At Mr. Wok, It's OK to Play With Your Food (Review)

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The moment comes after much build up. If you're looking down at your own beggar's chicken, you've called Mr. Wok in Plano at least two days in advance and likely spent at least that much time wiping drool from your chin as you replay the coming scenes in your head. The Chinese restaurant owned by Jack Kang and wife Amanda has earned a reputation for an exemplary Peking duck, but customers willing to branch out have found many other delicious dishes are also ready to be explored.

For example, the task at hand: You're handed a small mallet and invited to beat the hell out of a loaf of bread the size of a rugby ball. From a distance, and perhaps amplified with a bit too much BYOB, the tool resembles the hammer of Thor, but in your hand it's much smaller. As you swing downward, it shrinks further still, until it contacts the massive boule with an unsatisfying and hollow thud. If you're lucky, you'll have cleaved off a tiny shard of crust as you raise the hammer again. And by now, the entire dining room is watching you.

"Harder," Kang instructs, and for as long as you'd like the charade to continue, you're welcome to pound away as fragments of crust and breading take flight and cascade to the floor below. I've watched both a middle-aged man and a young boy start out with timid, inquisitive taps before breaking out in mighty swings. The results are always the same; the beggar's chicken remains mostly intact until the victim admits defeat and Kang breaks out a different implement. In the game of bread, scissors, hammer, scissors beats bread every time. With a few delicate snips, the top of the boule is removed like a hat. [slideshow-1]

Mr. Wok

2600 14th St., Plano, 972-881-1888, mr-wok.com, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday, $$

Peking duck $34.95

Beggar's chicken $36.95

Pot stickers $5.95

Edamame $4.25

Sesame chicken $8.25

The work is still not done. A layer of foil is artfully folded back before a layer of plastic wrap is sliced open carefully to avoid disrupting even more layers beneath. That's when the scent of bamboo and lotus leaves wafts upward, mixed with aromas of chicken soup and five spice.

This whole package has slowly cooked in a warm oven for more than 20 hours. What results is no longer a chicken, even though it is still shaped like one. Kang waves two spoons over the bird, and it falls apart with a quivering sigh, swimming in oily juices trapped in the same package. Inside the chicken, a mixture of sticky rice, Chinese sausage and vegetables has cooked down into a savory goo. It's the concentration of flavors that makes this chicken unlike any other you've tried. It's enough to make you forget the moo shu.

Kang's parents opened Mr. Wok in 1989 and turned the restaurant over to their son in 2005. He streamlined and redesigned the menu, adding some of his own dishes while jettisoning a few duds, but changed little else. The restaurant carried on and with each passing year collected a growing list of regular customers.

The demand has grown so high that the tiny parking lot wrapping the restaurant is filled most evenings, and excess cars spill over into the bingo hall parking lot next door. Kang says customers make the drive up from Dallas all the time, and more from Lewisville and other neighboring towns have made Mr. Wok a destination restaurant.

The duck really is that good and, unlike the chicken, Kang does all the work. After the bird is presented to the table, he uses a small cleaver to slice the skin from the flesh, arranging the skin in a ring around the perimeter of a serving plate. Next, the cleaver goes to work on the frame, and slices of duck fall like playing cards while oil and juices glisten. The meat is placed in the center of the plate, and then diners are turned loose with shaved scallions, hoisin sauce and a short stack of Chinese pancakes. While everyone feasts on duck, the meat that's left on the carcass returns to the kitchen to begin a second life.

When Kang asks whether you'd like your bones stir fried or in a soup, the correct answer is both. Tossed in a wok with soy sauce and aromatics, the bones take a sear that adds another dimension to what meat is left on them. Thrown in a stockpot with broth and vegetables, they become more substantial and soothing. Both preparations turn a casual meal into a dynamic two-course dinner.

Mr. Wok doesn't always thrill. In my experience, dishes that lean closer to Chinese-American cliché deliver what's expected. Egg rolls, crab Rangoon and sesame chicken taste like they cater to palates that haven't evolved much since 1989.

But other recognizable dishes are surprisingly good. Pot stickers are crimped by hand and filled with flavorful pork before they're fried to a crisp. Edamame, which are steamed and bland at most restaurants, get a passionate kiss from a red-hot wok. Chinese cooks use the term wok hay to describe the blackened leopard spots that color the bright green pods, adding a distinct flavor that is anything but burnt. It's as if high heat and metal become an ingredient as distinct as ginger or salt.

But the "breath of the wok" can only be realized when ingredients are cooked in very small batches over a very high flame. Restaurants that cook in large batches save time, but won't even get a whisper from their woks. The results are comparatively lifeless.

Those smaller details make Mr. Wok worth the drive. Ducks with skin so crisp it could rival a kettle cooked potato chip and chickens cooked for a day while basting in their own juices make this suburban restaurant worthy of an occasion. Make a reservation for one of the large tables outfitted with a lazy Susan and load it up with sides while you wait for your birds to come. When the table starts spinning, it's hard not to recall a popular childhood game. Except this time there's no goose and everyone's a winner.

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