You can chalk up the fiery burn of some dishes at Red’s Chinese to potent chiles, and that fleeting tingle across your tongue is the work of Szechuan peppercorns. But what really gets the blood pulsing at this new Bywater restaurant goes beyond individual ingredients.
It’s a cumulative effect of the new and unaccustomed stacking up, and it starts with the setting.
For as quickly as St. Claude Avenue has become a restaurant row, visiting Red’s Chinese for the first time may still require a leap of faith. Built in a once-forlorn grocery that still looks somewhat abandoned from the street, the interior unfolds as a jauntily casual restaurant fronted by a busy take-out counter, extending through a long, low, ad hoc dining room and built around an open kitchen equipped with dining counters that bring to mind the street food stalls from “Blade Runner.”
Then, as the dishes start rolling in, you may find some of your standing orders from the familiar Chinese takeout menu brought through a world market of flavor. There’s a kung pao stir-fry with pastrami ($16), the beef cut in thick chunks, the fat between their salty, smoky fibers not so much melting in your mouth as spreading a chorus of multi-pepper heat. Across the spectrum, green beans ($10) with an al dente snap are interspersed with slivers of sticky Medjool dates, scented with cumin and covered with lacy, pungent flurries of grated horseradish.
All of this didn’t just land in the Bywater from nowhere. Tobias Womack, the chef who started Red’s Chinese with Amy Mosberger, used to cook at Mission Chinese Food, the fusion phenom that started in San Francisco, expanded to New York and quickly vaulted its chef Danny Bowein to culinary fame. The Red’s Chinese style is similar to Mission Chinese Food, and some of Womack’s dishes are clear spin-offs, notably the kung pao pastrami, a concept he’s reworked here with the Creole trinity of onions, celery and bell peppers.
The back story lent mystique to Red’s even before it opened late last year, all the more so since it hurtled straight past the usual checkpoints for traditional and regional ethnic cooking and into the realm of mash-up modern. Start unpacking Red’s menu, however, and you find big flavors, generous portions, refreshingly reasonable prices and plenty of entry points, an approach that’s not about blowing your mind so much as stretching Chinese cooking beyond the familiar standards.
General Lee’s chicken ($16) brings the same allure of spicy, Asian-style chicken wings to the bigger bird. The crisp skin of thigh, breast and drumstick pieces are glazed with a sticky, spicy soy sauce, stuck with crushed peanuts and finished with cooling wisps of cilantro and orange slices. The confetti rice ($13) gives fried rice a surf-and-turf treatment with sweet coins of dense Chinese sausage and hunks of fish between its toasty-tasting grains.
Unmoored from tradition, either from regional Chinese cooking or the Chinese-American playbook, Womack’s kitchen can go almost anywhere, and his menus have been changing regularly. Crawfish Rangoon ($8), dressed with extra-spicy Creole mustard, is a newer addition bringing the comfort zone of a fried appetizer, though a recent vegetarian stew of tofu and king mushrooms ($10) mostly accentuated the squishy, gooey qualities of both.
More cool dishes have arrived ahead of summer, like the excellent who dan noodles ($12). A tangle of thin, nutty-tasting soba noodles curled around finely ground lamb, it’s tossed with tahini and scattered with sesame seeds for a Middle Eastern aspect, but it still feels right to use chopsticks.
The squash soup ($11), chilled by a surrounding ice bowl, has a smooth, curried texture enrobing sweet shrimp and crab. And the tiger salad ($8) ripples with all the juicy heat of a papaya salad but is built on cucumber, cilantro and the tang of goji berries strewn about like sour candies.
Sometimes the most basic-sounding dishes can be the most robust. Thin scallion noodles ($8), for instance, are steeped in a malty, balsamic broth bringing mouth-filling umami, and the Bywater eggplant ($11), cut into bulky, slick slices, is ignited by gochujang, a fermented chile paste with a sweet-building-to-incendiary progression of flavor.
Beer is the natural foil for this sort of spicy onslaught, though the short wine and cocktail list is also engineered to match the food. Frozen cocktails are a newer addition, getting their own head start on the summer.
The final appeal of Red’s Chinese reveals itself when the meal is added up and you realize this was not some long, strange trip but rather a readily accessible departure from the norm. You’ll probably still leave with takeout boxes of leftovers, the accustomed bonus of Chinese dinner outings, but also perhaps some new cravings.