamari. It had a good fried-fish-style coating, but the squid was too thick and rubbery.
Wok obviously has a loyal fan base: witness the wall of happy-customer photos.
We also tried a dish called green jade shrimp and scallop — a generous medley of tender seafood, pea pods, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, zucchini, carrot strips, and baby corn with the usual shiny glaze. Last up was one of that night’s specials: cumin lamb, which consisted of tenderized strips of lamb stir-fried with chiles, onion, bell pepper, and cilantro. The peppers made this dish so hot that we couldn’t eat it, which wasn’t indicated on the specials board. So if you order a special, ask about spiciness.
Overall? I’d go back, starting out with apps and a beer and experimenting with unfamiliar entrées. It’s just a matter of hitting the right combination.