If there were an award for bravest restaurateurs, brothers Son and Lam Truong would have a nomination in the bag. That's because their Señor Wong has boldly gone where few in the business dare to tread: downtown St. Paul.
I'm not talking Rice Park or the prosperous stretch of W. 7th Street near the Xcel, both of which host a respectable number of food-and-drink success stories. No, the brothers Truong have landed their spunky indie in the capital city's equivalent of the dark side of the moon: the grim 1970s-era retail space inside Kellogg Square, the monolithic apartment house that towers over the tumbleweeds-at-any-moment intersection of 4th and Robert streets.
Fortunately, the Truongs have more than pluck going for them. The two are a pair of restaurant brats: Their father, Tang, founded Caravelle, and their brother Hai co-owns the well-regarded Ngon Vietnamese Bistro. They also have a sense of humor. There's that double-taker of a name, one that immediately transmits the restaurant's antiestablishment intentions.
Its roots lie in a ritual that Son Truong and roommate Bobby Wong conducted for years, a weekly pig-out session jammed by their friends and fueled by Wong's beef-chorizo tacos. From those get-togethers, an unlikely but amusing culinary mixed marriage -- a little Asian, a little Mexican -- was hatched. Not that Señor Wong is treading untested waters, since both sides of the menu (the kitchen's predilections definitely teeter toward the Wong half of the equation) don't really mingle. No Szechuan-style tostadas here.
One side of Señor Wong seems aimed squarely at the beer-and-bar food crowd. The regionally brewed suds (Rush River, Surly, Flat Earth) are excellent, and many of the 20 or so starters stand out. This is a kitchen that can juggle both tricked-out nachos and spring rolls overstuffed with snappy shrimp, thin slices of roasted pork and tons of fresh herbs. There are fat and feisty wok-fried pork dumplings as well as a small mountain of what might be the best sweet potato fries in town: gently fried, nicely tender, teasingly salty.
Chipotle-glazed pulled pork, red onions and refreshing cilantro are piled high on corn tortillas. Skillfully prepared croquettes are filled with robust black beans and finished with a zippy lemon-zapped aioli. Even the peppery roasted tomato salsa served with tortilla chips is a pleasure. (Less impressive are tough pork and beef skewers, forgettable deep-fried shrimp and greasy, not-so-meaty chicken wings, done three ways.) In my mind, the whole routine is a replay of those Truong-Wong house parties, minus the invitation, and the chef.
He's Cody Monson, and he can do more than decent happy hour nibbles. Well-seasoned pork is slowly braised in a Mexican lager until it's fork-tender. Succulent pepper-crusted duck has subtle citrus accents, and a blazing chile pepper-garlic sauce puts a swift kick into stir-fried rice noodles. Pineapple chunks and summery Thai basil ramp up what would have been an otherwise familiar fried rice, and make-your-own flank steak tortillas are a treat, with spice-rubbed beef cooked precisely to order, thinly sliced and served with just the right accompaniments.
Monson has a sharp eye, and many of his dishes look as good as they taste. There's an artfully composed field greens salad finished with house-smoked chicken, crunchy jicama strips, small sweet bursts of candied pumpkin seeds and a splash of tart lime dressing; if I worked in downtown St. Paul, it would easily be my once-a-week lunch. Grilled cod tacos pop with colorful red cabbage, perky mango salsa and pickled jalapenos, and a fragrant coconut-curry broth adds a sophisticated touch to chicken, shrimp and rice noodles.
Other dishes elicit a shrug -- OK food, just not particularly memorable. For example, while the pho isn't in the same league as Ngon's exceptional version, it satisfies. A handful of stir fries and a pad Thai aren't really anything that can't be found elsewhere, and there are a few definite clinkers, starting with a quinoa-stuffed roasted pepper that's blanketed, Chi-Chi's style, in bland white Mexican cheese. What does stick in your mind are the prices: Most of the generously portioned entrees hover in the low to midteens. That fact alone ought to lure newcomers to the neighborhood.
Desserts feel like an afterthought, so ask for Wong's cocktail menu instead. A word of caution to designated drivers: The fruity punches (inspired by the boozy concoctions at the retro-campy Red Dragon in Minneapolis, owned by Wong's father) are so potent that I nearly got a buzz just inhaling their fumes. The setting isn't the food's equal. A skin-deep cosmetic makeover makes a perfunctory stab at erasing the sense that, yes, the space was formerly the longtime home of Benjamin's, a place a friend of mine used to refer to as "Perkins With a Bar."
It makes me wonder about the Señor Wong that could have been, had the Truongs leased the former Fhima's space (now home to Pop!!), the bright-lights big-city address just a block off Rice Park. Then again, what kind of challenge is that?
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757