Thursday, July 7, 2016

Wu Er Barbecue: Chuan'r, Baijiu & Potato Chips

You probably know about various barbecue styles, from Carolina to Memphis, Kansas City to Texas. Locally, you might have dined at Redbones BBQ, Sweet Cheeks Q, or Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q. However, are you familiar with the barbecue style of Chuan'r, and do you know where to find it locally?

Chuan'r, Chinese barbecue, originated in the Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia regions of northern China. It essentially consists of small pieces of spiced meat roasted on skewers. Lamb was originally the meat of choice with cumin as the most commonly used spice. Over time, as the popularity of this cuisine spread, it began to include skewers of many different meats, as well as vegetables and even seafood. It is now a common street food and you can see part of its evolution in the common Chinese-American dishes of teriyaki beef and chicken, which are usually served on skewers.

Back in July 2013, Chuan'r cuisine came to Boston through the Wow Barbecue food truck, founded by Steve Liu and Yi Peng. They were successful enough that in 2014 they opened a WOW Barbecue brick-and-mortar restaurant in Malden, serving a wide variety of skewers as well as other Asian dishes. Most recently, in March 2016, they opened a second restaurant, Wu Er Barbecue, in Brookline. The word “Wu-Er” translates as “one of a kind.

I was recently invited as a media guest to check out Wu Er Barbecue, which is located in the Brookline Village area. As you walk inside, there is a large aquarium to your right and then you'll encounter a moderate size bar, with some dining tables to the left. However, the place is a bit deceptive as you can wind your way through the restaurant and find additional booths and tables in other rooms. From the outside, you would probably never suspect that it actually can seat around 70 people, with plenty of room for large groups.

It is a casual and comfortable spot (though on my visit the air conditioning wasn't working so it got hot).

They have a fully stocked bar, including almost 20 Beers, draft and by the bottle. The Wine list includes about 12 choices by the glass ($9-$13) and most of the bottle choices cost under $55. I was surprised as there are actually some interesting choices on the list and not just the usual suspects. There is a small list of 6 Cocktails ($11), two which are made with Hong Kong Baijiu. 

They carry 6 different Baijiu, including Hong Kong BaijuLuzhou Laojiao Zisha, Jian Nan ChunShui Jing Fang WellbayWu Liang Ye and Kweichow Moutai. They are available as a Shot, a 2oz Pour, or by the Bottle. Shots range from $4-$16 and 2oz Pours range from $11-$55. I ordered a shot of the Jian Nan Chun, which I hadn't tasted previously. It is produced by a distillery with a history of over 1000 years. This is a Strong Aroma Baijiu, with a 52% ABV, and is made from a blend of sorghum, rice, glutinous rice, wheat and corn. This reminded me in some ways to the HKB, being smooth, light and fruity, with a hint of appealing licorice flavor. There was no burn as I drank it, and the aromas were appealing. A very nice choice.

The two cocktails they offer with Baijiu include The New Frontier ($11) and Blue & White Porcelain ($11). The New Frontier is made with HKB, Tequila, Garam Masala, Lime Juice, Bell Pepper & Thai Chili while the Blue & White Porcelain is made with HKB, White Rum, Lime, Coconut Cream, Curacao & Sesame. I tasted The New Frontier and it was absolutely delicious, one of the better cocktails I've enjoyed as of late. The Baijiu took a prominent role and was definitely evident in the drink, which also was only mildly hot but with an intriguing spicy aspect. This cocktail paired very well with the cuisine, including the five-spice & garlic chicken. This is a cocktail that would appeal to many people and would be an excellent gateway to the wonders of Baijiu. I wanted to try the Blue & White Porcelain but they were out of coconut cream.

The food Menu has a good variety of dishes, from Skewers to Asian fusion, with plenty of small plates which you can share. You can start with one of their two Soups ($6) or one of the 13 Tapas Style Plates ($5-$12), from Crab Cake to Grilled Chicken Wings. They also have a Raw Bar of Local Oysters and Little Neck Clams, though you can also get Grilled Oysters.

They have 3 Skewer dishes ($8-$9), Beef, Chicken and Lamb, which come in an order of 4 with three dipping sauces. You can also order numerous individual Skewers, about 16 options ($1.50-$4), including meat, seafood, vegetables and more. You could choice items like Sausage, Cauliflower, Chicken Gizzard or Tofu. The skewers are cooked over a natural gas grill with volcano rocks to provide a smoky flavor. Their seasoning is cumin based, with the addition of salt, nuts and herbs.

For larger dishes, they have three Plates For Two ($30-$48), large trays of Chili Crab, Grilled Whole Fish or Lobster, each with 3 sides. I was told these were very popular and many of their guests order one of these dishes. I saw one of these plates on another table and they the trays are quite large, and look sufficient to feed even more than two people. You'll also find on the menu 6 Entrees ($12-$24), including choices like Zha Jiang Mian, Grilled Lamb Chops, and Teriyaki Steak with Udon. There were also some Daily Specials, adding to the menu.

Dinner began with a variety of Skewers, including Sausage, Pork Belly, Chicken, Lamb, Beef, Squid, and Shiitake Mushrooms. The meats were moist, tender and flavorful, with a nice blend of spices. The large piece of squid, pictured on the far right, was also tender and the mushrooms were absolutely delicious. It's easy to understand the appeal of these skewers and based on these alone, Wu Er would be a good destination.

I opted for a number of Tapas style plates, to try a few different items, such as the Asian Mushroom Risotto ($10), made with wood ear, shiitake, & cremini mushrooms and topped by a fried egg and scallions. The risotto was creamy, with properly firm rice, and enhanced by the savory umami of the different mushrooms. This would have been a superb dish paired with Japanese Sake, especially a Kimono/Yamahai style. My only suggestion is that the fried egg would have been better served over easy, with a gooey yolk, to elevate the umami level even higher. Highly recommended.

I ordered the Yan Su Ji ($6), marinade chicken with five spice & garlic, though I wasn't fully aware what I was ordering as I was unfamiliar with this dish's name. It actually seems to be more popularly referred to as Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken, and that is what came, a large dish of fried chicken nuggets. It is not commonly served with any dipping sauce. The chicken had a crispy coating, with a nice blend of spices, and paired very well with The New Frontier Baijiu cocktail. This is definitely an excellent bar snack, something to chow down while watching a sports game.

Another excellent bar snack was the Wu Er Fried Potato Chips ($5), home-sliced potatoes tossed in a cumin seasoning. They were very thin, very crispy and nearly addictive.

The Asian Ribs ($11), made with five spice, ginger, hoisin, soy, honey, and scallion, were meaty and tender, with a pleasingly sweet (and messy) sauce. Give me a plate of these ribs and I would be a very happy person.

During the dinner, the server brought over these "donuts," basically Bahn Bao, made from rice flour, and topped by a sweet glaze. Though Bahn Bao often have fillings, such as pork and veggies, these didn't, so they were more like a tasty doughnut-hole.

They have two Desserts ($6-$8) and I opted for the Crispy Saba Banana Foster, with wonton wrapped banana, rum-caramel sauce & ice cream. A nice blend of textures and flavors, with crisp wonton skins, soft bananas and a sweet & appealing sauce. A decadent ending to dinner.

Overall, the food was delicious, reasonably priced, and well spiced. The cocktails are delicious and this is one of the few spots in the local area which is truly passionate about Baijiu. Many of their Tapas style plates are excellent snacks for pairing with cocktails and beer. Service was generally very good, except our serve did forget one of our dishes and had to be reminded about it. I need to get to their Malden location, which has a slightly different menu. I recommend you check out Wu Er in Brookline, and you should try one of their Baijiu cocktails too.