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.
Unfortunately, though, that dish was unremarkable. "It tastes just like crab rangoon," Tom said after he dipped a corner of the crispy wonton into a hot-mustard sauce. I tore one open to see that the cream cheese was dotted with tiny bits of smoked salmon, too minuscule to add much flavor. Also disappointing were the fried-shrimp toast, which didn't taste very shrimpy, and lettuce wraps served with shards of hard-to-fold iceberg lettuce, which made eating them hilariously awkward. But I liked the puffy shrimp rolls loaded with chopped, fresh basil (a favorite ingredient here) and the fried pot stickers, which were generously stuffed with chicken, pork and ginger.
One interesting variation on an old standby was Chao's wonton soup, weighted with oversized chopped-shrimp dumplings and a hefty hunk of fresh spinach, all in a comforting, scallion-scented broth. There were some entrée-sized noodle soups, too, including the spicy San Shan Jam Bong. That brew of scallops, shrimp, mussels and squid arrived in a big, white china tureen filled with more than enough for four of us to share, even if we had to beg for a ladle and spoons.
So there are some service kinks to work out, but the place is so likeable that I didn't give a damn. Chao's menu listed four versions of the restaurant's namesake fish, and Marilyn wanted the whole red snapper, steamed Hong Kong-style, with lots of ginger and scallions. "I hope they take the head off," she announced before the dish arrived. But the fish head is a delicacy at most Chinese restaurants here, so naturally it was part of the presentation. I covered the offending portion with a clump of cilantro so Marilyn could go to work on the flaky fish without cringing.
Chao also put a seafood spin on the ubiquitous General Tso's chicken, letting diners order the crispy, deep-fried and garlic-chili-glazed dish with shrimp. And we all shared a bowl of "shrimp ravioli" floating in a udon broth -- they weren't ravioli, of course, but rather the same shrimp-stuffed wontons from the other soup.
On a different night, dining with my friends Bob and Ron, I fell in love with a dish that the menu called a Mandarin Meatball. It turned out to be a dozen fried pork patties drenched in brown sauce and served with crunchy Napa cabbage, zucchini and bamboo shoots. I also took a liberal helping of Ron's fiery version of the red snapper, deep-fried with fresh basil, jalapeño peppers and garlic. I added fuel to the fire with a side order of kim chi, a hot-chili-laden Korean favorite made of pungent fermented cabbage that had me wiping the sweat off my brow by the end of the meal.
In an effort to cool down, I ordered green-tea ice cream as well as a confection imported from the Blue Bunny dairy, a frozen something called a "Friazos." The menu promised "ice cream layered with rich mousses, decadent sauces, and crunchy candy or cookie toppings," but what arrived was chocolate ice cream with a sprinkling of crushed chocolate cookies on top. Another import, a slab of wonton-wrapped cheesecake, was warm but incredibly boring. The best dessert is a banana wrapped in a wonton, dipped in tempura batter and fried, then drenched with honey. The banana turns into a steaming custard inside that crunchy pastry shell, and it's wonderful with a scoop of the jade-colored green-tea ice cream.
It's only fitting that, in Chao's stylish and daring restaurant, the best dessert is the one he prepares himself.