Making fun of Chinese food has been a favorite American pastime since the dawn of time. For many decades, the running Chinese food joke was, “Am I eating dog, cat, or pork?” Then, in the health-conscious 80s (the Jane Fonda workout video era), the battle cry was changed to “Why is Chinese food so greasy?’ Really? As compared to what? Duck confit? French fries? Meatloaf? Mac & cheese? Eggplant parmigiana? Pork belly? Mashed potatoes made with a stick of butter? Nervous Chinese immigrant chefs responded by offering steamed vegetables, brown rice, and sauce on the side. Now, thirty years later, people are still ordering General Tso chicken (deep fried) and asking why it has too much grease. Today (the age of locavores), there is an added charge: Chinese restaurants don’t use local ingredients. Huh? Where do people think Chinese chefs get their ingredients from? Xanadu? It just so happens that bok choy, Chinese mustard greens, bitter melons, and long beans are grown in New Jersey. In fact, Chinese take-out joints all along the Eastern Seaboard have saved many New Jersey farms from being turned into suburban sprawl. The meat (pork, beef, and chicken) is your basic American supermarket product. I will concede that the shrimp is probably farm raised in Thailand or Vietnam, which is not nearly as good as American wild shrimp. The sad truth is 90% of the shrimp consumed in America today is imported. So why single out Chinese restaurants?
I’m not saying Chinese take-out chefs should be immune from criticism, but let’s be fair, you’re not going to get acorn-eating, heritage pork raised by disillusioned Wall Street brokers for $8.95. Not going to happen. What these chefs do is noble work. They toil in tiny, hot kitchens, often in under-served neighborhoods so people from all economic levels can enjoy a take-out dinner once or twice a week. For $10.95 you get rice, vegetable, meat, a bag of crispy fried noodles, a boring salad, and even a free Sprite or Poland Spring water! What more do you want from these people? If you want to pick on somebody, at least pick on chefs who are charging fair market prices.
Luckily for us, the next generation of Chinese chefs has arrived for our abusement. Despite the desperate pleadings of their immigrant parents not to get into the “eating bitter” business of restaurant ownership, they are determined to seek the glory of Mario, Jean George, David Chang, and Anita Lo. These people grew up here, went to culinary schools, and interned at the kitchens of celebrated chefs. If they can’t figure out what you want to eat, then they deserve to get their asses kicked.
In Manhattan, Chinese haute cuisine is gaining respect. Look to Red Farm (Joe Ng), Wong (Simpson Wong), and Annisa (Anita Lo); all are doing quite well and charging big Manhattan bucks. Here in Williamsburg, we’re still in the “upgrading” and “specialty” stages. Wild Ginger is vegan, Red Bowl has a stylish modern decor that looks like the inside of a red lacquer jewelry box, M Noodle and M Bistro are considered “hip.” And brand new to the nabe are Vanessa’s Dumpling House and Brooklyn Wok Shop. Vanessa’s Dumpling House is trying to duplicate the success of their super cheap dollar-for-four-dumplings formula (only now it’s $1.25 for four, thanks to Bedford Avenue rent). I admire them for sticking to authentic Chinese recipes. The Peking duck, for example, is Peking duck; the chive and pork dumplings are similar to the ones you would get from a street cart in China.
Brooklyn Wok Shop, however, is determined to bring the much maligned Cantonese-American dishes back into fashion, but this time by using hormone and antibiotic free natural meats and the promise of French technique. And, of course, no MSG. When I visited Brooklyn Wok Shop, they were still in the “soft opening” stage, so the menu was limited. The owners are a young Chinese-American couple, Edric and Melissa Har. Edric is the chef and has worked on the line at Cru and Le Bernadin.
For starters, I ordered the salt and pepper squid ($5.95); it was perfect—crispy on the outside, very tender on the inside, and lightly seasoned with simple salt and pepper. The wonton noodle soup ($12) had a great broth, so you can tell it was made from scratch. Pure broth is hard to find these days, because food scientists have made great strides with flavor enhancers from the days of salty chicken bullion cubes. Many chefs have succumbed to using them, basically because most diners can no longer tell the difference. So I’m happy that Chef Har is making his stand by slow cooking bones and vegetables. The wonton dumplings were good, and without the MSG the flavor is more subtle and delicate. The orange beef was a bit disappointing, though. The beef wasn’t crisp enough, and the broccoli was a bit too vinegary. I hate to admit it, but I kind of miss that sweet, globby orange sauce. The egg tart was a nice ending. Egg tarts are actually not French, but Portuguese in origin. The Portuguese have been doing business in China since the 1700s, and they brought this jewel of a dessert back with them. In the 1940s, Chinese chefs added it to their Dim Sum menu. They fancied it up by adding a flaky French style crust. If you want to try the original egg tart, you can visit a Portuguese bakery on Ferry Street in the Iron Bound district of Newark, New Jersey.
While the food in Brooklyn Wok Shop is decisively Chinese-American, the decor is curiously a mix of many cultures. The ceiling is painted black, which lends the dining room a sense of tranquility. One wall has a panel of chunky woods—an homage to Williamsburg’s reclaimed scrap-wood obsession? Hanging on another wall are 99 bowls—well, actually, more like 199 bowls on the wall. So if North Brooklyn ever experiences a bowl shortage, people will know which shop to raid. The noodle bowl display actually gives the place a Japanese sensibility. There are also a slew of photos behind a large glass frame, showing several generations of the owners’ family: babies, grandmas, uncles, and aunts. It’s a nice Italian touch. Some cynics might scoff and say it’s too sentimental, but I think it’s a poignant reminder that there are real people and families working in these kitchens, feeding you and me.
Brooklyn Wok Shop
82 North 10th Street (Bedford & Driggs)
Open every day except Tuesday