When Daniel Wong's innovative, multiregional Chinese kitchen on Richmond and the Lu family's funky Vietnam restaurant near the corner of Main and Elgin each closed several years back, their considerable followings were left disconsolate. Those who favored these two very different Asian establishments were convinced they'd never see the like of them again. Well, they won't -- exactly. But the weeping and gnashing of teeth can be toned down a bit, because both proprietors are back with interesting, though somewhat different, versions of their signature establishments.
Daniel Wong's Kitchen, on Bissonnet in Bellaire (behind Episcopal High School), marks a welcome return by the man who is the true godfather of Houston's Chinese cuisine. Eccentric, funny, opinionated and truly gifted in the kitchen, the Hong Kong native came to town in 1958 via San Francisco and a stint in the U.S. Army. Here he found restaurant offerings that were not appreciatively more interesting than K rations and decided that some culinary education was in order. In 1960, he became the chef at Ming Palace, Houston's first popular Chinese restaurant. In his 20-year stint there -- as well as his time at Pacific 10 Fathoms and his eponymous establishment on Richmond -- Wong spent almost as much time schmoozing with his customers as he did in the kitchen. As a result, he developed a unique, Sino-Texan cuisine that's like nothing else you'll find on a Chinese menu.
Consider this: at Wong's Kitchen, in addition to the de rigueur sweet and sour soup (here a light vegetarian version) and velvet corn soup (which is more like a New England-style corn chowder, complete with large chunks of potato), Wong offers his own patented version of Cajun seafood gumbo. It's the same shrimp-filled, okra-rich, dark roux recipe he's been serving since before there was an Astrodome. The portions are more than ample, as are those of his trademark Road Kill Pork. Billed as an appetizer, but big enough for a small entree, this dish, which was named by a longtime customer, is savory-sweet and wonderfully garlicky. The poker-chip-size pieces of lean meat are fork-tender and prepared with a barbecue-like sauce that can appeal to Texans who might not be wild about traditional Chinese flavors.
Wong's adaptive creativity, as well as his longtime interest in heart-healthy cooking, is much in evidence on a menu that includes such dishes as the absolutely wonderful -- and low fat -- South of the Border Turkey. Nicely moist, bite-size chunks of lean turkey are enriched with fresh-snipped basil, cilantro and rosemary from Wong's own herb garden, added to generous helpings of al dente zucchini and carrot rounds, then woked ever so quickly in a spicy wine sauce that includes microscopic bits of muy caliente red peppers.
The provenance of Wong's sliced lamb in Hunan sauce dates back to his Ming Palace days. Then, he prepared it in a more traditional style, with untrimmed meat and masses of green onion. Now, he carefully excises every bit of visible fat from the lamb and relies on the flavorful tones of his savory Hunan sauce, a carefully calibrated amount of fresh garlic and the clear crispness of accompanying asparagus spears to make this subtle dish work -- which it certainly does.
So, too, does the light, perfectly cooked salmon fillet. This is a healthy dish well worth leaving home for. There's no skimping on the amount of fish, and there's no lack of skill in the virtually fat-free preparation. Just barely crisp at the surface, the flakes are moist and rich with the savory flavor of oyster sauce and scallions, the clean taste of cilantro and just a hint of wine. Served with a positive forest of crisp, intensely green asparagus spears and quarter-size, flower-cut carrot rounds for contrast, it's a guilt-free delight.
The same cannot be said for the Valley Honey-Lemon Chicken, which on one recent visit arrived almost cold and tasted quite greasy. It was unclear from the menu, which described the dish as "quick cooked," that the slices of chicken breast would arrive looking rather like calamari, tasting almost deep-fried and being topped with a moderately gluey sweet-and-sour-style lemon sauce. It wasn't awful; it's just that after so many other dishes had set the bar so high, it was a disappointment.
To a lesser degree, the Salt and Pepper Shrimp was also disappointing. Don't get me wrong: the serving was generous, the shrimp were tender and firm without being rubbery and the mound of julienne carrots, zucchini and Bermuda onion woked with just the right amount of fresh garlic was fresh as can be. My complaint was the lack of salt and pepper on the Salt and Pepper Shrimp. Perhaps the kitchen forgot?
You can be sure Wong won't let them forget twice. Resplendent in his trademark island shirts, he's more than just a host; he's more like a relative. And he's so interested in your enjoying his food that he won't let you have combinations he thinks less than optimal. "You wouldn't want two orders of dumplings at the same time," he told one table. "So I brought you some sticky rice rolls instead." He insisted that the simple, spring-roll-size appetizers, made with minced mushroom, cilantro and green onion, were on the house. "Just try them," he prodded. Yes, gladly.
Across town at the new Lido, improbably located in a long-empty former Woolworth store on the busy corner of Elgin and Main, young artist Khon Lu's dad -- to say nothing of his mother the cook, his grandfather the baker and assorted other relatives -- is back in the food business. Bohemian Houston is thrilled. For years, the family's previous South Main establishment, called simply Vietnam, was an artists' hangout, regularly playing host to the likes of sculptor James Surls, the UH Lawndale Annex crowd and the casts of Wortham Center and Alley Theatre productions. Downtown lawyers and politicians also enjoyed the unpretentious joint. It certainly wasn't fancy, and it wasn't expensive. But the food was good and the portions plentiful. Well, get out the party hats: at Lido, the family has replicated everything that endeared Vietnam to its fans. The decor is still non-existent (unless Khon's dad will let him and his artist pals hang their work, though the jury's still out on that one); the basic-Chinese/Vietnamese lunchtime buffet is still incredibly cheap ($4.25 for all you can eat); and in the evening, mama prepares home-style Vietnamese specialties such as pepper pork simmered in caramel. Thin-sliced pork is immersed in nuoc mam, the "secret ingredient" in much Vietnamese cooking that contains everything from fresh herbs and garlic chives to chiles, lemongrass and ginger, and nuoc cham, which includes vinegar, lime juice and sugar. It's then slow simmered in a well-seasoned clay pot for hours on end until the sugar and fruit juices caramelize and the meat absorbs every one of these multitudinous flavors. No two bites ever produce precisely the same taste.
Not as enchanting are tastes of the buffet offerings. Never intended as gourmet cuisine, they're further flattened by the nature of the steam table presentation. Still, the better-prepared dishes, which range from lightly sauteed crisp, fresh whole green beans, stir-fried vegetables, shrimp in the shells (the taste and texture are fine, though it's a lot of work to excavate them) and several good tofu-based items, including one sauteed in a light meat sauce and another fried to a nice degree of crispness, are all worth a second trip to the trough. The standard Chinese-style offerings such as lo mein and moo goo gai pan are, for the most part, nothing special. Next to the forgettable flan, the watermelon slices and the Jell-O sits a weirdly green dessert that looks as if it should glow in the dark. But this traditional Vietnamese gelatin has a firm, substantial texture and a surprisingly pleasing vanilla-y taste. This -- along with the color -- comes from the la yua plant, which grandfather Lu imports from the old country to make sweets at Yen Huong, his bakery on the east side of downtown at Chartres and Dallas.
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In a town that's awfully hard on the dreams of restaurateurs, it's good to see such pioneering folks as Wong and the Lus get back into the fray. Although the competition is more intense now than when either of these restaurant owners started, both places still have plenty of loyal fans rooting for them. They should have little trouble finding their niche.
Daniel Wong's Kitchen, 4566 Bissonnet, 663-6665; Lido, 3201 Travis, 523-9295.
Daniel Wong's Kitchen:
velvet corn soup, $2;
Road Kill Pork, $5.95;
South of the Border Turkey, $8.50;
salmon fillet, $9.50.
pepper pork simmered in caramel, $6.50;
lunch buffet, $4.25.