Trip report - Chef Wai in San Mateo. Go there now!!
After both reading and seeing the progress of Andy Wai's new venture in downtown San Mateo (the former Iron Chef location), I journeyed there last night for dinner with a friend who lives nearby. We walked in to Chef Wai at about 8PM, and were immediately surprised to see that the dining room was nearly full. It looked and sounded more like a Saturday night inside than a Monday. The tables were full of predominantly Chinese families and groups, with the occasional non-Asian group dotting the place.
My friend had eaten at the prior incarncation, Iron Chef. She advised that Chef Wai had done a very nice refurbishing job, doing away with the goofy color scheme/decor of Iron Chef and replacing it with a very nice and soothing creme interior.
We were seated right away in a table for 2 that was actually tucked in a nook near the front windows. The menu is a laminated, double-sided sheet of about legal paper size (8.5" x 14"). It was sectioned into appetizers (about 10 choices), soups (about 8 choices), "Meatless, but not heartless" (18 vegetarian selections), main courses (18 choices) and one other section I can't recall (desserts?). Prices are reasonable for a higher-end Chinese resto, and better than what you would see on the dinner menu at Joy Luck Place acroos the street.
We started with an appetizer of the wok-fried calamari with herb salt ($10). A nice-sized order came out of 2/3 body pieces and 1/3 tentacles. Batter was a tad bit too thick, but the flavors of both the calamari and the herb salt seasoning were very good. No dipping sauce is provided, nor needed. I'd definitely order this again.
The rest of our meal was:
1) Hong Kong style Dungeness crab with pork, shrimp, onions, black beans, bamboo shoots and ginger ($25)
2) Spicy tofu with seafood clay pot ($12, I think)
3) Steamed brown rice ($1.50 per person)
The tofu came out first, and was very, very good. Soft tofu in a spicy orange-red sauce that was reminiscent of the sauce used in Korean "dokboki" (but Chef Wai's version used Vietnamese Sriracha sauce as the base), this dish also included chopped pieces of shrimp, scallop, calamari and mushrooms. The seafood was perfectly done, fresh and of good quality. I'd absolutely order this dish again.
There was a serious hiccup in service, as we did not get our order of brown rice with the tofu. When it finally did arrive, it was mushy and musty at the same time. I'd hesitate to order the brown rice again, and would likely just opt for the regular jasmine rice ($1 per person). Overall though, service was reasonably competent, and should likely get better as time progresses. Glasses of water and tea were filled expeditiously, and new plates were provided at regular intervals.
Crab was next, and was flavorful, fresh and perfectly done. The ground pork and dried shrimp were a perfect salty counterpoint to the sweetness of the crab meat. It was obvious that the crab was freshly cooked and not from prior frozen stock, as the meat came away from the shell easily, and had that sweet moistness that could only occur when live crab is used.
Complimentary dessert was the standard bowl of tapioca and taro in a sweet red bean syrup. Chef Wai's version was very soothing and tasty, as the sweetness was more muted than many other resto's versions, which too often taste like a huge sugar/corn syrup bomb.
Cost of the above along with a couple of Tsingtao beers, tax and tip was $70 for the two of us. Money well spent, IMO.
Throughout the meal, additional groups came in. By the time we left at roughly 9PM, the dining room was almost 100% full. Word has obviously gotten out that there's a high-quality Chinese resto in the area.
On our way out, we noted that they're open for lunch from 11:30AM - 3:00PM, and for dinner from 5:00PM - 9:30PM.
Saw a post that Andy Wai had opened up his own place and checked it out on Sunday. Place was full when we arrived at 6:30pm and waited about a half an hour for a table. Ordered a shrimp sashimi appetizer that was not listed on the menu but saw some tables had ordered it. With the soy sauce and wasabi, it was really off the charts delicious and incredibly fresh. The shrimp heads were deep fried jiu yim style and very crispy. You get six pcs, really tasty, but I could only eat 2pcs because it's too yeet hay (hot air). We ordered the basil chicken with lettuce cups and the brisket beef claypot. Fantastic flavors and definitely will return to try other items on the menu.