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City Wok: Fresh, fast Szechwan-style Chinese food

There is nothing new about facing an energy crisis. The Chinese had energy problems 2,500 years ago. At that time, though, the source of energy was wood, not oil. Like today's economic climate, the problem involved scarcity and cost.

Wood was hard to find and expensive to burn. But the Chinese used wood to cook their meals. The solution: the wok. This new cooking device was the "hybrid auto" of their times, a way to use their fuels more efficiently.

A wok is an oval-shaped bowl, made out of metal that transmits the heat but concentrates it at the bottom. It enables fast preparation of foods, particularly those cut into small pieces. Because it creates a range of temperatures, different foods can be cooked at the same time in different sections of the bowl or they can be all mixed together. The key element is speed -- foods can be prepared quickly and require less heat to do so.

City Wok, a Szechwan-style Chinese restaurant in Mission Hills that is just celebrating its first anniversary, employs wok cooking techniques to prepare every dish fresh. There are no steam tables or hot preparation sections in which food is prepared and stored. Every item on the menu is made to order, and the work begins when the order is given. Because wok cooking is so fast, diners have to wait only a short time but have the pleasure of enjoying food that was freshly made. Stir-fry dishes are common and popular.

The style of food is Szechwan, a slightly spicier, hotter regional Chinese cuisine. As compared to Mandarin or Cantonese styles, Szechwan preparations are higher in "taste value," using spices and condiments to make the sweet much sweeter and the sour more sour. Then, when these tastes blend, the delights can be amazing.

City Wok is independently owned but is affiliated with a small chain of City Wok restaurants with locations in Los Angeles and Palm Desert. The chain was started in 1990 in North Hollywood by Stuart Davis, who hails from Boston. What's an American doing owning a Chinese restaurant? "The authenticity comes from our Chinese chefs and head chefs running the kitchen," Davis said. His original recipes were developed in collaboration with Hing Fan Chan, who trained in Kowloon and cooked in many fine-dining restaurants.

"Over 50 percent of our business is takeout," owner/manager Boi Ly said. They have special packaging to keep takeout orders hot and tasty. The restaurant also does private catering for corporate parties and events, particularly during the holiday season.

The large dining room at the Hillcrest location is colorful and comfortable, with assortments of tables for small and large parties. A wide counter services takeout orders but waiters take care of dine-in customers.

It is always fun to begin the meal with edamame, steamed soybeans in the shell, which are practically addictive. Potstickers are fabulous, large crescent shaped dumpling filled with excellent chicken and vegetable mixture. The skins on the dumplings are thicker than usual, with a great consistency. The Gyoza Bao are larger appetizer dumplings with a thinner skin and a tasty filling of chicken, bok choy and cilantro.

The menu includes pages and pages of tempting dishes. Chicken, beef, shrimp, pork and noodle dishes are offered in many different preparations. Two prices are listed next to each dish -- full order and half order. City Wok is one of the pioneers of preparing half order dishes and really large full order dishes to accommodate sharing.

City Wok chicken is an excellent introduction to Szechwan style. Chunks of chicken are battered and deep-fried and then dipped into a "secret" special orange sauce. The texture is delightfully crunchy. The taste is wonderful, as both sweet and sour sensations emerge and compete for supremacy on the palate.

Dessert is simple -- chocolate almond cookies dipped in a choice of white or dark chocolate. But it works well.

City Wok offers parking in the rear, a treat in the crowded Hillcrest area. It is inexpensive and casual, a great destination for family dining as well as a good place to go before or after a movie. It is open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

City Wok is located at 718 W. Washington St.. Call 619-220-8888 for information.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the editor@sddt.com. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.

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