House of Wu (West Warwick, RI)

At times I have to remind myself that here at Offbeat Eats, we’re all about finding good food wherever one’s travels take them, and that can mean anything from dive bars, to food served out of the back of a converted U-haul, all the way up to Michelin-starred restaurants on obscure islands. A good example of this is “Chinese” food. Chinese-American cuisine is really an odd sort of evolved cuisine. As covered quite masterfully by Jennifer 8 Lee in The Search for General Tso, ethnic cuisine in America is much like immigration in general: a mix of cultural integration, cultural preservation, adaptation, preservation… as well as more than a little improvisation and occasionally bastardization. And you know, while I do love going to various more “authentic” Chinese restaurants in various cities, and really enjoy some of the higher-end Chinese-inspired fusion cuisine that’s come into existence, sometimes I like a good Chinese-American meal as well. Like a good Tex-Mex meal, a “Chinese” meal doesn’t need to be “authentic” to be great, it just has to be well-prepared with good ingredients. In that light, earlier this summer I joined some of my good friends from the FOM for a friendly outing at an old, classic New England restaurant serving unapologetic “Chinese American Food”: House of Wu (not to be confused with the fashion designer)

House of Wu is located in a modest little restaurant in West Warwick, nestled in among the residential properties and old mills. While a lot of similar Chinese places from this era (Wu dates to at least the early 80s, I’ve been there before as a kid) go for a bit of an over-the-top Polynesian these, the overall decor is actually pretty Spartan, but one look at the bar, and almost every single table, will show you that one bit of “Polynesian” flair reigns at House of Wu: the Scorpion Bowl. On my visit, 4 diners at the bar, and almost every adult eating at a table was nursing a fairly large, ceramic classic Scorpion Bowl cocktail. It’s not a fancy cocktail (rum, a bit of gin, orange juice, and grenadine), but House of Wu’s version is actually pretty satisfying, and pairs well with the overall menu.

Next up was the Pu Pu platter, and if there’s another required menu holdout from the great Polynesian Tiki era of Chinese American cuisine, it’s got to be the Pu Pu Platter. Nominally Hawaiian in etymology if not culinary heritage (The Hawaiian “pū-pū” nominally means “appetizer”), it’s one of those things that pretty much every New England Chinese place can be expected to have, with a large bounty of skewered meat, egg rolls, chicken fingers, fried wontonts, and other appetizers arranged around a small charcoal grill (interestingly, when I was growing up out in AZ, most of the places out there called the same appetizer platter a “Happy platter” instead). And House of Wu’s version is pretty good: the egg rolls nice and crispy, the spare ribs flavorful and tender, and the deep-fried wontons and chicken fingers fresh and crispy.

If there was one thing that really shined at House of Wu, it was the wonton soup. I find wonton soup highly variable: it can be anything from a bowl of broth with a few thin filled wontons in it, to a rich bowl with rich, hearty, plentiful wontons plumped with spiced pork filling (my gold standard for this remains Shuang Chen in Minneapolis, where many a cold winter day’s lunch was a double-large bowl of their excellent wonton soup). The version at Wu is definitely the latter: a surprisingly rich broth with large, meaty wontons, strips of flavorful roasted pork, a bunch of Chinese greens adding some color and flavor to the broth, and the optional (but highly recommended) fresh pea pods giving it some nice crispness. This was a very satisfying bowl of soup.

For the main course, I simply went with one of their lunch specials: the Yu Hsiang Pork. Szechuan-style shredded pork sautéed with strips of bamboo shoots, tree mushrooms, lily flowers and carrots, this was a surprisingly spicy, garlicky, and crunchy lunch selection, and unlike a lot of Chinese American food, not really sweet at all. Overall, a very pleasant dish, and served up with a veritable mountain of good fried rice and a giant egg roll, this lunch special was a crazy-good value for $8.15.

Overall, I really liked House of Wu. When it comes down to it, most people’s “Chinese” food is much like the Pizza Cognition Theory, and like “pizza”, people are most comfortable and craving of “Chinese” food most like that they first had growing up. And in that vein, House of Wu delivered in spades: a pleasant lunch, with plentiful, well-prepared, and flavorful food, with a pleasant scorpion bowl to boot. I wouldn’t mind a return trip next time I’m in Rhode Island.

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