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Seasonal vegetables, pineapple and cilantro mingle in the Vegan Mexinese Sautée (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
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Inside Wong Gonzalez (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
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Jalapeno-infused Lunazul Blanco with Demerara, Cocchi Rosa and lime (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
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Bao with fajita filling (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
Have you ever dated someone you knew you weren’t going to settle down with? They were fun-loving and good-looking, but possessed a flaw you wouldn’t want to deal with daily. They held you in their sway with their winning personality and their it’s-got-to-be-five-o'clock-somewhere look at life. Those qualities hold a certain charm. Maybe you’re dating that person now. If that special friend were a restaurant, they would be Wong Gonzalez.
Wong Gonzalez tendered its first plate last June on the block of Grace Street that hooks up Pop’s Market, Pasture, Julep’s and Charlottesville’s Champion Brewing Co. Its happy hour is within walking distance of The National and spitting distance from Dominion Arts Center, and it's fronted by EAT Restaurant Partners’ Executive Chef Ken Liew and co-owners Chris Tsui and Chris Staples, who also conceptualized Wong’s many sister eateries including Fat Dragon, Foo Dog and, most recently, Beijing on Grove. EAT dining halls are known for their gentle pricing and on-point beverage programs, and Wong Gonzalez is no exception.
Wong is happening, spacious, streamlined and stylish. Hanging on gunmetal-gray walls is bold pop art squared by oversized light bulbs, calling to mind the kind of jumbo vanity mirrors that could have illuminated the building’s previous lives as a department store and beauty parlor. An ample bar with 24 taps dispenses Pacifico and Dos Equis alongside Petersburg’s Trapezium White Ale, plus tap wine and fusion “Wongtails.” (And don’t forego the $5 fresh-juice margarita at happy hour.)
Upstairs, find private dining and cocktail events at Beauty and Grace, the restaurant within the restaurant. Hanging here looks like high drama but feels like chilling out, and everybody is catered to, including children.
Staff wear whatever they want — rumpled flannel shirts or velvet — yet exude professionalism, food knowledge and genuine warmth. Attentive service, along with an interesting tequila set, seduces me. Less enticing — though not a deal breaker — is the food, which, on my visits, proffered the highs and lows of a passionate fling.
As the name suggests, Wong Gonzalez combines Asian and Mexican street food, or “Mexinese,” a notion with legs on the West Coast that’s just hitting the ground here. This dining centaur isn’t as goofy as its moniker sounds: It’s rooted in the centuries-old travel and trade networks of silver, spices and labor amid China, Indonesia and Mexico. Naturally, comestibles will comingle. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you’ve most likely been served from this melting pot, perhaps trying similar couplings at family meal, the off-menu supper the staff eats before or after a shift.
Like staff meal, some of the dishes at Wong are delicious and some you wouldn’t want to pay for. In the delicious corner there’s South of the Border Calamari, crisply fried and popping with onion, chilies and lime — spicy, but tamed by its sour soy gyoza sauce. Sopa Caliente is another story. This riff on hot and sour soup puts beans and corn in a piquant broth striated with egg, resulting in an oily texture weighed down by legumes. Subbing in lighter ingredients over the starches might help.
Another starter, the grilled whole squid with Thai salad, is overcooked, the tubes blackened to creosote on one end.
But plump Loco Wings are expertly wok-fried until they crackle; in delightful contrast, a heavy cumin-and-herb sauce tethers the dish's components. These are just what you want during a Friday or Saturday night out, when the kitchen stays open until 2 a.m. Pivoting, ordering the guacamole with shrimp crackers was not my best move, the chips greasy and splintering to shards when I tried to scoop into the ice-cold ball of avocado dip.
Ending on a high note, the Beef Bulgogi Burrito possesses kitchen magic: Savory-sweet meat canoodles sticky rice wrapped in a mega flour tortilla. That same rice, wonderfully clumpy and starchy and sauce-absorbing, also appears alongside the killer Korean Baby Back Ribs with a tomatillo salsa that adds even more umami to an already mouth-filling plate.
Wong Gonzalez, you can at very least count on a standing engagement with me well before the same time next year. I don’t want to see you exclusively, but you’ve got it going on.
2.5 out of 4 forks
412 E. Grace St., 788-9000
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday: 4 to 10 p.m.
Prices: $4 to $15