Howard Wang’s has the look, and almost the flavor, of classic Szechuan cuisine
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
The last time I was in San Francisco, I ate out at two restaurants. One was Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ Berkeley bistro that ushered in California cuisine. It was delicious and set us back $180. The other was a Chinese dive in the Haight. It cost $18. It was the better meal — authentic, fiery, unique.
The fact is, great Chinese food is hard to find in America (at least at reasonable prices). Pan-Asian-fusion? Sure. Kobe beef from Japan, or fluffy tempura? Yep. Thai and Vietnamese? You can find it. But the spice and kick of China is as rare as a unicorn. There’s good, even delightful versions of traditional classics, but greatness eludes us. It’s the one form of cuisine where I recalibrate my expectations … though I always hope for the best.
Howard Wang’s Uptown, which opened next the new Gloria’s at Cole and Lemmon, looked promising. For first impressions, you could hardly do better: Brush-stained white pine floors, soothing rich walls, shiny black lacquers and pops of color from paper lanterns and a wall of ceramic masks in bas-relief. It sidles up to cliché with its traditional — some might say predictable — palette, but it never crosses the line, as abstract window panels and an eye-catching bar area lend a modern, social feeling.
The other senses are stimulated as well, with the aroma of fresh wood wafting among the faint hint of peppers. If ever a restaurant’s décor got me in the mood for the kind of food I was anticipating, this was it.
And it almost made it. While the food at Howard Wang’s isn’t at the level it was at that hole-in-the-wall in San Francisco, it makes an admirable foray into the Dallas Chinese cuisine scene. (This ain’t Wang’s first time at the rodeo; he also owns China Grill in North Dallas.)
The menu, in typical brasserie fashion, is large and diverse without overwhelming. Like Pei Wei, it takes you on a grand tour of styles, from stir-fry to broth noodles to satays, salads and wraps. The dim sum list offers standard fare like edamame ($5), egg rolls ($2 each) and potstickers ($7). The latter stands out with its seared plumpness and chewy texture, although the sauces are enough to distinguish almost any of the dishes, with the super-spicy yellow mustard approaching the defiant flavor that makes a meal memorable.
It was a welcome addition to a mild dish like the Mandarin sweet and sour chicken ($10), which pulls sweetness from lychees and mangoes, with only a hint of bite from the tang of pineapple. The spicy-crispy beef ($10), a stir-fry dish brimming with the pungency of ginger and garlic, packs a punch on its own, although it shies away from gaudy flourishes of spice. The zestiness of the orange peel shrimp ($16) and the General Tsao’s chicken ($14) had similar flashes of zing without going flat-out balls-to-the-wall.
Desserts are never a Chinese signature, although for seven bucks, the honey banana tempura with green tea ice cream is smashing: Plentiful (plan to share), sweet and tart, cool and warm.
Service is almost too solicitous. Our waitress — the same on several visits — is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the food, making suggestions and touting the high-points of several dishes. She has been supplemented by the manager, the owner and other staffers checking on us… perhaps too much attention for a dinner date. But food was delivered fast and pleasantly.
Howard Wang’s won’t make me forget Haight-Ashbury, but it certainly gives Uptown its most formidable embodiment of Chinese cuisine yet.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 5, 2011.