What was that sound? A waiter losing a tray? A table collapsing? Undomestic violence? I look around the restaurant to see what's up.
Smack! There it is again.
"Look, it's the chef!" says my dining companion. An Asian chef in a white jacket is whirling dough around like he's going to throw a pizza. We get up from our table and walk over to watch.
Smack! He whacks the dough against the countertop in front of him. Then he starts to spread flour on it. Getting all the air bubbles out? Now he begins to stretch it out between both hands like he's pulling taffy. Suddenly he doubles it, and pulls it and doubles it again, spreading flour on the strands to keep them from sticking to each other. By pulling and doubling, whirling and twisting, over and over, the chef is transforming this "pizza dough" into a bunch of noodles, and each doubling makes them a little thinner. Finally he loops one end over a stick to check the thickness of the strands, and to pull them just a little thinner before cutting them off and throwing them in a pot of water.
I have seen a Chinese chef hand-pull noodles before, but it was on TV during a travel story about Hong Kong. Rickshaw is the only place I have ever seen hand-pulled Chinese noodles up close and personal. And after watching them being made, I can hardly wait to order some.
On my first visit to Rickshaw, I try the chicken Pepe, an Italian-style preparation of chef Titshek Wang's noodles with fresh tomatoes, chicken, garlic, spinach and mushrooms served in a bowl. The noodles are fabulous, thicker than average and slightly uneven; they remind me of the homemade noodles my grandmother used to make in a cloud of flour on her kitchen table. The Italian ingredients give the Chinese noodles a familiar Italian trattoria flavor. It's a little disorienting, but that's the whole idea at Rickshaw.
There are two trains of thought here, and they seem to be on a collision course. Chef Wang came to Houston from Hong Kong a few years ago, and he makes fresh-from-the-Orient noodles, dumplings and traditional Chinese dishes. (Be forewarned, Wang uses MSG in his cooking.) Chef Mike Potowski, who is half Japanese and half Lithuanian, grew up in Japan and has worked as a sushi chef at Miyako (whose partners, incidentally, also own Rickshaw). He is responsible for the Asian fusion part of the menu.
The signs outside say "Noodles" and "Dumplings," and the menu says "Rickshaw, Gourmet Oriental Noodles." But the menu features French, Italian and Latin twists. So is this a noodle house or a fusion restaurant? "It's both," executive sous chef Lance Warren tells me on the phone. "We advertise noodles and dumplings, and we put lots of traditional Chinese items on the menu because we don't want to scare people away. But we hope that as people get more comfortable they will try more of our fusion dishes. We have to take it slow. Fusion is old hat in California, but it's new to Houston."
The fusion items at Rickshaw go to some wild extremes, and the menu is peppered with multilingual jokes. Korean shredded beef on a baguette smothered with onions and peppers is called a Seoul Steak Sandwich, spicy chicken is Kung Pow, and squid with Chinese five-spice powder is Cinq Spice Calamari.
In keeping with the fusion theme, the spacious, airy interior at Rickshaw is decorated with a blend of modern fixtures and Oriental bric-a-brac. Square red-lit panels in the ceiling give the overhead grid a Mandarin Mondrian feel. The booths along the back wall are great for intimate dinners, and the long counter overlooking the kitchen is a great spot for lunch.
The other entrée I try on my first visit looks decidedly Texan -- a large slab of protein flanked by green vegetables and mashed potatoes. It's called miso bass, and it consists of Chilean sea bass marinated in miso and served with wasabi-flavored mashed potatoes and Chinese broccoli. The wasabi-spiked spuds are a hit, but the miso-marinated fish is a little too gelatinous, or as my tablemate so succinctly describes it, "icky." Chilean sea bass is a large fatty South American fish that is properly called Patagonian toothfish. It usually has a nice large-flaked white flesh, but sometimes develops a mushy texture if it isn't kept perfectly.
Before the noodles and sea bass, we tried chef Wang's sui mai, open-faced dumplings wrapped in green dough with big chunks of moist shrimp meat in the filling, and "French wontons," Chinese wonton wrappers stuffed with Brie and then deep-fried. If you've ever had baked Brie at a cocktail party, you know the flavor. But the crunchy, gooey cheese packets unfortunately are served with what tastes like bottled spaghetti sauce. "Wouldn't these be great with an orange-ginger sauce?" grins my tablemate, a strawberry blond from St. Louis. A chef she once dated introduced her to that popular cooking-school sport, Second Guessing the Kitchen. But now that she mentions it, an orange-ginger marmalade would go great with these cheese puffs.
On a second visit, the Cardinals fan and I order a martini du mer, a cocktail of citrus-marinated seafood tossed with red onion and garnished with avocado slices and coconut cream with a little wilted spinach on the bottom. The presentation is stunning; it comes in a martini glass with fried vermicelli sticking up like sea-urchin spines. But as much as I want to love this creative Asian seviche, it is just too damn sweet. Sweet is okay, but we both agree it needs some heat to balance it out. Even a bottle of hot sauce or some red pepper flakes would do the trick. Unfortunately the elegant lacquered condiment boxes on the table don't offer any chiles -- just salt, pepper and sugar.
An order of spring rolls comes stuffed with shrimp, crab, soba noodles, greens, cilantro, mango and ginger aioli. Sliced on the diagonal, they are artfully presented in a stack with a square dish of chunky peanut sauce on the side. They taste okay, but the ingredients are clumped together and very cold. "That's because they are made in advance and kept in the refrigerator," my companion notes, gauging the temperature with her fingertips. "They would be much better if they were made to order. I love it when spring rolls have hot and cold ingredients together, and they are rolled up fresh," she says. I tell her to don a white jacket and get to work.
Chinese Eiffel is my entrée on our second visit. The taro-crusted chicken cutlet in beurre blanc looks exactly like a chicken-fried steak in cream gravy. The first few bites are heavenly, but the fried crust and butter sauce are a little too rich, even for a cholesterol lover like me. Half of it goes uneaten. Mushu pork, sautéed Chinese-style and served "Latin-style" in two rice-paper burritos with hoisin sauce on the side, is much more to our liking, although we avoid the hoisin, which makes the dish too sweet.
"Why are they so conservative with the chiles?" I wonder.
"Well, we are in River Oaks," my tablemate says with a la-di-da inflection.
My third and most satisfying visit to Rickshaw is during a weekday lunch. I sit at the counter and order Texas Gyu-Don, marinated and braised beef with vegetables and jalapeños served over rice. Not only does the tender, paper-thin beef have a nice balance of sweet and spicy, but the sous chef comes by to ask if I want some sambal to make it even hotter.
I also sample the Ja Jaing Mein, a bowl of fresh-pulled noodles with soy sauce and pork. The ground pork and tofu look sort of like a Bolognese sauce, and there is a nice pile of slivered zucchini served on top. When you mix it all up, it makes a savory and satisfying bowl of noodles. Both of these lunch dishes are right on the money in the spice department. With its hot and spicy jalapeño sauce and shaved beef, the Texas Gyu-Don tastes like a Texas-Japanese dish without a lot of self-consciousness. The Ja Jaing Mein is hearty and ethnically ambiguous. These dishes taste like natural evolutions of Asian cooking in Texas rather than contrived inventions.
In 1998 I wrote a travel story about Asian fusion in Hawaii, arguably the birthplace of this cuisine. Alan Wong's and the Pacific Cafe in Honolulu, Roy's on Maui, and Merriman's on the big island are all sterling examples of how good this imaginative style of cooking can be. But fusion cuisine is at its best when it evolves spontaneously. Wong likes to point out that there are people working in his kitchen whose ancestors can be traced to six or seven different nations. The blending of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, French and American ingredients (and bloodlines) has been going on in Hawaii for a long time.
Fusion cuisine is not new to Texas, either. It's just that our particular mulligan stew was co-created by Mexicans, Germans, Czechs and Cajuns, among other ethnicities. Tex-Mex is the granddaddy of all fusion cuisines, and we've had our share of modern innovators, too. Michael Cordúa is one of the nation's pioneers of Latin fusion cooking. Asian fusion is an admittedly different kettle of fish. Hawaii, California and even New York have a long history of Asian immigration, but the influx of Asians into Houston didn't really get going until the 1970s. The cultural repercussions are just beginning to be felt.
A distinctly Texan version of Asian food is sure to emerge here. An Asian-Texan home-cooking style must already exist, and the restaurant version isn't far behind. Liberty Noodles has explored this territory with creations like Thai West Tacos. But Rickshaw is really out on the cutting edge, which can be both an enormous opportunity and a daunting task. Luckily the Rickshaw folks seem to be having fun with it.
Rickshaw's dinner menu is a work in progress, and if I seem hard on the operators and chefs, it's just because I like the place and want to see it rise to its full potential. They are on the verge of a real breakthrough, and I hope they don't let their fear of freaking out the River Oaks crowd hold them back.
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