Kuo-Ching Chao's Red Snapper swims upstream.

The Yuan and the Restless 

Kuo-Ching Chao's Red Snapper swims upstream.

was driving south on Ward Parkway several weeks ago when I glimpsed the word Red out of the corner of my eye. A new Red Lobster near Ward Parkway, I thought. What an inspired idea! Later that evening, driving back from the movie, I noticed that the new place wasn't one of the chain seafood restaurants at all but rather the Red Snapper, serving Pan-Asian cuisine. I turned into the parking lot to check it out.

Occupying one of the spaces in a new strip center built on the site of the ill-fated Costello's Greenhouse restaurant (nearly forgotten now, but enormously popular in the early 1980s), the Red Snapper is the creation of Kuo-Ching Chao, known simply as Casey to his family and his fans. They've followed his cooking career since the days when he whipped up traditional Chinese-American dishes at midtown's New Peking Restaurant, before he and his brother, Max, bought it from their parents. After selling the family restaurant several years ago, Max opened his own place, Max's Noodles & More, on a modest budget downtown. Casey went south, to 84th Street and Ward Parkway, and sunk a small fortune into his visually sumptuous place, which looks like a million yuan.

But was the location a good idea? Once upon a time, there were lots of places to get a decent meal, both inside and adjacent to the Ward Parkway Center mall. Does anyone remember El Chico? The Strawberry Patch? Marie Callender's? Putsch's Cafeteria? There was even a Winstead's inside the mall. But the neighborhood hasn't been a dining destination for well over a decade. One of the mall's last restaurant holdouts, T.G.I. Friday's, finally closed last year. And after limping along in a freestanding building south of the mall, the Colony Steakhouse locked its doors a few months ago.

Chao, who opened the Red Snapper with his wife, Linda, is taking a gamble not only with the location but also with a sophisticated menu that combines familiar Chinese fare (orange-flavored beef, Peking duck, lo mein) with dishes inspired by the culinary traditions of Thailand, Korea and Japan. This is no cookie-cutter Chinese restaurant -- in fact, it's clearly designed to give the Phoenix-based P.F. Chang's China Bistro a run for its money.

I hope it works. I think the restaurant's name stinks, but Chao -- who loves red snapper and prepares it beautifully -- likes it. He admits that, since he opened seven weeks ago, a couple of customers have wandered in thinking the place was a Red Lobster. They stuck around, Chao says. "They liked my menu, too."

Hell, what's not to like? Chao's restaurant looks like any little Asian café in Los Angeles, with interesting artwork, glass light fixtures that look handcrafted, fresh flowers on each of the black-granite tables and a clever scrim of living bamboo plants screening off the entrance to the restrooms. The young Asian and American servers practically beg to be ordered around -- something my diva friend Marilyn enjoyed doing; she occasionally behaves like China's dowager empress Tzu-Hsi.

Marilyn turned up her tiny nose when our angel-faced -- and artfully pierced -- server brought hot tea in a mug, as if we were in a lowly diner. "You really should serve tea properly, in a pot, so it can steep!" Marilyn chided her. She was right, of course. I mean, why go through an elaborate ritual of offering a box filled with different kinds of packaged tea bags, then bring out a generic mug filled with hot water?

That night, Marilyn and I dined with Tom and Lisa, who live close to Ward Parkway but hadn't heard about Red Snapper. They were charmed by its unexpected little details -- jazz playing over the sound system, offbeat appetizer choices such as smoked-salmon rangoon.

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