Sorting through the hits, myths and sticky wickets at Wusong Road on handmade mai tais and crab rangoons.
Frankly, The biggest disappointment about Wusong Road, chef-owner Jason Doo’s vibrant, tiki ode to the comforting sweet (also: sour) pleasures of Chinese-American retro, is that on paper the thing sizzles.
Check it out: a two-story lounge featuring artisan-caliber scorpion bowls and beloved classics from the golden age of the pupu platter – crab rangoons, sticky ribs, pick-your-protein lo mein – remastered for modern palates by a guy who used to cook in Menton. The restaurant’s fantastic interior looks like a million dollars, and you’d never know it was mostly a do-it-yourself affair that cost a tiny fraction of it. You enter the second floor through the mouth of a carved dragon, for Pete’s sake. As for the vibe, I think it adds just the right amount of (youthful, slightly edgy) energy to Harvard Square’s dining ecosystem, which has been hard in the direction of guest speakers lunching these time. Nothing against the chamomile white butter, but the course correction is nice to see.
Something else diners love to see in 2022 is an honest-to-goodness personal account from a storyteller whose story needs to be told. Doo grew up in the 90s in and around his parents’ Chinese-American restaurant in Malden, and it’s a thoughtful take on tiki cocktail culture, something other bars have been criticized for having. been transformed into commodity and exoticism in more recent events, concerned with appropriation. years.
The menu is also well thought out. Revivalist nostalgia projects tend to err on the sidelines, especially when there’s a Kowloon-sized garden of faded delights ripe for resurrection, making it a nice surprise to meet curatorial rigor: Every Night, Wusong Road offers just 16 dishes in total, which makes a lot of sense. Doo says his cooking line is usually a skeleton team of four true believers. Better to focus on a tight roster that they can knock out of the park every time. Or, you know, according to theory.
The problem is that the more you eat at Wusong Road, the clearer it becomes that this cuisine is chronically in the weeds. On busy nights, it’s highly likely that at some point during your visit the kitchen will drift away from its game and find itself in the charring, vortex-like undergrowth of in-the-weeds-ness, and for an unpredictable stretch – will it be a flat wave, or the rest? – you are in a wobbly world. And you don’t have to take my word for it: The restaurant’s busy Instagram account doubles as a near-daily captioned photo diary with heartfelt confessions, imploring comments, and contrite apologies large and small. But what I mean is that the endemic struggles of Doo and his team are a pretty well-established consensus at this point and, not to pile up, but yes, you sometimes feel it.
Pea stalks ($11.88) you crushed last week — the ones accented with crispy garlic and feathery haystacks of crispy shallot — may appear with an intact watermark but not a detectable layer of sodium . Someone forgot a pinch of salt? A whole sauce? A plate of veggie lo mein ($11.88) can hit the table with water, a sign of rush work or a crowded wok. Pork ribs ($12.88) could be spiced up cheongyang chilli sauce but without outside char. Salmon running away from salt believed (no longer on the menu), meanwhile, can arrive desperately for seasoning but, according to a strict sorting hierarchy, requires acid, stats. More yuzu in yuzu soy, maybe; no more pickle in the pickled daikon… the wedges of lime tucked into your well-rounded mai tai ($9.88), in a pinch.
You desperately hope the tide turns before the signature lacquered roast duck ($88.88), reserved 24 hours in advance as requested, arrives. Next time I might go with 25. The first time we popped in for one, the leg meat was almost inedible: tough, sinewy, and undercooked. Accompaniement bao, marshmallow on the outside, were stained inside with powdered raw flour. The second time I had the whole setup, it improved a lot: a solid B-plus. But when there’s only one large-format dish on offer, it should be a reliable stunner – or at least not the menu’s big roll of the dice.
Then suddenly. When you least expect it. The clouds above you are parting. The luck of the lucky 8 whose menu is full of is finally launched, and you are like: Hallelujah. You remember the potential. That the guy behind this passion project was working in Menton not just at the time, but the year he got four stars from the World. There’s craftsmanship and there’s nuance and there’s precision.
The crab rangoons ($8.88) are hand-folded daily, and you can tell by the lightness — delicate sweet pillows held in suspense by homemade cream cheese. The accompanying duck sauce, a pineapple sambal with a sneaky kick, painted the crunchy creases of the hot fried wrapper with just the right protective layer of stickiness. A pair of stuffed animals bao ($9.88), a chicken, a pig, arrived in buns shaped like the animals themselves: pigtails, snouts, eyeballs, beaks…the works. They were adorably awful, just right for the place. Of the two, I preferred the perfect frying job of the chicken, the juicy interior and the abundance of sriracha and sick heat on the char siupulled pork style. The fried rice ($11.88), with optional shrimp ($2) and chili-crunch oil ($0.50), was a surprise for its pleasant gooey chew and the subtle hint of smoke (a.k.a wok hi, “the breath of the wok”) which would have sent the lo mein soaring higher. Were the flippant wraps made with warm, flaky green onion pancakes and five-spice braised beef brisket ($10.88) a little greasy? Maybe. But also maybe just the bold you want for a night out drinking.
Speaking of which: the cocktail program was solid across the board. Properly made Tiki drinks require an absurd amount of freshly squeezed juice and the space to produce it, so by day Wusong Road employees run a juice bar in the lobby of the nearby Charles Hotel. There, they can earn a few extra bucks while getting ready for the night’s onslaught using commercial-grade equipment they could never afford or fit in their restaurant. It’s called ingenuity, folks. And the balanced, thirst-quenching excellence of Wusong Road’s Painkiller ($10), a blend of light and dark rum, house-squeezed orange juice and freshly squeezed pineapple, speaks to the team’s hard-won perfectionism.
Of course, one person’s glazed ceramic cup of perfection may be another’s half-empty glass. One of the best things I ate at Wusong Road was a rousing riff on American chop suey (grafts translation: basic beefaroni), a standard offering at suburban New England Chinese restaurants, and a dish which the chef says he fondly remembers from his childhood. In Doo’s hands, this utilitarian dish has become something magical. I use the past tense because the item was dumped roughly — too many harsh comments, Doo tells me, from customers confused by its Italian flavor. In 2022 we love a good story, that’s for sure. But not as much, perhaps, as we like to weigh.
Which, ultimately, is perhaps Wusong Road’s real disappointment: there’s the vision, the baller space, the meaningful origin story. There’s even a conscientious chef with the chops for success. If I had to guess, adding three or four cooks to the line at the dugout would help immensely. But honestly, what I think chef-owner-storyteller Jason Doo could use more than anything is disconnect from the Instagram feedback loop and tighten his grip on the mic. Punch. Heart emoji. He has this.
112 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, 617-528-9125, wusongroad.com
Crab rangoons ($8.88), spicy chicken bao ($9.88), shrimp fried rice ($13.88)
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor