Food Review: Wong Gonzalez is Stimulating, Expansive and a Little Weird 

click to enlarge Wong Gonzalez puts its own stamp on East Grace Street with a nightlife vibe and interesting fusion food.

Ash Daniel

Wong Gonzalez puts its own stamp on East Grace Street with a nightlife vibe and interesting fusion food.

The exterior of the latest restaurant on East Grace Street stands apart from the glowing ambiance of its neighbors, situated snugly among Pasture, Julep’s New Southern Cuisine and Rappahannock. The sign is graphic — deep red with blocky green lettering — a departure from the oh-so-Instagrammable downtown restaurant scene.

Inside, the soaring walls are adorned with massive portraits surrounded by Hollywood-style light bulbs that remind me of a Quentin Tarantino movie. You’ll see TVs above the bar showing sports, and Farrah Fawcett beams at you from an entire wall in one of the bathrooms.

The big space echoes and amplifies chatter and music — it’s perhaps not the best choice for an intimate date. It’s more suited to a round of drinks and food on a Saturday evening with old friends. It’s stimulating, expansive and a little weird.

As its name suggests, Wong Gonzalez combines Asian and Mexican cuisine — “Mexinese” as the menu insists. It’s a yin and yang of cultures devised by Malaysian head chef Ken Liew and Latino sous chef Louise Cruz.

The food is surprisingly affordable and the menu is highly navigable. You’ll find things with such as spicy chorizo fried rice ($9), Asian pork barbecue tacos ($7) and Korean baby back ribs ($15). There’s no pretense of an ethereal dining experience.

Well, unless you look up and get curious. Beauty and Grace: a Sushi Experience is a sort of restaurant within a restaurant in a loftlike space in the back. Sushi fans, open your wallet and hand over $35, plus the optional $25 for a bar pairing, and you’ll have access to a private dinner with chef’s selection of sushi for you and a few friends, complete with sparkling glasses of wine and access to the private bar. It’s a departure from the cheekily named main dishes. But let’s head back downstairs.

A devout squid fan, I start with the south of the border calamari ($7). One bite, and I’m almost giddy. The texture and weight of the meat shines through its tempura batter. So often calamari can feel like a throwaway, something prepared as deep-fried nothingness. Not the case here. Dip it in the Mexican gyoza sauce, and you have a slice of Mexinese heaven.

I wait anxiously for the crispy crab tacos ($7). They aren’t as crispy as you might hope, but they’re an interesting amalgamation of Thai fried crab croquettes, pineapple salsa, avocado corn relish and crushed cashews.

In the Gonzi’s stir fry skillet ($15), the pineapple is more noteworthy than the steak. It’s cooked through, rendering it tangy and sweet. The whole thing is nestled in a crackling skillet of citrusy oyster sauce. Yes, indeed — more oyster sauce, please. Some of the flavors need a little punching up, but the standout ingredients ultimately bring home a victory.

Not hyped on Asian food, Mexican food or any combination of the two? The bar is your saving grace. Wongtails, the bar menu calls them: the Way of the Warrior ($9) is a slick cocktail, consisting of bushido sake, pink peppercorn syrup and grapefruit bitters. Don’t let the syrup fool you. It’s not sweet and it’s not particularly bombastic. It’s smooth and sensual and a welcome respite from margaritaville.

I sip on a Hot and Bothered ($9). Jalapeño-infused tequila is mixed with Cocchi Rosa for a sweet afterburn. Like to eat your alcohol instead? Consider rounding off your evening with deep-fried tequila ($5), six pieces of booze-soaked angel food cake dressed up in sugary adornments. The taste of tequila doesn’t quite rise to the surface, but it’s deep-fried, kooky and cheap. That’s not a bad way to round off dinner.

You need to take a deep breath, close your eyes and focus on your food to experience the breadth of ingredients on the plate before you. I’ll be back to experience this creative cuisine as soon as I can. S

Wong Gonzalez
Tuesdays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
and 4 p.m.-midnight;
Fridays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sundays 4-10 p.m.
412 E. Grace St.
778-9000
wonggonzalez.com

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