Fish Gone Wild
There is a sign that reads "Wild Kitchen, London and Cajun Style" in front of a new restaurant on Stella Link. Combinations like steak-and-kidney gumbo, banger and mash poor boys and spotted dick beignets sparked across my cerebral cortex.
It was too much to imagine, so I stopped in. The interior offered no clue. It was painted bright blue and white, with a strip of brown wallpaper depicting a French street scene running around the interior. All along the top of the wall, another wallpaper border read "Home Sweet Home" in early American sampler script. A plaque advertising London as a travel destination hung on one wall. And good-luck banners attached to the potted plants were written in Asian characters. Behind the counter were an Asian man and a Hispanic woman.
The man, who spoke faltering English, was trying unsuccessfully to take an order over the phone. I asked the woman about the owners. Had a Cockney-speaking bloke married a Cajun dance-hall queen and opened a restaurant in Houston, maybe? She said she didn't know.
The menu, which appeared both on the wall and on the front counter, was a kaleidoscopic array of color photos. As I looked it over, the London-Cajun connection began to come into focus. The place offered a lot of fried fish. And you could get your fish and chips with a typical British-style batter or a spicy Cajun cornmeal coating.
The restaurant also appeared to be very proud of their hamburgers, which were neither English nor Cajun. Signs on the outside of the building boasted that their ground meat was fresh, never frozen. The photos on the menu showed ten burgers, ten fish baskets and ten chicken dishes. And that was just the beginning.
The menu included the Animal Burger, the Special Burger and the Wild Kitchen Big Burger along with uncounted variations of four-ounce and seven-ounce meat patties configured in single and double burgers with single or double cheese, fries and/or rings.
And then there were the "Shrimp Burger," the "Oyster Burger" and the "Fish Sandwich," along with all the one piece, two pieces or three pieces of catfish or pollack fried London- or Cajun-style, with or without shrimp and oysters. Not to mention the soups and salads. There were also hush puppies, waffle fries and tempura vegetables on the side. Oh, did I mention the pork sandwich? The menu says it's served on "texas toasted."
Intrigued by the Animal Burger, I attempted to figure out what was on it by reading the menu. "Both sides of the bread are toasted. Two 100% ground fresh meat," read the description. But then it said, "7 oz meat $6.25."
"If it has two burger patties, and you sell four-ounce and seven-ounce burgers, then how could it contain seven ounces of meat?" I asked the woman behind the counter.
"I don't know," she shrugged. Much of the menu was similarly indecipherable. The only thing to do was start ordering stuff. So I asked for an Animal Burger and a two-piece fish basket with shrimp and oysters, half fried London-style and half fried Cajun-style. I got it to go and took it home for a family dinner.
The luscious Animal Burger did indeed contain two juicy seven-ounce meat patties with the usual Texas complement of mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions, along with the unexpected addition of Thousand Island dressing. I split it with my daughter, and neither one of us could finish half of it. Other available burger extras at Wild Kitchen include bacon, extra cheese, jalapeños, chili, avocado, grilled onions and mushrooms. I shudder to think of what an Animal Burger with all the extras might look like.
We all preferred the lovely golden brown batter on the London fish over the slightly gritty Cajun cornmeal coating. But oddly, nobody liked the London-style shrimp. The seafood got lost in the batter blanket. Cajun cornmeal was vastly preferable on the shrimp, but in truth, they were a little overcooked anyway. There are a lot of places in Houston with better fried shrimp.
But the extremely juicy, large fried oysters were exceptional. I tried them with both the London and the Cajun coating, and I am calling it a jump ball. They were both great. And the onion rings were spectacular. They resembled the tempura onions you get at a Japanese restaurant.
Although Wild Kitchen's decor seems intended to encourage customers to get their food to go, on my second visit, my lunchmate and I sat at one of the half-dozen tables and marveled at the eclectic interior. I tried to read the French wallpaper. She pointed out that the table coverings weren't really tablecloths -- they were unhemmed pieces of rough-cut fabric with clear plastic over the top.
I got an oyster burger. It was a hamburger bun stuffed with three big fried oysters in London-style batter along with lettuce, tomatoes and mayo. It was great for those three bites that contained the fried oysters. My lunchmate got a four-ounce cheeseburger. It looked a little petite for my tastes, but the bite I sampled was quite good. Our food was delivered by the head cook, who was an Asian woman. The ethnicity of the restaurant grew ever more confusing.
Finally, on my third visit to Wild Kitchen, everything was revealed. At the register was a take-charge Korean-American named Joon who turned out to be the owner. He moved to Houston from Northern California, where he had a 14-store chain of London-style fish-and-chips restaurants, he told me. Joon already has two other fish-and-chips restaurants in Houston. But he said that everybody down here asked for spicy Cajun-style seafood, so he decided to try his own concept featuring both London and Cajun-style fried fish. And so Wild Kitchen was born.
"Why did you move to Houston from Northern California?" I asked him.
He said the move had caused him a lot of grief with his teenage daughters, who found the climate in Space City a little on the wet and sticky side. But Texas was his dreamland. He had stars in his eyes when he talked about the 800 Korean-owned doughnut shops in Dallas. Here in Houston, the sky was the limit for a Korean entrepreneur with the right fast-food concept.
I am guessing the inspiration for the never-been-frozen hamburgers was California's "In and Out" burger chain. I asked Joon if the Animal Burger was his best. He pointed instead to the "Special Burger" on the countertop menu.
The description read, "Both sides of the bread are toasted. Two 100% ground fresh meat, two slices American cheese, with mayo, mustard, thousand island dressing, Extra (lettuce, tomato, pickles), 4 pcs onion ring, and cut in half. 7 oz meat $6.25." I tried to explain to Joon that if the sandwich contained two seven-ounce burger patties, then the menu should read "14 ounces of meat." But he thought I was impugning his burgers. "I personally guarantee this burger," Joon said, thumping his finger on the menu adamantly. So, of course, I ordered one.
The two halves of the burger were laid face down side by side in a long cardboard boat forming a seven-inch column of burger, bun and condiments. The onion rings were actually in the sandwich -- they formed an extra layer on an already tall burger. It was difficult to get the thing into my mouth.
The burger patties were juicy, the condiments were just right and the onion rings added a wonderful crispy texture. If you have ever eaten a spider roll at a sushi bar with a hot, crunchy, tempura-fried soft-shell crab inside a layer of soft rice, you get the concept. It was an awesome burger, but even though I had just played 18 holes of golf and I was extremely hungry, I could only finish half of it. I took the rest home in a Styrofoam box.
On my fourth visit, I sampled the hot wings and the fried chicken tenders. Both were covered with a spicy flour coating that didn't get crispy enough in the fryer. It tasted wet and pasty. The wings were underdone and coated with a nasty vinegar-heavy hot sauce. So much for the chicken.
I highly recommend the burgers, the London-style fried fish, the juicy oysters and the perfect onion rings at Wild Kitchen. And I encourage you to sample the Special Burger -- if you have a very big mouth.
Will Houston embrace the Wild Kitchen concept and turn Joon, the Korean entrepreneur, into the next Tilman Fertitta? Time will tell. But I think he has a few kinks to work out with the marketing. For starters, he could offer one of his daughter's high school teachers a couple of burgers to translate the menu into English.
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