If you follow the culinary industry, you’ve probably noticed an all-too-familiar pattern over the past few months.
A high-profile restaurant — generally helmed by a white proprietor — will open under the guise of saving their customers from bad Chinese food in some form or another. First it was Andrew Zimmern with Lucky Cricket, the Chinese-American restaurant which, the celebrity chef said, would “save...people from having to dine at all these horse— restaurants masquerading as Chinese food in the Midwest.” Then, more recently, it was Lucky Lee’s, the “healthified” Chinese restaurant that, according to owner Arielle Haspel, would save diners from feeling “bloated and icky.”
There are more talented writers who have delved into the problems with those kinds of comments (the kind that promote negative stereotypes about Asian cooking or ignore the long history of Chinese cooks adjusting their cuisine to American palates). But the same stories made me a bit wary when I learned about a new pan-Asian restaurant that opened near Wegman’s at the end of January. Wok In Wok Out had a familiarly kitschy name; it had stir fries with titles like the “Wokstar” and the “Johnny Wokker.” For months, I avoided the restaurant because I didn’t want to touch that. I’m not an arbiter of culinary appropriation, and it would be inappropriate for me to try.
Then one reader emailed me about the restaurant. Then another one. Then a third, asking why I hadn’t reviewed it yet. So, last week, I gave the restaurant a call, and I was relieved to find out I didn’t have anything to worry about. Wok In Wok Out wasn’t making misguided claims of authenticity or pushing “clean” cooking (as if traditional Chinese cuisine wasn’t plenty healthy on its own). The menu, developed by chef and co-owner Josh Tjin, is billed as “modern Asian,” a catch-all term that’s come to encompass a range of fusion cuisine.
In practice, it reflects a bill of dishes influenced by Tjin’s upbringing in Suriname, a small South American country known for its melting-pot cuisine. His mother brought him there as a baby (Tjin was originally born in Miami), and the chef spent the next two decades helping out in the family kitchen. At 21, Tjin moved back to America and earned his associate’s degree in the culinary arts before moving into the professional kitchen. His first job, at the Fountainbleau Hakkasan in Miami Beach, introduced him to wok cooking and the flavors that pervade his own menu.
“My mentor was a master chef from Hong Kong who got his training before he came to the U.S.,” Tjin said. “So, it was an experience where I started out cleaning the refrigerator and worked myself up to helping him at the wok.”
After Hakkasan, the chef spent time at Kuro — a Japanese restaurant at the Hard Rock in Fort Lauderdale — and at the Miami Ritz-Carlton before becoming the sous chef for the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. That’s where he met Kara Wu, his partner and the co-owner of Wok In Wok Out.
According to the couple, they never meant to settle in Frederick. In fact, at the time of their first visit, they were getting ready to move to Vietnam and open a restaurant there. But when Wu came to say goodbye to a friend, they serendipitously noticed a “For Sale” sign in front of the former BonChon at Market Square.
“And we were like, ‘Huh. How much would square footage cost?’” Tjin said.
They liked the city’s cozy vibe and bucolic setting, not to mention the opportunity to stay in the United States.
“I like a place with a little more greenery, that’s a little more raw, and Frederick felt raw to me,” Tjin said. The couple decided to start with a fast casual spot to save up for the fine dining restaurant Tjin eventually hopes to open (and the Michelin star he eventually hopes to earn).
Even without the accolades, Wok In Wok Out offers plenty to savor. For a good demonstration of the chef’s skills, start with an order of the Wok Bao Wow, a dish whose name belies the sophistication on the plate.
The savory little sliders are stuffed into an order of freshly steamed buns turned golden and crispy from a dunk in hot oil. The resulting rolls are light and airy with just the slightest hint of sweetness — the perfect vessel for a filling of grilled pork and a crisp cabbage slaw.
For a vegan option (and there are plenty), try the Wok N’ Roll, a modified summer roll with caramelized tofu stuffed into a translucent rice paper wrapper. The filling stays fresh thanks to a healthy portion of creamy avocado, plus plenty of lettuce, shredded carrots, and bright green cilantro. But an accompanying peanut dipping sauce adds a little bit of luxury.
The restaurant might not be Michelin quality just yet, but Tjin’s cooking does stay a step above entrenched fast casual establishments. I was struck by the depth of heat and flavor in an order of drunken noodles, a dish that Wok In Wok Out is fast becoming known for, according to the chef. The high heat of the wok delivered deliciously caramelized chicken, glazed in a basil-laced sauce, and brought out the flavors in a medley of vegetables that maintained their texture and crunch. I was especially partial to a scattering of mung bean sprouts that imparted their earthy taste in every bite.
Spice level is adjustable at the restaurant, though it can be variable from dish to dish. The drunken noodles, ordered maximum spicy, were a sinus-clearing, throat-tingling delight. A friend’s plate of stir-fried udon noodles, ordered at the lowest end of the spectrum, was appropriately mild (and plenty flavorful thanks to a savory-sweet teriyaki sauce). But another friend’s request for the Johnny Wokker — a masala curry Tjin said was inspired by his mother’s home cooking — was strangely subdued despite being ordered at the second-highest spice level. The coconut cream in the curry may have had something to do with the muted flavors, but the dish still felt a little flat.
In the rare case that happens, try taking it up with the owners instead of complaining online. Tjin and Wu are both a delight, and the restaurant benefits from the latter’s skill at managing the front of the house. Mostly, that manifests in sweet little touches that you’d never find at a chain. Midway through our meal, Wu delivered a gratis serving of sweet fried bananas snuggled in wonton wrappers and served with a dish of vanilla ice cream. “To help with the spice,” she said with a smile. Later on, I placed an order of pad Thai to go, explaining that I was bringing it back for a sick roommate. When my roommate unwrapped it later that night, she was greeted by a personal get well message Sharpied onto the takeout container.
It’s the type of touch you find at the best neighborhood restaurants. And for our sakes, I hope Tjin and Wu stay in the neighborhood for a long time to come.
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters