It seemed like half of Texas had gone crazy. A man walked in off the street, ordered 22 egg rolls, slowly ate them one by one and left without a word. A policeman sauntered in one day on lunch break and ordered pork fried rice. He returned at the same time every day, 7 days a week, month after month, rain or shine, and each time ordered the very same fried rice. That was 18 years ago at Ming’s Cafe, Fai Jow’s first restaurant, in Houston. And now, after running wildly successful restaurants in Houston and Austin, Mr. Jow – older, wiser and more experienced – has come home to Tulsa.
There was a time when all of America went wild over what used to pass as Chinese food: egg rolls, chow mein, egg foo young. Those dishes might seem like clichés today, but love, care and genius can transform a tired old recipe into a dish that will dazzle even the most jaded gourmet. For proof, stroll down Tulsa’s Brookside and head for Mings Noodle Bar. The egg foo young is a work of art. The gravy? It looks like the same old sauce of a thousand take-outs, but one taste sets off a string of flavor firecrackers in your mouth. Jow smokes fine, fatty brisket for six hours, gathers the drippings and throws it in the sauce.
“It’s my tribute to Oklahoma’s love of barbecue,” he says. “That Egg Foo Young is Oklahoma Chinese.”
What’s owner Fai Jow’s secret?
“We reduce the sauce,” he confides. “We don’t just throw in cornstarch to thicken it.”
That’s his French twist. “I use French tricks, Thai, Japanese, Korean, whatever works. It doesn’t matter where the recipe comes from, so long as you use proper technique…Today’s ‘super buffets’ have been the downfall of Chinese technique.”
“These are the dishes that built a lot of family restaurants, and Chinese restaurants are always about family.”
You probably won’t see Mr. Jow while you eat amidst the spare decor of the dining room: beige stone walls, black pillars hung with charmingly garish 1920’s advertising posters from Shanghai – “nostalgic modern,” Jow calls it. He’s working nonstop in the kitchen. But if you’re lucky, you might catch him taking a quick break in the tranquillity of the back garden, surrounded by bamboo, Japanese maple plants, and bonsai trees trimmed and cultivated by Jow himself.
You’ll be struck by his peculiarly boyish blend of shyness and enthusiasm. The greenery reminds him of his childhood, not that he grew up in China (he grew up in Tulsa, attending Edison Preparatory School and Cascia Hall). Jow grew up in Chinese restaurants. His grandparents opened the Mandarin, Tulsa’s first, sometime before 1930; and when he was a child his parents ran a place called, not by coincidence, Ming’s. At the restaurants, employees grew bean sprouts using old cans instead of flowerpots.
“Never waste, find use for everything. That’s what we were taught,” Jow says.
Among his earliest childhood memories is Jow dozing on huge burlap sacks of rice as his parents cooked. Shortly after that, he remembers cooking his own first dish: fried rice. That’s how Jow first came to love Chinese-American restaurant cooking; he grew up with it.
“I’m not too caught up in it, though. I’m planning to introduce a broad range of Asian dishes,” he adds.
There’s a vibrant homemade kimchi as good as any that you’ll find in Korea. Soon, diners will find shredded pork with preserved vegetables, a typical dish from China, on the Mings menu. They do their own pickling. And then there’s the ramen, that quintessentially Japanese dish, which, as Jow proudly points out, was invented by Chinese living in Tokyo. The Japanese used to call it “Chinese noodles,” and in Tokyo, ramen has reached the level of an art form. Mings’ noodles are from an artisan store in Brooklyn, and the stock has long-simmered chicken, pork bones and fish.
“I roast the bones before I boil them,” says Jow. “I’m trying to develop layers and layers of flavor.”
Dried seaweed and wok-seared, caramelized pork belly plus a big, fried egg all add a flavor punch.
“It’s all about the depth and the dish,” observes Bart Speegle, co-owner of Mings, who has known Jow since Edison.
Still, Jow’s love for dishes like egg foo young is undeniable.
“These are the dishes that built a lot of family restaurants, and Chinese restaurants are always about family,” he says.
When Mings first opened, Jow’s mother flew in from Houston for a week to help him cook.
“She still gives me advice,” he says.
Mings Noodle Bar, 3509 S. Peoria Ave., Tulsa. 918.878.7888