Let's dispense with the obvious first: Wang Gang Asian Eats has the most ridiculous name of any restaurant I've ever reviewed. The original location in Edwardsville, Illinois, was called Wang Gang Asian Eats n Beats, which is even more ridiculous. However, I'm visiting the new second location, tucked into the corner of a sprawling strip mall in St. Charles, which has dropped the "n Beats." Still, it is called Wang Gang Asian Eats.
Did I secretly hope to spend the next 1,000 or so words making a series of dick jokes? Maybe. But the Wang Gang menu is almost entirely pun-free. Almost. If you want a large serving of fried rice, you must ask for a "Big Wang." If a "Big Wang" is too much for you to handle, a "Little Wang" is available.
Wang Gang is another entry in the constantly growing field of fast-casual restaurants. I find these places fascinating not so much for their culinary worth (though you shouldn't dismiss that out of hand), as for how they reflect and in some cases even try to influence changes in mainstream tastes. Chipotle, for example, might be best known for serving a fat, delicious burrito, but the company has also been an outspoken advocate for sustainable, humanely treated livestock.
Wang Gang's ambitions might not be that noble, but for a fast-casual restaurant, it offers an impressive level of creativity and attention to detail.
"Asian Eats" suggests a broad menu, and the décor is generic enough — wood, stone, a few decorative pieces — to support any number of the regions' cuisines. (Despite Wang Gang's name, the décor isn't tacky; there are even nods to fast-casual sophistication, like the availability of beer and wine.) For the most part, though, dishes here are popular Chinese, Chinese American and Thai fare: pad thai, red curry, General Tso's chicken. Make that "General Wang" — your choice of protein (chicken, beef or shrimp as well as mixed vegetables or tofu) with broccoli, carrot and bean sprouts in a spicy, sweet sauce. The sauce breaks no new ground, but it is neither as thick nor as sweet as the sauce you will find at many Chinese joints. Even better, the broccoli hasn't been boiled or steamed to death, and the carrots, sliced thick, add a pleasant sweetness and textural crunch.
The red curry might not pack the five-star heat that you can get at a Thai restaurant, but it has some kick. Beneath the heat is a fairly complex curry flavor, filled out with bell pepper and carrot and, for a little extra bite, eggplant and red onion. As with the "General Wang" and all other entrées, you choose your protein. I opted for chicken with the red curry. For the "#88," I went with beef. This dish is a stir fry of onion, mushroom and bell pepper in a black-pepper soy sauce, bluntly flavored but not bad. The key here is the beef, tender slices of steak, the flavor rich enough to stand up to the peppery sauce.
The menu proclaims that pad thai is America's most popular Thai dish. I've never been a fan of these noodles, which so often taste as if they have been slicked with diluted peanut butter. Here the peanut flavor is kept in the background. The noodles are tossed in a sweet-sour sauce tipped more to the sour side of the scale and served with scallion, egg and bean sprouts. There are also little cubes of tofu that seem to have been marinated in some kind of curry sauce — these were the best part of the dish.
The fresh spring rolls are like miniature burritos, plump with cilantro, basil and mint. There were a few token strands of rice noodle, but in my order, at least, the shrimp promised by the menu were nowhere to be found. The spring rolls are served with nuoc cham, the traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce. Wang Gang's version seems to rely too heavily on fish sauce. I like funk, but not this much funk.
The "Wang Gang Wings," another appetizer, betrayed the downside of the "fast-casual" concept. The boneless wings are breaded and deep-fried and then tossed in your choice of a sweet Asian barbecue sauce or a glaze made from orange juice and sriracha sauce. (I imagine it took Wang Gang all the restraint it could muster not to call sriracha sauce by its nickname, cock sauce. Because, you know, there is a rooster on the bottle.) I chose the orange-sriracha glaze, and while I liked the combination of citrus and spice, several of the wings, though fully cooked, were cold in the center, clearly up from the freezer.
Yet a soup, of all things, most clearly reveals the limitations of the fast-casual concept. The "Basil Spice" soup is a refreshingly light broth with the clean, bright flavors of lemongrass and basil. I doubt that someone completely unfamiliar with Thai cuisine would be able to resist it. Except that into the soup Wang Gang dumps a bowl full of rice. This soaks up and dilutes the broth to the point where you don't even feel like you're eating soup — and certainly nothing resembling Thai cuisine.
Wang Gang is in an interesting position. They have the concept and the mechanism to expand and succeed. But they could also take a risk and separate themselves further from the fast-casual herd by introducing even more authentic Thai or Vietnamese or whatever flavors to a mainstream audience just looking for a quick lunch. If, that is, Wang Gang has the balls.