Restaurants carry a lot of history. Some of it is the centuries-old history of the culinary traditions that inspired that restaurant. And some of the history is much more recent.
This week I review Karma, Peter Hsing's Asian fusion restaurant built on a solid foundation of well-prepared and interestingly executed stand-alone dishes representing several different culinary traditions of the Mysterious East. Just a few miles away is Wokano Asian Bistro, the restaurant where Hsing developed much of that foundation, now being run by new owners that kept much of the old menu. In fact, much of Wokano's menu is a carbon copy of Karma's, with duplicate dishes and jokes (in both places, the garlic-heavy kimchi is referred to as a "vampire buster," and "exploding chicken" is offered at dinner). But the operators of Wokano (who, when I asked, seemed surprised that there was another restaurant in town cooking virtually the same board) also added a number of dishes after taking over — or Hsing wisely trimmed his original menu and dumped some fairly standard Americanized Chinese dishes in favor of focusing on just a few representative plates from each of the Asian canons he wanted to explore.
The curries at Wokano are the same as the curries at Karma — in name, if not entirely in depth of flavor. The Bang Bang Chicken, Vietnamese pho, pad Thai, satay and drunken noodles are all the same. And while Wokano, in addition to offering a large spread of standard-issue Chinese dishes, has also delved into the Japanese noodle, modern Hong Kong and Shanghainese traditions, these dishes just aren't as flavorful as those at its estranged sibling.
Last week, I sat in Wokano's tiny, polished, comfortable strip-mall home and ate satay while staring distractedly at the fat gold Buddha on the corner of the bar who was laughing and holding a stack of takeout menus. I also had curried Singapore rice noodles that were fine, if unevenly spiced; Thai basil chicken that tasted powerfully (and distractingly) of licorice; and a very good plate of Bang Bang chicken and shrimp set with fat slices of pineapple and dressed in a thin coconut milk sauce with pleasantly sweet-hot notes of curry and Thai chiles. But as good as that dish was, it didn't have the shocking goodness of Karma's pork chop curry.
Still, I'll certainly be back at Wokano when I'm hungry and in the neighborhood. Even if only for the presumed protection against vampires.