Restaurant Reviews

Wok Town provides fresh, fast Chinese food in downtown Miami

The front page of Wok Town's menu touts downtown's new dining addition as "an Asian take-out concept" — as if it's already being marketed for franchising opportunities. In fact, everything about the place seems to suggest a starting-small, thinking-big strategy.

The décor is sheer fast-food world 2.0, meaning it's modeled after warmer, Chipotle-like designs rather than McPlastic's. The color scheme is a neat and striking white, gray, black, and orange. An oversize menu is posted on the wall beside a counter where orders are placed, payments are made, and numbered cards in metal holders (like the ones used to designate tables at weddings) are handed out by an amiable worker — or perhaps by Israeli owner Shai Ben-Ami (who helped run Miss Yip and Domo Japones) or his Colombian wife, Nazly Villamizar. Diners then find seats and wait for the fare to be brought over. The wait isn't very long; this is, after all, fast food.

Three recycled-wood communal tables and benches take up most of the rectangular room. A counter composed of the same material juts from a wall running parallel to the tables, with a half-dozen black stools lined in front. On the wall above is a series of black-and-white photo posters that resemble outtakes from a Benetton shoot. The room shouts fresh and clean. So does the food.

We sampled all the nonsoup starters on the abbreviated menu. Edamame "you're way" — or for the more formal "you are way" — come with steamed green skins slicked with choice of sea salt, garlic soy sauce, or a zingy chili-ginger sauce. Vegetable spring rolls were served hot from the fryer; the two slim, crackly cylinders of cabbage, carrots, and wood ear mushrooms came paired with Day-Glo sweet-and-sour sauce. Four chicken gyoza dumplings, pan-fried or steamed, feature minced white breast meat in thin rice wrappers made in-house.

If these three appetizers satisfied in a standard manner, chilled lettuce wraps brought double the pleasure (and at $8.95, up to double and triple the price). Alongside a short stack of convex iceberg cups and some hoisin sauce came a small dice of chicken mixed with minced mushrooms, carrots, scallions, and water chestnuts. This dish exuded a potent kung fu kick of Asian flavor (not heat) that other Wok Town items could use a little more of.

A quartet of "positive wok" selections, made with minimal oil, encompasses two salads (Asian chicken and stir-fry miso beef) and two hot vegetable preparations (steamed and a tofu-veggie stir-fry). The remainder of the menu choices are divvied into "fried rice boxes," "noodle bowls," and "the main wok." Excepting two of the noodle bowls, assembling your meal begins the same way regardless of category: choice of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, or tofu with vegetables.

We picked pork as our protein for the fried rice box, which did not come in a box. Cubes of the roasted, red-tinted meat were clearly the highlight among a toss of peas, carrots, scallions, and scrambled egg. Many diners might blanch from the blandness of the barely fried and seemingly unseasoned white rice, but like the rest of Wok's fare, it boasts a lightness and freshness not always inherent in Chinese food. Besides, folks with a knack for spicing things up can use jars of light soy sauce, hot chili sauce, and hotter Chinese mustard to fine effect. If you don't see the condiments, just ask; service was consistently swift, efficient, and personable.

Thin, vermicelli-like strands of "Singapore-style" rice noodles were packed with flavor — but only that of yellow curry powder. A complex spice mix it ain't, and it also doesn't conjure nearly enough piquancy to qualify for the chili pepper icon beside it on the menu. We had our Singapore slung with soft, fresh triangles of tofu and a vegetable mix of broccoli, carrots, scallions, water chestnuts, and baby corn. The thicker, broader egg noodles glazed with sweet soy that compose the "Wok Town lo mein bowl" proved a bigger hit around the table.

The "main wok" fires up your protein of choice prepared any of seven ways. Rectangular cuts of lean, tender beef matched well with a gingery sauté of broccoli, carrots, and scallions, as well as with the Mongolian mix of onions, bell peppers, and scallions in a modestly piquant chili sauce. Crispy shrimp or chicken are suggested for the sweet-and-sour sling of onions, peppers, and pineapple chunks; honey garlic is another sweet sauce, though a tad less sticky. We also liked the chili-flecked black bean sauce.

Everything on the menu excepting soups and the first three described appetizers is $7.95 to $12.95. Brown or white rice accompanies most main courses, and patrons are privy to free and limitless self-serve jasmine tea — a nice touch. At lunch, $9.95 brings choice of any entrée with either a cup of soup, Asian coleslaw, or a spring roll. A food-based "happy hour," each workday from 5 to 7 p.m., features group menu deals that include soup and four or five menu selections for approximately $10 per person.

Lychee fruit, mango sorbet, and green tea ice cream are dessert selections. The last was grainy, and indeed the fare at Wok Town is not without flaws — an undercooked broccoli spear here, an underseasoned soup there. But this eager-to-please newcomer also does a lot of things right and is clearly focused on providing fresh, fast Chinese food for downtowners to eat in, take out, or have delivered.