Chinese Cuisine thriving and growing in Oklahoma City
The fact that two of the city’s best Chinese restaurants are in old pancake houses might be a red flag in most culinary circles. Those who would judge our thriving collection of Asian eateries poorly based on the ingenuity and efficiency of two of its leaders are fate’s fools as they would never know the profound privilege of eating at Chow’s Chinese Restaurant or Grand House. While along with Fortune Chinese, 12314 N. Rockwell, these are my go-to spots for wok-induced wonder, after spending some time with Max Chow my view of what authentic Chinese cuisine will never be the same.
First, know Oklahoma City’s Asian community is a prosperous and growing a mix of Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Thai peoples. Regardless the signifying culture depicted on the marquee of any local Asian restaurant, each of the aforementioned cultures play a role in the food that comes out of the kitchen. Purity is rare, but was there an eleventh commandment I didn’t hear about, proclaiming that cooks and chefs be jailed for caving in to influences outside their ancestry? If there was, then I don’t want to be a saint.
The Mid-Del area is home to a number of Korean restaurants. The Asian district north of Midtown is populated primarily by Vietnamese and banh mi and pho shops are strongly represented there and on the south side of Oklahoma City. Pho has even leaked into the suburbs, popping up from Norman to Bethany and in Edmond.
A handful of solid Japanese restaurants can be found, including Tokyo House, Sushi Neko, and Stillwater’s shabu shabu specialists at Tokyo Pot. Then there are fusion specialists like Saii Bistro and Sushi Bar that offer all things to all diners.
Chinese restaurants predate them all. However, the earliest worked hard to build an audience. To do that, traditions began in San Francisco and New York that placated Western tastes were represented on the menu. Not until the Vietnamese population took root did a handful of old-school Chinese restaurants decide to get out of the buffet business and consult their inner crispy duck. That said, Chow’s Chinese restaurant owner Max Chow admitted his restaurant, which switched from American-style Chinese cuisine to more authentic Chinese cuisine in the early 90s, doesn’t mirror exactly what would be found in his hometown of Hong Kong. Influences from the other Asian communities are clear on his menu and on those of his fellow Asian restaurateurs.
“The available ingredients are not the same,” he said. “There are things in Hong Kong that cannot be exported to the U.S.”
Max says his food is a communion between Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai traditions.
His daughter Matty, who earned her Masters Degree in Hong Kong, said during her time in China the dining experience is completely different than anything in the West.
“Everything there is government owned,” she said. “The sense of urgency to profit doesn’t exist.”
She said that lack of free-market-fueled ambition leads to long waiting times and leisurely service because their is no eagerness to turn over diners. That’s great if you’ve got a table, but not if you’re waiting for one.
This kind of authenticity we can gladly do without.
After spending a number of hours with the Chow family and eating Max’s heartfelt offerings, I came away with the inclination that the authenticity Chow’s and others who strive for a truly Chinese experience like Dot Wo, Fung’s Kitchen and Grand House, has to do with tradition.
Max Chow is the most humble, generous and gracious chef I’ve come across. He has no discernible ego as a chef. Perhaps drawing from their communal upbringing, both Max and Sindy take enormous collective pride in what they do and its place within their community. Not many years ago, the Chows sold their restaurant. But when the couple heard grumblings that the quality of the food had suffered, they bought it back to right the ship. But there was at least one caveat.
“We used to be open for lunch,” Sindy explained. “And we were very busy all the time, so we hired a cook to help out in the kitchen.”
But Sindy said when Max wasn’t manning the wok, customers noticed a dip in the quality. With their nest emptied, Sindy said they opted to shut down lunch service because, “My husband only has two hands.” And she admitted they were both ready to spend at least a little time outside the kitchen.
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