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A&E >  Food

Spirit of the wok: Chef Lu captures ‘wok hei’ at new Asian bistro on the South Hill

Jianjun “JJ” Lu works quickly, ladling sauce, combining ingredients, then giving the mixture a shake and a swirl over shooting flames.

Cooking is complete in a matter of seconds. And that speed is an inherent part of the process. To capture wok hei, or the spirit or breath of the wok, fresh ingredients are swiftly and expertly stirred and tossed over extremely high heat.

This is Lu’s specialty.

His new restaurant, Chef Lu’s Asian Bistro in the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center, offers sushi and a mix of common Chinese-American fare, such as moo goo gai pan, cashew chicken and, of course, General Tso’s chicken. For the more adventurous, there’s assorted traditional Szechuan-style dishes and modern Chinese cuisine.

Contemporary Chinese top-sellers so far include the black pepper garlic beef with mushrooms, eggplant with hot garlic sauce, a sizzling mixed seafood plate with vegetables, and menu item No. SS10: Eight Precious Tofu. It features a base of fried tofu topped with shrimp, scallops, squid, chicken, beef, mushrooms, water chestnuts, soy sauce and oyster sauce.

Szechuan-style dishes include dried fish in hot sauce with black mushrooms and red and green peppers, poached beef or fish in hot chili oil, and chicken or beef in hot garlic sauce with water chestnuts, bamboo shoots carrots, zucchini and more.

Ingredients are cooked to order in small amounts. Crowding the wok inhibits wok hei. The chef must work quickly to control the oil and water.

Too much water from raw vegetables can make them soggy in the dish. Not enough water leads to burning or drying out.

As for oil, it must be added just before cooking but after the wok is uber hot. Too much, and ingredients will be fried. But, if there isn’t enough, wok hei – and its slightly smoky flavor – won’t be achieved.

“Real Chinese cooking takes a lot of fire power,” Vinson Cai, who came to Spokane from China in the early 1990s and served as a liaison for Lu during an interview with The Spokesman-Review. “You try to get the breath of the wok into the food. It has to be done on high heat in a short amount of time.”

For those who want to play it safe and opt for the familiar, there’s teriyaki chicken or beef, orange chicken and Mongolian beef. But, even those approachable Americanized dishes will carry Lu’s special touch.

Lu’s cooking “is closer to the way they make it in China rather than the way they make it here,” Cai said. “It’s more authentic. It may look the same. It may have the same name. But the taste may be different.”

Before they started their South Hill restaurant – Chef Lu’s Asian Bistro opened about three and a half months ago – Lu worked in Chinese restaurants in Liberty Lake, Coeur d’Alene and Cheney as well as Spokane.

But he attended culinary school in Tianjin, one of China’s largest cities and a major port located some 70 miles southeast of Beijing.

Lu came to America about nine years ago, working first in Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles before moving to Spokane. His wife, Monica Zhang, and daughter, an eighth-grader at Sacajawea Middle School, joined him in Spokane about five years ago.

Today, Lu runs the kitchen, and Zhang manages the front of the house.

“JJ and Monica, they are different in my opinion,” Cai said. “They didn’t grow up in America. Most of the Chinese food here is American-Chinese. JJ’s different because he trained in all kinds of Chinese cooking in China. He’s trained to do all.”

Chef Lu’s Asian Bistro – with its high ceilings and bright paint – seats 89. An accent wall is covered with imported wallpaper featuring larger-than-life-sized koi, which are considered a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in China. There’s a patio, too, along with a full bar.

To start, there’s the expected round-up of appetizers: edamame, seaweed salad, cream cheese-and-crab wontons, spring rolls, barbecue pork and pot stickers. Look, also, for Rich and Honor Shrimps with mayonnaise sauce and pan-fried potato, crispy honey-walnut prawns with a special house-made sauce, and a Szechuan spiced chicken salad.

Sushi includes nigiri and sashimi as well as rolls: California, spicy tuna, red dragon, spider, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and more. Sushi chef Robert Yuan, from Los Angeles by way of Qingdao, oversees the sushi counter.

Soups – available by the cup or bowl – are: hot and sour, egg flower, wonton and miso.

Consider coming for lunch. Lunch specials are $6.95 or $7.95 and come with fried or steamed rice, a spring roll and soup.

Pork chow mein, sesame chicken and sweet-and-sour pork, chicken or shrimp round out the Chinese-American portion of the menu, listed under “Traditional Cuisine.”

With Cai serving as an interpreter, the couple said their goal is to “bring real Chinese food to Spokane.”

They hired a chef from the Sichuan province to oversee the Szechuan entrees, including crispy fish with coriander and fish sauce, Lao Gan Ma fish stew with tofu and vegetables, Chongqing spicy chicken with chili pepper, garlic, ginger, celery and onion.

They also spent several months remodeling the kitchen to specifically accommodate wok cooking.

Contemporary Chinese dishes include stewed fish in wine sauce, beef with cumin sauce, fried tomatoes with orange juice, pan-fried fish with soy sauce and ginger, and menu item No. SS9: the King of Tofu. It features tofu-and-egg pancakes with shrimp, scallops, chicken, squid and vegetables.

Cai compares capturing wok hei to flash freezing. “You can imagine a deep freeze,” he said. “Same as this – but with fire.”

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