Monday, June 23, 2014

A-OK Chinese

I visited A-OK Chinese on South Lamar last month. They opened in mid-March after several months of permit delays, and they are the only Chinese place I know of run by a couple of white guys. But guys with a long history of local restaurant connections. Chef John Bullington is an acquaintance of mine; he's the former executive chef of Mars (if you've been in ATX long enough, you'll remember Mars) and the Alamo Drafthouse. His business partner Jerry Reid has years of wine background and front of the house management. Their mission statement is clearly on the wall: to create American-style Chinese food. And what that generally means is breaded and fried pieces of cheap cuts of meat with a cloying, thick, bright orange twangy sauce. And fortunately, that's not the case here.
The quality of A-OK's ingredients is super; very fresh veggies and nice cuts of juicy meat. Where things lacked though, was in the flavor. My friend and I split the pu pu platter; the shrimp toast was good and the five-spice pork ribs were REALLY good (good flavor, good tenderness; they have these on the menu as a dish, and I'd definitely eat them again). But the wontons and dumplings seemed to suffer from dough that was chewy and too thick, and the eggroll's vegetable filling (not pictured) was a bit soggy and didn't have a lot going on.
My friend ordered the garlic pork bowl, which could have used at least three times more garlic. I had the kung pao chicken; the dinner bowl is a very nice large portion, and again everything was very fresh. Kung pao is typically characterized by peanuts and spice from chile; this dish had the peanuts, but I would have liked more of the chile flavor. It does employ some szechuan peppercorns, which can give a tingly, mouth-numbing feel when lots are used, but not in this case. The brown sauce lightly coated everything, but was not too thick or gloppy. I ate part of the bowl there, and then took the rest home for dinner, where the chile flavors did  come out a little bit more.
Aesthetically, I liked the look and feel of the space. And at mid-day, there was great natural light for taking photos! They are really good about updating their Facebook page with their daily specials, and some of the dishes have looked gorgeous. I really want this place to succeed, especially since it's in my area of town. I just think there might be some new restaurant jitters that are still being worked through, and I am hoping they can punch up the flavor components and things will iron themselves out.   As South Lamar (and all of Austin) continues to grow, we need these local small businesses to succeed.