Stop me if the formula sounds familiar: lots of affordable appetizers from the tropical regions of the world, drinks with wacky names, a half-restaurant/half-club feel. That describes Uptown's Chino Latino, but it also describes its new downtown St. Paul look-alike, Señor Wong Restaurant.
Wong's offers some entertaining food from the heart of its Asian-Mexican menu. The Señor Wong's Tacos ($7.95), filled with spicy ground beef and chorizo, pack a punch, and it's hard not to enjoy the texture of the crispy fried shells. This flair for bar and comfort food also shines on the grilled mojo chicken tostadas ($4.50), which are like crispy, cilantro-kissed mini-pizzas. Pretty good if you're dining sober, mind-blowing if you've had a few.
A Vietnamese spicy stir-fry ($11.95-$13.95) is another hit, combining copious amounts of lemongrass and onion with the protein of your choice. Served over rice, the pungent and powerful flavors are tamed and transformed into a simple but savory harmony.
Unfortunately, not all is well in the House of Wong. The tilapia tempura tacos ($9.95) are a perverse siren song. They seem like a bad idea. Wouldn't the taco and the tempura coating on the fish be redundant? Wouldn't the delicate fish flavor expire in a parched desert of carbs? But then your curiosity is aroused: How did the chef think his or her way out of this box? Unfortunately, he or she didn't. While the fried taco shells themselves are delightfully crispy, the fish, as feared, gets lost in a sea of bland coatings.
The lack of follow-through continues on the drink menu, which is headed by the "Donkey Punch"—a reference to a mostly mythical sexual practice so unpleasant that it can't be described here. Fine. Señor Wong's is going for "edgy." Next drink, the "Commie Bastard." We're still on theme. But then, after that, it becomes "Long Island Iced Tea," "Piña Colada," "Red Dragon," "Concubine," etc.—a bunch of common and/or harmless libations that would look at home at a rural supper club. More egregious than the theme being lost is the dullness of the drinks—no pisco, no cachaca, no surprising herbs or tropical infusions, just rum, vodka, gin, and a truckload of sour and juice mixes. To Wong's credit, there's an intriguing artisanal sake menu and a competent array of imported beers, but if you're fronting Polynesian cocktails, it would be nice to get a truly wacky drink experience.
Speaking of drinks, one of the running themes of dining at Wong's turns out to be Drinks You Cannot Have. Delirium Tremens on draft? On the menu, but not actually offered. Piña colada? Blender's not up to restaurant code, so we can't use it. Coffee? We only serve cold Vietnamese coffee. Insert record-scratching noise here.
No coffee? Let's forget, for a moment, that when we dined at Wong's it was a snowy April day and the restaurant itself hovered around 60 degrees—even in summer it can be pleasant to order a coffee with dessert.
Speaking of which: Dessert at Wong's may be the place's saving grace. A remarkable horchata rice pudding brûlée ($5.95) seamlessly merged the two ideals of rice pudding and crème brûlée into one lip-smacking dish, and a kaffir key lime pie (cheesecake, really) was light, zesty, and elegantly executed.
There's no doubt that Wong has promise; there's also no doubt that it has some rough spots in need of sanding. Like adding good old American hot coffee to the menu.