This was my fortune after a meal at the new Chinese Iron Wok. As far as I know, this isn’t a Confucian saying but a quirky, cookie-borne byproduct of Chinese-American food culture. You might remember another curiosity of that world: Providence’s famous Chinese food truck, recognizable by its garish, painted-on swordsmen. In years past, it would park outside the Sci Li and draw a line of students and professors at lunch. The truck was an offshoot of owner Tom Liang’s first restaurant, which used to be in Seekonk. But Liang recently closed the Seekonk location, traded in his wheels for walls, and now offers a full menu at Brook and Benevolent.
My dining companion remarked that the staff hasn’t heard they’re not in a truck anymore, and after multiple visits I’d have to agree. Our hungriest companion actually stood up to get the waiter to take our orders. But the staff is cordial ,if indifferent, the tea was hot and refilled regularly, and after ordering the wait wasn’t long.
The decor mixes the tasteful and the bizarre. In general, it outdoes the typical stuccoed Chinatown restaurant. The designers took stabs at feng shui with a glass bamboo-patterned screen dividing the main dining area on the second floor. Another glass piece, printed with circular images from around Providence, looks like it came second-hand from an ’80s science museum. The lacquered tables are square and ideal for the large groups of professors and graduate students that fill the restaurant at midday, taking advantage of the well-priced and generously portioned lunch specials.
The delivery menu doubles for table duty: call it tacky, but you have to appreciate the pragmatism. It offers around 100 items, but don’t get overwhelmed. Besides the fact that many are riffs on the same theme, the restaurant does not yet have its full stock in. The ginger chicken with string beans ($9) became chicken with broccoli for us. They were out of soup dumplings, and don’t yet have a full dessert range (no big loss, it turns out).
To reinterpret the cookie, don’t expect of Providence what you might of New York or San Francisco’s Chinatowns, but step carefully through the large menu and you won’t go wrong. Friends have told me that this was the worst meal of their lives; others swear they have best Chinese food around. It’s really less dramatic than that.
A rule of thumb for Chinese restaurants is to follow the chef’s own culinary heritage within China. The specialty here is Szechuan. Just as Philly cheesesteaks are best in their hometown, and you wouldn’t trust a Sicilian chef with ragù bolognese, at Chinese Iron Wok you should stick to the Szechuan. This southwestern Chinese cuisine is characterized by the unique spiciness it derives from its native peppercorns and chilies. And if your lips are a little numb by the end of the meal, it wasn’t merely an overload of the spicy stuff. Szechuan peppercorns, which are actually a tiny fruit, contain a unique chemical that causes parethesia, a harmless but stimulating tingling sensation. A wonderful example of this is the double-cooked pork ($12), perhaps the restaurant’s finest dish. Indulging and ordering the fatty belly meat will reward you with succulent slices of richly spiced pork. The cumin beef was also simple and satisfying. The spice was there, but didn’t overpower the thin-sliced, tender beef.
The chef has a way with Chinese eggplant, producing thin spears that nearly melt in your mouth. A high point, the eggplant with garlic, was both sweet and spicy without tasting like it came from the big buckets in the Ratty. It’s the type of dish that invites you to pile on a plate of rice and shovel. Meat eaters should go with the chicken and Chinese eggplant ($14).
The Lion Head meatballs ($11), traditionally from Shanghai, were appropriately juicy but not as gravy-smothered as one would want. They’re not terribly common outside Chinatown and are worth a try.
The appetizers, Szechuan dumplings and sesame cold noodles, were swimming in hot oil and small for six dollars. The dumplings were almost all skin, with maybe a teaspoon of ground meat. The noodles tasted like vinegar, and the few slices of cucumber tossed in were a half-hearted attempt at variation in texture. Restaurants around campus tend to overcharge for small, cheap-ingredient appetizers. Skip them and order an extra entrée.
For a world-class cuisine, Chinese food is notoriously lacking in the dessert realm. The sweet red bean congee ($2) they comped us at the end of the meal did nothing to break this image: a few dozen beans drowned in a watery soup.
Price should be a prime concern of anyone targeting student dollars. At $10-$15 an entree, Chinese Iron Wok probably won’t take the $6 East Side Pocket’s place in anyone’s circuit. The exceptions are the massive lunch specials, which at $6-8 are a great value for a proper restaurant.
But when you want to sit down, sip unlimited tea, bask in leisurely service, and play your chances at hit-and-miss but overall quality dishes, go for Iron Wok. Listen to the cookie: with restaurants like this, a dose of humor and nonchalance goes a long way.