Wok in the Park
Embezzlement. Recipe theft. Secret bank accounts. These rumors and others were swirling in early winter before restaurateur Thom Pham and his three sisters made an undisclosed out-of-court settlement of their very public intrafamilial disputes. With that kerfuffle resolved, the sisters and their other chef brother, Jacob Johnson, have been focusing on running Wok in the Park, the restaurant that supplanted the former Thanh Do in September when Pham moved the popular stalwart directly across the street, leaving his siblings behind.
Based on a couple of recent visits, they’re doing a very good job. The Asian bistro has a menu offering classics from virtually every Asian cuisine. Portion sizes are substantial, the ingredients are fresh, and if you want your dishes spiced sassily, the kitchen is happy to oblige.
In contrast to many Asian spots, entrées tend to outshine appetizers here. One definite home run is the Wok’s Cherry Own Curry, a delicious combination of meat (in our case, pork), dried cherries, asparagus, fresh mushrooms, and scallions simmered in a red coconut curry sauce that serves up great heat and amazing depth of flavor. Another knockout is The “M,” an elegant white porcelain platter heaped with a stir-fry comprising notably tender slices of steak and assorted veggies sauced with a rich Asian BBQ formulation. Impeccably tender beef is also featured in the excellent rendition of the Vietnamese-French standard of steak, sautéed onions, and crispy fried potatoes flavored with oyster sauce, and in the assertively lemongrass- seasoned Spring Zhing, which also contains fresh, al dente broccoli florets and peapods. Surprisingly, the texture of the meat is not achieved by the use of MSG. Rather, chef Jake attributes it to his “spoonful of love”—a combination of sea salt, brown sugar, and white sugar—that he adds during the flash cooking process. And if you enjoy black bean sauce, don’t pass up the chicken version that’s bolstered with pineapple, fresh tomato, and bell peppers. It’s tasty and elegant. Indeed, the only main course that was an unmitigated strikeout was Singapore Noodles, a soupy, unappetizing mélange of noodles and protein that was pretty much a sorry mess.
If you want to start with an appetizer, my advice would be to steer clear of both the summer rolls and the fried egg rolls. Both seem more about size and filler than about substance. Better choices would be the crispy fried pork wonton packets stuffed with minced meat, the thin but great tasting pot stickers, and the conch fritters—golden spheres of battered shellfish, red pepper, and lime served with a Dijon ranch sauce that might benefit from some reformulation.
And then, of course, there are the hallmark Puffs in the Park. Although the filling is regularly changed, you won’t ever find it to be a cranberry cream cheese combo. Per the settlement agreement, the sisters are reportedly prohibited from serving that creation at their restaurant. Save room for dessert—a definite strong point here. We swooned over the homemade flan with fried bananas and a weekly special of poached pear crumble sided with vanilla ice cream. The service is top-notch, and a cherry blossom mural on the walls and large bamboo lanterns add just the right touch.
An enthusiastic reader alerted us to a totally unheralded Vietnamese spot located in a somewhat isolated strip mall in Brooklyn Park. It’s called Thanh Vi, and it definitely deserves some belated recognition. Admittedly, the majority of the menu is a largely ho-hum list of Chinese fundamentals that runs the gamut from chow mein and fried rice to sweet and sour pork and anything mixed vegetable. Still, a couple of these dishes were well above average, most notably the nicely textured kung pao chicken (if you want it spicy, say so) and a rich and creamy curry chicken that we eagerly devoured. There’s also a solid line-up of traditional Vietnamese fare such as pho, bun, and banh mi.
However, the most intriguing section is a collection of specials. Included among them are a superlative ginger and scallion shrimp stir-fry boasting a wonderful rich sauce; a platter of lacquer-colored roasted quail served with a dipping condiment of fresh lemon, black pepper, and salt; and, best of all, an unlisted tiger pork. Nuggets of deep-fried meat and crisp peapods are swaddled in a slightly sweet, slightly spunky gravy. Several delicious sounding fish options featuring walleye, flounder, and sole are also noteworthy—but they need to be ordered two hours in advance.
As for the appetizer choices, there’s a standout unlisted item here, too. It’s a fried egg roll variant with a tempura-quality bean curd skin and a delicious filling of pork, shrimp, rice noodles, and black mushrooms. The restaurant just recently obtained a wine and beer license, and although we spent our visit drinking our wine from tea cups, both suitable glassware and a good selection of vintages were reportedly on order. As for the service, it couldn’t be more upbeat and cheerful.