Chinese cheer

Wah-Hoo enlivens downtown Detroit's dining scene

There was a time 30 years ago or so when diners from all over the metropolitan area used to drive downtown to gorge on almond chicken at Chung's in Chinatown and Victor Lim's on Grand Circus Park, as well as on Chinese "Polynesian" fare at Chin Tiki, Trader Vic's and Mauna Loa. Now, however, there are so many first-rate Chinese restaurants in the suburbs, such as Mon Jin Lau, Hong Hua and Golden Harvest, as well as across the river in Windsor, there has been little reason to get your General Tso's chicken fix — and MSG hangover — downtown. Of course, until recently, there were virtually no places to get that fix downtown.

With the opening of the modest Shangri-La Midtown ("More than takeout," MT, Nov. 25, 2009) and the somewhat more upscale Wah-Hoo on Shelby two blocks from Cobo Hall, the situation has changed. Wah-Hoo is the latest enterprise of the Gatzaros (Fishbone's) family. Opening in April as the special project of son Nico, the stylish restaurant features an extensive sushi menu, as well as a full complement of familiar Chinese dishes. Chef Feng, who presides over the entire kitchen, previously constructed the sushi at Fishbone's. 

He came over from Greektown along with several of his assistants and genial manager Chris Young, who oversees the two noisy dining rooms that seat 75 and the mezzanine that offers privacy to an additional 15 patrons. His polished wooden tables, thankfully spaced far apart, are bare, but his napkins are linen. The art deco sconces and the large ceiling fans offer hints of the quintessential Hollywood Shanghai dive of the 1930s.

Although the several Chinese symbols that decorate the maroon and pink walls are authentic, "wah-hoo," a cute name indeed, is suspect. Suffice to say that it is no relation to the popular West Coast chain, Wahoo Fish Taco, which denotes a specific type of fish — and whose owners are Chinese! (Nor does it have anything to do with Dartmouth College's century-old, politically incorrect "Indian" cheer, Wah-Hoo-Wah or Tiger Hall of Famer, Wahoo Sam Crawford.)

Etymology aside, the small plates and salads, which average around $7, feature crisp and succulent pork-stuffed potstickers lightly spiced with chili-sesame sauce, interesting crab-and-cheese won tons with plum sauce, creamy Asian coleslaw made up of cabbage, carrots and daikon and a pleasantly chewy rendition of seaweed salad awash in sesame oil and rice vinegar. 

Spring and egg rolls, lettuce wraps, Shanghai calamari, an especially eggy egg-drop soup, wonton, and a hot-and-sour laden with vegetables and krab reflect the attempt to appeal to Western and not Eastern palates. Most of the dishes throughout the menu are mildly seasoned and the only pan-Asian influences, aside from the sushi, are a bit of tempura, miso soup and a few teriyaki preparations. 

Wah-Hoo offers eight lunches ($7-$9.50), which include soup and rice, all served quickly to enable office workers time to eat a full meal and return to their desks in less than an hour. One such ample lunch that appears elsewhere on the menu is "Xing Chou Chow Mime." Not the expected mein but mime, which, the chef suggests, refers to the fact that the noodles and tiny shrimp or chicken are dressed in a spicy curry sauce. The sweet and tangy Hunan beef, chicken, or shrimp constitutes another savory stir-fry lunch.

As for the mains, which are divided into Garden, Sky, Ocean, and Land, classic Kung Pao chicken, mixed with carrots, pea pods, onions, peanuts and broccoli (have you ever seen a Chinese main in Detroit without broccoli?) has a suitably mild kick. However, the garlic green beans were way too light on the garlic and a bit overcooked, on one occasion. Posing a different problem, the tender beef-tenderloin nuggets, which are blended with a variety of vegetables, including broccoli, and packed into a fried-noodle bird's nest, are dry enough to require the use of the accompanying hoison dipping sauce. 

Sesame chicken, scallops in oyster sauce, miso salmon, fried eggplant, Mongolian beef, and shrimp with lobster sauce are among other entrées, which, like the lunches, arrive at the table on heaping platters.

Wah-Hoo boasts a handsome wraparound bar with the requisite colorful island drinks, a handful of reasonably priced bottles of wine, sake and bottled beer.

Although the place is more crowded at lunch than at dinner on days when there is no major downtown event, it stays open until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Does the arrival of Wah-Hoo mean that lovers of Chinese cuisine will start returning to the city from the suburbs, or even from Windsor, for their favorites? It may be too soon to say, but the lack of adventurous spicing and unusual regional dishes indicate that Wah-Hoo, which is near a People Mover stop, will be a culinary godsend primarily to workers in the financial district, conventioneers, and those going to games — which undoubtedly was the Gatzaros' target audience in the first place.

Mel Small has been dining for MT off and on for three decades. Send comments to [email protected]

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