Although it is one of the oldest names in Chinese restaurants in Dallas, it has only been in the past decade that Howard Wang has been on the marquee. More than 30 years ago, he founded the Empress of China chain, one of the city’s earliest Chinese food outposts.
Then in 2005, he followed it up with this eponymous sibling chain. There are two branches in Dallas, both in upscale neighborhoods: North Dallas and a buzzier one that opened in Uptown in 2012. Southlake makes perfect sense for the third location.
The two chains have much in common: Both offer good, fresh Chinese-American food with attentive service and an upscale ambience. They share many of the same dishes: About 75 percent of the menu is the same, including the most popular dish, General Tsao’s chicken, lightly battered and fried in a sweet, slightly spicy sauce, served over rice and broccoli.
But Howard Wang’s skews ritzier. The atmosphere is swankier, with fancier items on the menu and slightly higher prices to match.
The grandeur rules as soon as you enter. You first encounter a large, elegant bar with a granite counter top, brass lion’s head sculptures and orange-red chandelier lamps. A vast dining area is broken into cozy rooms via squared-off metal-work walls backlit with red light — standard elements of a Chinese restaurant but done in a subtle, classy manner. Booths have tall backs and are extra-roomy; chairs bound in white vinyl feel sturdy and comfortable.
The menu is huge, but the young server shows up promptly to summarize: salads and wraps, traditional favorites such as orange chicken, and high-end signature dishes like Peking duck, grilled salmon and soft-shell crab. There are stir-fries, noodles and rice dishes, all available with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, scallop, tofu or vegetable.
It’d be hard not to find something you like, and that broad appeal is a big part of Howard Wang’s success. Everyone can eat, no matter how fussy. The other part: The food was very good. Ingredients were prepared proficiently. Chicken was tender, noodles were resilient, and vegetables were not overcooked.
One favorite category is “wraps,” consisting of a stir-fried veggie mixture accompanied by a half-head of iceberg lettuce. You take a lettuce leaf, add a spoon of filling, drizzle it with hoisin sauce and roll it up yourself. You can get the veggies with chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu for $8, or with Korean BBQ flank steak for $10.
The veggies — carrot, celery, green onion, water chestnut — were neatly diced into uniform-sized squares, which helped keep the wrap from becoming messy. The joys of this dish came from the contrast of the sweet, hot filling inside the crunchy moist lettuce wrapper. Rolling your own is fun, too.
Most of the menu is not overly spicy; dishes with heat boast a red Chinese character in the margin. Spicy basil chow fun ($12 to $14, depending on your choice of chicken, beef, or seafood) was medium-hot. Stir-fried onions, snap peas, bean sprouts, broccoli, baby corn and lots of fresh sweet basil were combined with wide, flat rice noodles.
The noodles provided both a chewy contrast in texture and a comforting counterpoint to the heat of the stir-fry. We combined it with shrimp, expertly cooked until chewy but firm.
For real heat, order the Ma-La stir-fry ($16 to $18), a sizzling stir-fry of vegetables with thick slices of jalapeño. Vegetables included red and green bell peppers, mushrooms, red onions and water chestnuts. The vegetables were almost under-cooked, in a good way; the peppers still had body and personality. The kitchen knew how far to take the jalapeños; they injected heat without setting your mouth on fire.
The Sichuan peppercorn sauce was a standout, with bits of peppercorn infusing the dish with crave-able crunch.
It’s hard to get pot stickers and dumplings right, but the jade vegetable dumplings ($7) were unique: Their house-made skin wrapper, with spinach in the dough, was tinted a subtle green. Served on a lettuce leaf in a stainless steel bowl, the presentation was beautiful: The dumplings had little folds that made them as pretty to look at as they were to eat.
A full bar means you can get cocktails such as the Red Lotus with citrus vodka, lychee and elderflower ($9 or $11), plus sake and wine by the glass. That’s just the kind of place Howard Wang’s is.