Currently, Truong’s menu favors Asia, and largely avoids fusion within the dishes themselves. The majority is very traditional, and many are old family recipes.
I was just entering Downtown St. Paul to sup at Señor Wong, when my usual anticipatory optimism turned to dismay: a game at the Xcel Center, with parking looking dismal. As I drove past the jersey-clad throng, I checked the restaurant’s address—111 East Kellogg Boulevard—and regained hope. Thankful to have extricated myself from the Xcel’s orbit, I drove a number of blocks to easy parking near Señor Wong in Lowertown.
Señor Wong co-owner Son Truong says, “We had to become a destination. We had to offer ample portions of food, low prices, and a great atmosphere.”
But for Truong, it’s worth it: True, the spot may not have the easy geographic draw of Uptown Minneapolis, but his location allows him to keep his prices ridiculously low. Moreover, he is going for a diverse crowd, evidenced by his choice of music: His DJs eschew Top 40 in favor of kung fu funk or old school hip-hop, Thursday through Saturday.
As the name would suggest, Señor Wong has both Asian and Latin influences on its menu. Currently, Truong’s menu favors Asian, and largely avoids fusion within the dishes themselves. The majority is very traditional, and many are old family recipes.
Most appetizers are substantial enough to be a meal by themselves.
At just $8, the Korean Short Ribs—the recipe comes courtesy of Truong’s fiancée’s mother—are a must-try. By all means, get enough to share with your whole table. They are tender, meaty, and easy to eat. The flavor is absolutely superb when topped with a dab of spicy Kim Chi. It’s one of Truong’s favorites on the menu, and it’s now one of mine as well.
If you’re enjoying this dish as an appetizer, the perfect aperitif would be the Numero Diaz cocktail, made from 10 Cane Rum, Thai basil, fresh lemons. and sugar ($10). The signature drinks—descended from the Red Dragon—are not as jaw droppingly cheap as the entrées, but the bartenders do not skimp on the firewater…at least, they didn’t for this columnist.
Firecracker Shrimp ($7) are another winner, fried in a crispy wrapper to resemble a series of festive noisemakers, and served with sambol-horseradish sauce. The wrapper keeps the shrimp juicy, and the sauce livens up this little party in your mouth, packing some decent heat.
I also heartily recommend that first-time or returning diners check out the bar menu’s selection of small plates.
Cemita Milanese ($8) offers two small sandwiches of delectable pork tenderloin, guacamole, Oaxaca cheese, and onion—they have a smoky, spicy flavor that goes swimmingly with the Killah Kai cocktail ($9). Consisting of kilo-spiced rum, mint, lime, pineapple, and sugar, the drink brought out the sweetness in the pork.
The seafood special that evening was scallops served atop sweet-potato cakes with a green curry coconut sauce. Executive Chef Cody Monson trained in Maine, and his scallops certainly reflected that. They were a bit of a departure from the rest of the menu, but if your table has mixed tastes and preferences, the seafood entrée may offer some respite from hot-zone fare.
We also happily tucked into the Yuzu Cointreau Duck ($19), another of Truong’s favorites. Crusted with Szechuan peppercorns, the duck is served with gingered sweet-potato spaetzle, tempura mushrooms, and yuzu/cointreau sauce, which helps cut the saltiness of the meat.
The beer and wine list is extensive, a refreshing deviation from the normal lineup.
“I didn’t want the tap line to look like the usual restaurant when I moved in,” Truong explains. “There’s no domestic beer on my tap line at all.”
Many standard selections are available by the bottle, however.
If you somehow have escaped the appetizer and entrée lists with some modicum of appetite remaining, Señor Wong has a number of decadent treats, all made in-house, priced at $6.
My table launched into the Sour Cream Cheesecake with Goat Milk Caramel, and Pecans. The rich cheesecake was a showstopper in itself, with no need of further embellishment.
If you’re looking for something lighter, you may favor the Yuzu White Chocolate Panna Cotta, served with blueberry lychee sauce.
Or, I suppose you always could order one of the enormous drinks, for which the establishment is getting quite a reputation.
You wouldn’t guess, after dining there, that Señor Wong is Truong’s first restaurant. His brother, Lam Truong, is co-owner. But the two are descended from restauranteurs, and it shows. Their concept definitely has legs. They just have to encourage people to take the short drive to Downtown St. Paul to enjoy it.
Señor Wong /111 E. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul / (651) 224-2019 / www.senorwong.com