Wok Box, a Canadian restaurant chain expanding into Texas with an inaugural branch in Irving, comes with more than a few similarities to Pei Wei.
There’s the catchy name, with two rhyming words: Wok Box, Pei Wei. There’s the pan-Asian menu, featuring dishes from a variety of cuisines; and the fast-casual service model, where you consult a menu board, place your order and get it delivered when it’s ready.
But Wok Box has enough differences to make it more than just the Canadian Pei Wei. It is smaller in scale, with more of a fast-food persona. Its menu is compact, yet adventurous, with a wider reach that extends into Indian cuisine, including a novel wrap-style sandwich enclosed in India’s signature bread.
Although it’s not exactly in a position to topple Pei Wei, Wok Box represents an intriguing twist with enough to merit an exploratory visit or three. It has Chinese-style stir-fries, Korean sauces, and Indian and Thai curries — an Asian greatest hits menu but with a foodie bent.
Kimchi fire balls ($4.99) alone would warrant a special trip. This appealing appetizer had four ping-pong-size balls, served piping hot, with a spicy “firecracker” mayonnaise.
The balls were made of cooked rice mixed with shreds of kimchi, the Korean fermented cabbage, plus cheddar cheese to hold the mixture together. Italian restaurants do a similar dish called arancini.
The balls were crusty with a firm, meaty center; the flavor was spicy and just hot enough to make you want another.
Wok Box has samosas ($4.99), the classic Indian savory pastry containing a spicy filling of potatoes, peas and carrots. These came three to an order and had a “fast-food” personality, with a thinner crust that seemed generic compared with the thick, hand-formed pastry found in a typical Indian restaurant. The lightness of the pastry was a nice change of pace that placed more emphasis on the flavorful, mildly sweet curried filling; sometimes samosas can seem heavy.
The menu is split into categories of noodles, rice and curries, to which you add your choice of vegetables or meat. The most exciting category was noodles. There were four kinds, ranging from thin ribbons to curly chow mein noodles to medium shanghai noodles to thick udon.
They came tossed with a stir-fried veggie mix that included scallions, bok choy napa cabbage, onions, peppers, broccoli florets and crunchy fresh bean sprouts.
Sauces were excellent, from kung pao sauce with anise, soy and chile, to an extra-hot Korean firecracker sauce with diced bacon. The best was the signature Singapore cashew, a lip-warming sriracha peanut sauce with cilantro, diced peanuts and whole cashews.
You can add chicken, steak, shrimp or an exceptional rendition of tofu, cut into small rectangles with browned edges and a creamy center.
Crispy chicken with rice ($6.29-$8.99) is another Wok Box signature, with bite-size chicken tenders in a breaded crust, tossed in a sauce such as sweet-and-sour or teriyaki. We took the advice of the helpful staff and chose orange sauce, pert and lively, and not too sweet.
But “crispy” was an overstatement; whatever crispness might have existed was doused by the sauce. Still, the chicken chunks were comforting and easy to eat. Rice came in choice of white or brown, which may be better nutritionally but was dried out on our late-night visit.
Two Vietnamese items have become the rage: pho and banh mi sandwiches. The Irving Wok Box has pho ($6.99), the noodle soup in a thin broth, which they serve with thinly shaved slices of beef.
But instead of a banh mi sandwich, there was a naan-wich ($5.49) enclosed in the pliable pita-like Indian bread. The naan was rolled wrap-style, with a filling of rice and butter chicken — chunks of white-meat chicken in a rich and creamy ruddy-colored sauce.
Other than fortune cookies, there are no desserts. Sodas are self-serve. Seating includes comfortable booths made of glossy, stained plywood. Flatware was plastic, unfortunately, but the bowls and plates were ceramic. The walls were covered with photographic murals of Asian street scenes that lent a cosmopolitan, you-are-there atmosphere.
Founded in western Canada in 2005, Wok Box has America in its sights. Its strategy is to hit the suburbs first, before moving to the urban centers. There’s another branch in Tyler, with Arlington opening in the fall and Plano on the list for 2015.