Austin Wong has a double-headed rooster tattooed on his chest. One head is angry and agitated — “crazy,” Wong calls it — the other is at peace. “Balance is a big thing,” Wong says.
Balance is at the heart of Chow Main, Wong’s new restaurant in downtown Baton Rouge. The fast-casual Asian restaurant at the corner of Main and Fifth streets, which opened last week, focuses on bowls and bao and carries the tagline “Southern Based/Asian Taste” — because “that’s who I am,” Wong jokingly says.
The menu includes signature bowls like the "Mala Spicy," chilled noodles topped with chicken, pickled cucumbers, carrots and cumin cauliflower, and the "Creole," which combines Creole-style shrimp, wok-charred corn, sauteed Brussels sprouts and rice.
And there’s a build-your-own-bowl option, so you can “find your own balance in your bowl,” Wong says. Bowls start with a base of rice, chilled noodles, lo mein or mixed greens, and can be built with protein — chicken, pork, steak or shrimp — and a variety of vegetables, sauces and garnishes.
Chow Main currently sells two bao dishes. The "88 Chicken" is chicken brined in a savory tea marinade and then "double fried for good luck and extra crunch." And the "Sloppy Zhou" is traditionally braised pork garnished with cilantro and peanuts.
The rooster appears all over Chow Main. It’s in the restaurant’s logo, with a small Louisiana standing in for the wing; and a large, vivid rooster is painted on the wall, created by Wong’s cousin, Francis Wong. The piece is part of a growing mural that blends a Chinese ink painting style with south Louisiana imagery. Austin Wong, who’s 25, was born in the year of the rooster, and he’s always gravitated to the Chinese zodiac animal, he says.
Wong announced plans for Chow Main in early April and had hoped for an opening in the summer. But this being the restaurant industry, delays were inevitable. Chow Main is in the space formerly occupied by Pam's Capital Corner Market, and renovations and inspections needed to happen. By October, Wong was restless and ready for the doors just to be open.
The procedure of opening his first business taught Wong a lot, he said: patience, how to rely on family and resilience.
"With this whole process, I experienced the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs," Wong said. "But at the end of the day, though, I love it."
Wong is a Baton Rouge native of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, and his father, Paul Wong, had operated a Chinese food booth in the Main Street Market for years. His grandfather also ran restaurants in Baton Rouge. But Wong was on his way to a graduate degree. He had been wait-listed for dental school, so he changed his focus to food science at LSU. While at a food safety conference in Washington, D.C., Wong started to seriously consider an idea that had been sitting in the back of his mind: opening a restaurant.
He dropped out of grad school and started doing a lot of research on opening a business and on the science of cooking. While preparing a bowl, Wong spouts off detailed information about the wok he's using, how it distributes heat and affects the flavor of the vegetables he's working with.
Wong says he wants Chow Main to differentiate itself through the quick, bowl-based concept, high-quality ingredients — he's sourcing his mushrooms from Mushroom Maggie's Farm in St. Francisville — and a style of Chinese food that isn't found often in Baton Rouge.
Chow Main is currently open for lunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and Wong hopes to eventually expand to dinner hours.
"What Chow Main is right now is just the start," Wong says. "My layout is basic. But that's what Chinese food is — use high-quality ingredients, simple technique but the right combination."
501 Main St., downtown Baton Rouge
10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday