November 10, 2015
By Veronica Meewes
The long-awaited Wu Chow opened its doors to the public on Thursday, after announcing plans in late 2013 and teasing Austin with its addictive Shanghai soup dumplings for the past two years at various pop-ups and previews. The new Chinese restaurant (from the team behind Swift's Attic) shares a building with Fixe on West Fifth and San Antonio, and brings a welcome urban flair to the neighborhood with a hip-hop-infused soundtrack and a contemporary dining space lit with pops of bright color. If you think you've been anxiously awaiting Wu Chow's opening, keep in mind this concept has been a long time coming for partner C.K. Chin.
"I’d been thinking of Wu Chow since I got to Austin about 10 years ago or so," says Chin. "I think Chinese food is underrepresented in Austin...I remember, when I first moved here, looking up top Chinese places to take my family to and P.F. Chang’s would make the top five every time. It is, in its own right, what it is. It's just not something my grandmother would particularly care for!"
After scouring Houston, San Francisco and New York for chefs, Chin found Ji Peng Chen through a family friend of his mother. "He’s been cooking for thirtysomething years so he’s had his hand in a number of different styles," says Chin. "But his specialty is Sichuan food and that’s a great fit for Austin because it has a lot of spice and Texans love spice!"
Not only is Chen a master of all the traditionally important Sichuan dishes, but he's also open to using whatever fresh ingredients can be sourced here in Texas, from Lockhart quail to local heritage pork, as well as experimenting with gluten-free and vegan/vegetarian versions of dishes. "I still feel like we’re being true to our culture, without crossing over the threshold of 'fusion,'" explains Chin. And, like many master Chinese chefs, Chen remains committed to the secrets he's picked up through the years. In fact, he won't make his signature red chile oil until everyone has gone home for the day!
Ling Qi Wu, the resident dim sum chef, came to Austin after studying dim sum with a master chef in New York. She describes it as a bit of a fading art, as the older chefs are not teaching many younger people all the secrets.
"Not many people know how to cook dim sum because it’s hard — everything is made by hand," says Wu. "It takes a lot of patience and is very different from cooking. It literally means 'a little bit of heart.'" Dim sum service is offered at the restaurant on both Saturdays and Sundays.
Some of the traditional dishes on the menu include "angry fish," a tender bass topped with fragrant red pepper sauce; crispy, chewy salt-and-pepper squid; savory-sweet tangerine beef, which features bright notes from dehydrated tangerines; "fish fragrant pork," made with wood ear mushrooms, tender strands of pork tenderloin and root vegetables; and mapo tofu, made with melt-in-your-mouth cubes of tofu tossed with ground pork and spices.
Per Chinese tradition, diners can expect to see whole animal used in many of the seafood dishes, from fish to pork. "I think that culturally, there’s a need for you to see the freshness and the quality of the food," says Chin. "If you serve a fish with the head on, the odds are you can tell the freshness of the fish. What we value falls along looking to farm-to-table-type processes, which is what we really want to bring to Chinese food here — the idea that the vegetables and proteins need to be as fresh as possible."
Chen pre-fillets the fish to make sure it's easy to peel off and remove the bones, and servers are on hand to guide American diners through any first-time experiences, if need be.
"Among my family, when a whole fish comes out, everyone is just diving into it, picking at it," says Chin. "We eat the head, we fight over the cheeks — but how to eat a whole fish is not ingrained in [Western] culture so much. I think it’s a learning curve, but I think Austin’s ready to try. But we just have to make sure we’re able to ease them along the way, not just throw it on the plate and say 'Good luck!'"
In addition to serving the freshest possible, high-quality Chinese cuisine in a sleek, fun setting, Chin says he knew a solid front-of-house team would be essential to Wu Chow's success, and he brought in Howard Chang (from Toki Underground in DC) as the general manager to lead such a team.
Beverage director Jeff Hammett (known for his innovative cocktails at Swift's Attic) created a menu of tiki drinks to accompany the spicy, flavorful fare. And dessert options include creations like coconut and Chinese five spice macarons and an über-moist green tea chocolate cake. All-day tea service is also offered and recommended to complete the weekend dim sum experience. Fans of Swift's Attic can expect a level of "quality, irreverence, fun and service," assures Chin, especially in some of the changing specials, but always with a respect and adherence to the pillars of Chinese cuisine.
"The style and techniques used in Sichuan cuisine have been around for hundreds of years," explains Chin. "It’s just one of those things we pride ourselves in. This is the way you do it. This is the way it’s supposed to be."