Dallas, Texas, Friday, September 17, 1999
Cathy’s Wok & Grill is a Chinese Champion
By Dotty Griffith
Restaurant Critic of The Dallas Morning News
Don’t let counter service or the words “lunch express” give you the wrong impression.
It only looks like yet another Asian takeout restaurant. Variety of dishes, precise preparation and the clarity and integrity of flavors make this a four-star food experience.
Owner Catherine Liu – a longtime Asian cooking teacher, restaurateur and Chinese cookbook author – this summer closed her full-service restaurant in Preston Royal and opened a second fast-casual location with an expanded – and adventurous – menu.
Although much of the menu is familiar – lots of Chinese, numerous Vietnamese and Thai dishes and some Japanese touches as well – fusion and Americanization are going on too.
Midday, Mrs. Kiu has added “Chinese peasant cuisine” – such as traditional Chinese (not Chi-Mex) sticky rice tamales and more familiar roast pork buns – as well as salads with Asian accents. Both come quickly for takeout.
If you want something from the wok, be prepared for a wait – although usually brief – because there’s no buffet. Almost all dishes are made-to-order. Even egg rolls (90 cents) are house-made and absolutely fresh-tasting.
The menu offers so much that it is difficult to get a wide sampling, although trying was very rewarding. Mrs. Liu’s menu includes nutrition analysis (by dietitian Cathy Gallagher of the Dallas Diagnostic Center) of chicken, beef, pork, seafood, vegetarian and noodle dishes.
Pricing is simple: Regular orders (two-plus servings) with steamed or fried rice, egg roll or soup are $6.95, $7.95 for seafood. Most dishes can also be ordered family size (four-plus servings) with steamed or fried rice ($11.95, $12.95 for seafood).
Mrs. Liu is particularly known for her vegetarian offerings, such as braised eggplant and crispy tofu, although her menu includes a full range of dishes. Of course, there are familiar favorites, including Szechuan string beans (vegetarian or with shrimp or small strips of chicken or pork) in black-bean sauce. The beans are stir-fried just until crisp-tender. Flavors and colors sparkle: The grassy taste of slender, fresh beans against the salty pungency of fermented soy beans; emerald rods made even brighter by contrasting flat-black ovals.
But even ready-to-serve dishes come together and still taste as if they’re made from scratch. The shrimp wonton noodle bowl ($5.95) from the lunch express menu featured succulent – not soggy, tough or overcooked – shrimp with al dente wontons and rice noodles in a crystal-clear broth of subtle and delicate flavors.
Tamales ($1.50) – made Chinese-style with sticky rice instead of masa and stuffed with roast pork – are steamed in banana leaves, similar to South American tamales from El Salvador or Peru. Mild in taste, they benefit from a splash of red chile sauce. They’re better if they don’t require reheating in the microwave because they can toughen.
Roast pork buns ($1.50), with their pearly white steamed dough, also suffer when microwaved. (They get gummy.) Curry beef putts ($1.50 for two), flaky pastry turnovers stuffed with spicy minced beef, are also wonderful when absolutely fresh, but simply good, with slightly soggy pastry, when reheated.
Finding something to quibble over proved difficult. Soups from the steam table – hot-and-sour and egg-drop – tasted lifeless compared with the shrimp wonton noodle soup. Orange beef, spicy twice-fried beef strips in a dark brown hot-and-sweet sauce, was balanced in flavor, but the pieces of meat were so large and tough they defied chopsticks, requiring a knife to cut the beef into bite-size pieces.
But beef with vegetables over flat, broad rice noodles, a Southeast Asian dish, was great for chopsticks (or forks) in a mild, brown sauce.
Although counter service prevails, Mrs. Liu offers full-service banquet menus – by reservation only – in a private room that seats up to 35. She personally prepares some of the dishes and oversees the cooking.
Unlike the utilitarian main dining room with television, self-service beverage bar and a counter for placing and picking up orders – the private room features a mural of a Chinese village in folk-art style. Chinese string instruments hang on another wall in this space, which can be closed off to create an atmosphere for dining instead of fast feeding.
Mrs. Liu offers quick and familiar dining experiences, as well as multicourse excursions into the authentic and exotic. Take a short trip for a long one.
Food **** Atmosphere ***
Price: $-$$ (Entrees $6.95-$12.95, Lunch Specials $4.95)
Address: 4250 Frankford (southwest corner at Dallas Parkway), No. 100
Hours: Sunday - Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.,
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, D, DC, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes