D Magazine intern Carol Shih prowls Dallas for the best Asian cuisine and also writes a blog about sandwiches.
Every month or so, my dad gets this craving for A Wok, a Taiwanese family restaurant in Plano, and moans about their fish fillets until we all get dressed and eat there for dinner. It’s become our go-to place of the century. Don’t feel like cooking tonight? Time for A Wok. It’s Christmas Eve and the whole world has shut down? Hey, A Wok is open. Located on Independence Parkway, this grungy little establishment has saved my family on several occasions whenever we needed Taiwanese food.
Chef and owner Steve Kang, a Taipei man with dark circles and the ability to ramble on a good bit, arrived in 1977 and has been cooking Chinese food on American soil ever since. If his customers don’t like a dish, he takes it off the menu. “It’s a success when six out of ten people like it,” Kang says. “You can’t please everybody.”
Business, according to Kang, has been so-so. Weekdays the place looks deserted when a few linger in to order take-out. On weekends I’ve seen a single waitress hustle around and work a full house, sweating her heart out. Most of the customers are Chinese or Asian, a fact that I attribute to A Wok’s shabby interior and a chef/owner who’s thinking of adding new dishes like “pigs’ feet on a bed of bo cai (Chinese spinach) to his 2012 menu. Not many would appreciate Kang’s choice of ingredients besides the Asian-leaning.
For those who aren’t the adventurous type, the buttered walnut shrimp ($10.95) is a safe choice and it arrives on a bed of cabbage that comes with crunchy turnip and carrot slices. I detest shrimp, but somehow I always end up ordering the buttered walnut shrimp because I like the mayo sauce and shrimp batter. (Kids will love this.) Chef Kang says the basil and chicken dish is also one of his most popular. Even though I don’t think it’s anything special (it is just basil leaves and chicken after all), I’m certain that people who like wimpy Chinese food would find this satisfying.
Asian food-eating crazies, though, should go straight for the niu nan bao (stewed beef and tendon in a small hot pot). These tender bites of meat are cooked in a thick soup along with bok choy, carrots, and turnips. A waiter lights your hot pot with fire, keeping your stew hot and bubbly throughout your entire meal – a special treat that tastes best when it’s cold outside. (This item isn’t on the menu, so ask for it if you can’t read Chinese.) Order the bean curd Hunan Style ($8.95) if you’re not afraid of soft tofu. This baby – drenched in a garlic brown sauce and topped with red chili peppers and sliced pork –always hit’s the spot, according to my mother.
At A Wok, the milk tea is a great bargain at $1.25 with bubbles and $1.75 with no ice. Avoid the noodle soups at all costs. Even Kang admits his noodles are nothing special. If you’re that desperate, go to the Noodle House ten minutes away. A Wok is a restaurant for hardcore Taiwanese food enthusiasts who can eat pork belly and chitterlings without batting an eye. For those of you up to the challenge, welcome to my hood.