SZECHUAN SPICE | Howard Wang’s boasts evocative decor and the best version of Chinese food in the Uptown area. (Photo courtesy Robert Hart Studio)

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.