Crisis Averted: Tsubaki Szechuan owner says closing temporary
With firecracker debris barely cleared from last month’s Lunar New Year celebrations, I engaged in a belated celebration of local Asian fare on Monday, but not before I was awakened by an early-morning text with the horrifying news that Tsubaki Szechuan, 1117 NW 25 St, was closed indefinitely.
While local chefs went into rapid-fire through the stages of grief, lingering on depression, I remained calm and ate lunch at Tsubaki Sushi, 5900 W Memorial Rd.
After chef/owner Henry Yang performed his usual mastery upon fresh fish, and rice (and a spot of foie gras), we chatted about the Tsubaki Szechuan situation. Henry, whose English is limited, expressed dismay he and his partner had to close Tsubaki Szechuan but said it would be temporary. Yang indicated the restaurant would reopen after the partnership was re-evaluated. He said it’s possible when it does reopen, it could be in a new location and perhaps have a new name.
All that’s fine as long as we can get our spicy prawns, dried beef, and did I mention spicy prawns? everything’s cool. Monday morning’s announcement was met with a frenzy of lamentation among local chefs, who routinely populate Tsubaki Szechuan. My Instagram page is dotted with despair.
The news was both a low and high point in an otherwise optimistic run of Asian food news I’ve come across recently.
Start with the return of chef Vuong Nguyen, who left us a little over a year ago to help launch culinary operations at The Gathering Place in Tulsa.
Nguyen (Guernsey Park, The Coach House, Bonjour) is poised to open a concept in The Collective but will stay plenty busy between now and then.
He recently consulted with Lemongrass Asian Bistro, 809 SW 119 St., which has been in operation for more than a decade in south Oklahoma City. Owner Ann Nguyen asked Vuong help her freshen up the menu.
I was able to sample my way through some dishes Monday that only validated why it’s great having chef Vuong Nguyen back in town.
Besides the infectious energy, he serves precision food and dynamite flavor combinations. We started with melt-in-your-mouth calamari served with sweet and sour sauce and lime aioli, and an old-school shrimp cocktail updated with wasabi cocktail sauce. Each will thrill fans of the dishes and make a few new ones.
Then we got into salad and steam buns. (Don’t miss the ginger dressing). The pork bun was a play on classic Vietnamese banh mi with jalapenos, cilantro, green onions and pickled carrots and daikon. Also sampled a Salt and Pepper Shrimp bun with jalapeno and lime aioli. Both were as crunchy, and spicy as you want and would work with a succession of cocktails at the bar between friends.
We also tried a version of General Tso’s Chicken worthy of its own entrance music.
“I took one bite of this and said, ‘Don’t change a thing!’” Nguyen said.
My favorite thing dish was the Galbi JJim Bowl, which includes Korean-style short ribs with lettuce, cucumbers, kimchi, ssamjang and carrots. This dish hinted at Vuong’s time spent at Chae Modern Korean.
For dessert, we had a Sushi Sundae: A roll filled with cream cheese and strawberry sauce fried in tempura batter, rolled in Oreo dust and served in slices with vanilla and chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, coconut salted caramel, chocolate sauce and raspberry sauce. And it’s stupid good.
One bite, and I burst into laughter. This is the kind of ooey-gooey, salty-sweet, creamy-crunchy decadence from which-adolescent dreams are born.
Lemongrass is serving the new menu now. The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday for dinner only now. Hours are 5 to 9 p.m. except Friday and Saturday when closing time is 10.
But that’s just keeping Vuong busy at night. By day he’s renovating the recently acquired Urbun Eats, 431 NW 23 St. Original owner Daniel Chae (Café Chae) sold the concept to Nguyen and his partners last month.
Nguyen plans to eliminate Urbun’s lunch service to concentrate on becoming a late-night destination in the burgeoning Uptown 23rd Street district. He promises house-made gua bao (buns) and a fresh selection of fillings. Look for Urbun to be back up and running middle of this month.
Once the mercurial chef has Urbun operating, he will concentrate on opening Café de L’Asie in Truong Le and Jenny Nguyen’s food hall, The Collective.
Sources tell me The Collective will be the first of the new food hall concepts for downtown to open with May as the target.
On Tuesday, I met a friend for lunch at Magasin Table inside the 8th Street Market, another variation on the food hall. Owner Leon Hoang brought the concept to town from New Orleans where Magasin Café and Magasin Kitchen remain popular spots for upscale and fast-casual Vietnamese fare, respectively.
Hoang’s iteration opened last fall and serves banh mi, vermicelli bowls, rice bowls and pho. I sampled banh mi with braised pork belly and quail eggs, a vermicelli bowl with lemongrass beef and pho with filet mignon.
The best part about the banh mi was how the soft-cooked quail eggs worked with the natural pork fat to make an a la minute mayonnaise while I ate it.
The pho broth wasn’t as beefy as Oklahoma City palates are used to thanks to Pho Lien Hoa and friends in the Asian District. The broth at Magasin was balanced with acid and perhaps a little chicken stock (gasp!). Regardless, it makes for a less cloudy broth that became impossible to stay out of thanks to tender chunks of tenderloin that contrasted the rich, tangy broth with a pop of velveteen decadence.
The lemongrass beef vermicelli bowl struck all the right chords starting with well-marinated and seasoned short ribs, rice, green-leaf lettuce and fish sauce.
The counter-service concept is inside the 8th Street Market, which also includes the Prairie Artisan Ales tasting room with a coffee roaster due soon. Construction continues in the retail market space, which looks poised to give downtown visitors incentive to wander east.
Finally, my wife and I finally made it into Chigama Asian Mexican Fusion, 3000 W Memorial Rd., for dinner Tuesday night.
The concept from Steven Ha (Dot Wo Garden) and Jeffrey Khowong (Sushi Neko) is a delightful full-service restaurant and bar, offering a variety of ways to enjoy a meal.
We decided to sample a little bit of a lot including: Chigama Fries, elote, roasted Brussels sprouts, fried rice, roasted shishito peppers, and scallion pancakes. I also had a fish taco.
Chigama Fries are topped with queso, bacon, red chile, spicy kimchi and aioli with pinto bean beneath. We woofed them down with Lycheetinis, which fans of the exotic fruit will adore – especially once you get to the lychee that’s been soaking in vodka and St. Germain’s.
The fries are palate porn no human could resist, but I think I liked the scallion pancakes even more. The elote was a more honest representation of the dish than those offered at most of the gourmet taquerias that have opened in and around the time Torchy’s Tacos came to town. Brussels and Shishitos were tasty alone and mixed together. Together and scattered over the fried rice they were sublime.
The fish taco was advertised as Baja-style but wasn’t batter-fried. No problem, I was happy to eat grilled fish with mango black bean salsa, cilantro and chive aioli in a healthier way than anticipated.
Besides, it meant we didn’t have to share dessert, which came in churros and crème brulee.
The churros were served with welcomed but unneeded chocolate syrup and vanilla bean ice cream. The brulee, served with fresh blueberries and strawberries, was crispy and creamy in all the right places.
Chigama also offers more straightforward ways to dine like a burger and fries plus entrees in steak, chicken and salmon. The menu also offers tacos in beef, chicken, pork, vegan and tuna tataki. Look forward to returning to try them all.
The restaurant represents decades of restaurant evolution in the Oklahoma City dining market. Ha’s father Denny owned and operated Dot Wo for decades, which was a restaurant that always evolved with the times before it finally closed last year.
With pho available in every section of town, and now decades of influence from a broad range of Asian cuisines on Oklahoma diners, fusion is a natural next step.
Like El Toro Chino in Norman, Chigama blends Mexican and Asian flavors from its own perspective. Where El Toro Chino plays like Southwest Cuisine amplified by Asian flavors, Chigama is more rooted in Asian technique and sensibilities with Latin flourishes.
I’ll have more on this concept in the weeks to come. In the meantime, check it out and let me know what you think.