Any menu can be delicious if a team of cooks puts their hearts and minds into making it so. But few restaurants in Dallas gave themselves as mighty a challenge as Gung Ho, which came out of the gate in February with an eye-roll-inducing name and an equally odd concept: charging top dollar for “elevated” American-Chinese takeout.
Did the team behind Gung Ho really renovate Remedy, with its lovable burgers and gargantuan pies, for $52 beef with broccoli and $18 orange chicken? As Greenville Avenue crowds flocked to the new restaurant, Dallas’ Asian-American community raised a skeptical eyebrow at dishes with names like “Taiwanese pozole” and “strange flavor popcorn,” wondering if their culture would be treated with respect.
But then something unexpected happened: Gung Ho began to grow up. Strange flavor popcorn dropped off the menu. The elevated takeout took a backseat to actual Chinese food. The kitchen’s consistency improved.
Very quickly, a disappointing restaurant evolved into an interesting one.
The menu still reads sloppy. Items are numbered, mimicking a takeout list, but now almost no items come from the Chinese-American hybrid canon. Some menu descriptions are written for Chinese food experts, others for newcomers. The description for char siu pork condescends to explain that it is “Chinese BBQ,” but my table had to discreetly Google words like “gailan” and “celtuce.”
Whatever one orders, food arrives as the kitchen finishes it and is set in the middle of the table for sharing. Two people should plan to share a snack, one or two starters and a bigger main course.
The best starter dishes are all vegetable-based. Celtuce turns out to be the thick but delicately flavored stem of a variety of lettuce — and, better yet, it’s generously dusted with sesame seeds and ground-up seaweed, a refreshing but gently salty snack ($5). The smashed cucumber salad, laced with cilantro, red onion and chile pepper flakes and dotted with crisp chunks of Chinese sausage, is a knockout ($7).
The only thing better is the white cloud tiger cry salad ($11). Half the town has been talking about it, for good reason. Paper-thin white and black mushrooms jumble up with tiny cucumbers, red onions, sesame seeds, fried shallots and more in a spicy lime vinaigrette that brings all the flavors happily together. It’s a miracle, especially because executive chef Kirstyn Brewer confided to D Magazine that she initially thought the mushrooms were seaweed.
Stray from salads and raw veggies and the dim sum starters can get perilous. Steamed chicken dumplings have good wrappers, and the chicken inside probably tasted good, but I couldn’t tell because of a thick layer of nutty sesame sauce, missing the chili heat promised on the menu ($12).
Who slathers sauce on steamed dumplings?
Pickled veggie egg rolls boast great flavor from the veggie filling and crisp skins ($7). But they arrive wading in a pool of their own grease on a platter of three, perfect for a table of three guests and annoying for everyone else.
My conscience forbade me from finding out why the family-style beef with broccoli costs $52, but $30 brought the table a truly enormous platter of char siu pork, ready to portion into steamed buns. The pork is sliced too thickly to fit in the buns, let alone to save room for trimmings like pickled mustard greens. But the flavors are guaranteed crowd-pleasers. I also couldn’t resist cumin lamb, with its meat showing the black char of high heat and a rich coating of seasoning ($16).
Many dishes have a sodium problem, but that can be fixed easily. Some of my companions thought the cumin lamb too salty. There’s plenty of taste of kimchi to the marinated and roasted green beans — an inspired idea — but also a tremendous burst of salt ($10). The same problem afflicts the dan dan noodles ($12), the addicting traditional noodles that balance smooth nutty flavors with peppery heat. Gung Ho prefers the spicy side of the equation, which is fine, but off-the-charts saltiness makes the bowl impossible to finish.
Ma po tofu might be harder to redeem ($10). This famously spicy Sichuan dish features cubes of softly cooked tofu in a bright red chili sauce with, just to defy vegetarians, some ground pork mixed in with the peppercorns. But Gung Ho serves its very soft, almost pudding-like tofu with leeks in a nutty brown gravy without a hint of spice.
To be fair, this ma po tofu would taste amazing over mashed potatoes.
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When Gung Ho arrived on Greenville Avenue in February, Dallas was pondering the racial politics of trendy, white-owned Asian restaurants. Hot Joy, at which an all-white cast cooked up bad pad Thai and flavorless fried rice in an environment of buxom anime girls and creepy Chinese masks, closed within months of its opening. Downtown, Musume debuted a “hot mess” sushi roll that pretended its sheer blandness was an ironic wink at its name.
I worried about Gung Ho, too. My first visit was lackluster. But the restaurant’s beautiful interior design avoids caricatures and stereotypes, instead opting for a meditative mural of the foggy landscape in Guilin, China. And with each visit, the food improved. By moving past Americanized fare, Gung Ho found a new creative energy. The team set a nearly impossible challenge — and now they are making it work.
Gung Ho, 2010 A Greenville Ave. gunghodallas.com, 972-910-2106. Open 5-11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday through Monday.