In Kansas City, you can wok around the clock at one of the many Chinese restaurants named for the cooking pan that's a staple in most Asian kitchens. Scattered around the metro are China Wok, Rainbow Wok, Lucky Wok, Hunan Magic Wok, Ironwok, Super Wok and Wok-N-Roll Express. And there are three Master Wok restaurants, all owned by husband-and-wife restaurateurs Steve Tran and Shunpeng Yeh.
Shunpeng's name is pronounced champagne, like the bubbly beverage, but it actually translates, she says, as prays for peace. Right now, she and Tran, the executive chef at all three locations, are praying for more hours in the day because they work every day at all three venues. That means traveling an orbit that includes Olathe (their newest restaurant, which opened in March), Independence and Lee's Summit.
Tran and Yeh market their restaurants as "gourmet Chinese food cooked to order," but gourmet is in the opinion of the patron. What Master Wok's food most evokes is the Chinese-American fare of the 1960s and '70s, anchored by lemon chicken, moo shu pork, sesame chicken (the best-selling dish at all three locations), and the creation known as Happy Family (served up here with shrimp, chicken, scallops and beef in brown sauce).
Yeh is unapologetic about the throwback menu. Sesame chicken, glistening under a blanket of shiny honey sauce, isn't rarefied in my book, but this kind of familiar favorite is exactly what the happy families who dine at these suburban restaurants want. It's gourmet, Yeh insists, because each plate is prepared to order and made from scratch. "This is not," she says, "a Chinese buffet."
She has a point. Chinese buffets aren't known for their high quality. And I agree that Tran's versions of the Chinese-American repertoire are fresh-tasting and beautifully presented, even if I can't get excited anymore about moo goo gai pan or cashew chicken. To me, they're the Asian equivalents of spaghetti and meatballs and chicken potpie.
But the friends I brought with me to dine at the Master Wok flagship location, in Lee's Summit, all loved Tran's dishes. Even my friend Bob, who balks at going to most Chinese restaurants, approved. And on the night I dined with Joseph and Melissa, we noticed that the menu called Master Wok's crab rangoon "the best recipe in town." I asked the willowy young server what made this restaurant's rangoon so memorable.
"Does it actually have crab in it?" I asked, half-joking.
"It has imitation crab in it," he said with pride.
Hey, at least the kid was honest. We had the crispy spring rolls and chicken lettuce wraps instead — very good, not fabulous. The music, on the other hand, was totally unexpected: the greatest disco hits, including "Funkytown." I often wish that someone — anyone! — would take me to Funky Town when I'm in Lee's Summit.
As Donna Summer's "Dim All the Lights" wailed in the background, we agreed to order our dinners from the list of house specialties, which featured the classic standby Dragon and Phoenix, a chicken-and-shrimp stir-fry prepared here with a punchy white-wine sauce seasoned with fresh ginger and garlic. Joseph liked it a lot, but Melissa thought her kung pao chicken could have been spicier. I decided to order one of the more exotic creations on the menu — a selection that I wouldn't have considered under normal circumstances because it sounded insipidly sweet: the chicken sautéed with snap peas, carrots, water chestnuts and fresh pineapple chunks and served in a hollowed-out pineapple shell. OK, the pineapple chicken was cloyingly sweet but surprisingly tasty, too. I enjoyed it but wouldn't order it again.
Unlike most area Chinese restaurants, where desserts are rare (other than a slice of fresh orange or a fortune cookie), the Master Wok restaurants serve pretty little pastries created by chef James Holmes at Napoleon Bakery. The culture-shock selections include passion-fruit mousse cake and tiramisu. We chose the latter, and I think it would have been a sweet finale to the meal if the pastry hadn't been served directly from the freezer. What might have been creamy and rich at room temperature was presented as a rock-hard confection that broke into icy shards as we pushed our forks into the surface.
When I returned with Bob and Truman to eat lunch at the Lee's Summit Master Wok, the dining room was filled with young families, and the music was much more demure: Muzak instrumentals from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog. Truman thought that the sage-colored dining room was charming and restful, but Bob said the place had "all the charm of a doctor's waiting room."
We shared a bowl of Wok Wonton soup, a light, clear broth with crunchy carrots and zucchini, pieces of beef and chicken, and pink shrimp. The sampler tray was a good way to try all of the restaurant's fine starters, including puffy triangles of chopped chicken, cilantro and water chestnuts; cigarillo-shaped fried wonton wrappers stuffed with cream cheese and shrimp; slightly chewy teriyaki beef strips; and crab rangoon made with that fabulous fake crab.
I prodded Truman into ordering the Master Wok version of Springfield cashew chicken, the regional delicacy that's heavily breaded, deep-fried and served with brown oyster sauce. The chicken wasn't nearly crunchy enough, the sauce was salty, and the cashew pieces were so tiny that Truman insisted they were from "dwarf cashews." Bob's lemon chicken, lightly flash-fried, had a thick, sticky coating of amber-colored goo that looked as if it had been mixed together from melted lemon lollipops and cornstarch, and it was much more sugary than tart. He liked it, but I cringed after one bite.
I ordered the moo shu pork, served with rice pancakes — or so they were called — that had the look and texture of heavy flour tortillas. The sautéed pork, cabbage, eggs, onion and bamboo shoots were tasty enough, but I had forgotten how boring moo shu anything can be after the first bite.
After the leftovers had been boxed up to take home, our bill arrived with a trio of cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies. Truman eagerly unwrapped his and cracked it open to read his fortune. He looked quizzically at the strip of paper: "It says 'Practice an attitude of gratitude.' That's not a fortune! That's a platitude from Sunday school!" He crumpled the paper into a tiny wad. "Whatever happened to cookies with real fortunes?" he scowled.
Oh, they're still around — and just as old-school as lemon chicken and almond shrimp. At Master Wok, the past is the present. There are worse fortunes.