So what's the difference between "Chinese brunch", the phrase Hot Wok Cafe uses for its Saturday-only repast, and dim sum, which is what most Chinese food lovers think of when the subject of weekend mid-day Chinese food comes up?
Dim Sum is dumpling-centered and this meal isn't. And while there aren't carts - which actually aren't mandatory for dim sum - there are written menus, and like some dim sum in other cities, there's a list for each table to write down how many of each item they want, much like we see in many sushi places.
Unsure of portion sizes, I ordered four items, and had plenty to take home. Some of the menu items may be familiar, like scallion pancakes and seafood dumplings, but other items move into the exotic. For example, the beef sesame bun sounds like something that might be found on one of those counts. Not on any cart I've seen here, though, nor on either coast or in Hong Kong. It's panini-esque, a flat sandwich composed of thinly sliced and seasoned roast beef, cucumber, and a little onion and cilantro in a rectangle of pastry that's been split in half. The pastry is tender, slightly flaky and rich, and the flavors reminiscent of a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich but on different bread. Irresistible, and I soon found out I shouldn't have eaten both halves of the sandwich.
Seafood dumplings looked more irregular and hand-made than those we'd had panfried at dinner. Dumpling sauce, a combination of soy and black vinegar, arrives pre-mixed and arrives in a shaker with them. The dough is more tender than the fried, although part of that is probably related to steaming versus frying, and while these, too, are nice and moist, the flavor is milder, the pieces of shrimp in the filling being a little too shy to make their presence known.
Shangdong roasted chicken brought slices of cold chicken anointed with a soy-based sauce with a little sesame oil. Even the white meat was moist and there was plenty of the juices in which one could dab the bird's meat for added zip. Leftovers here, along with the generous handful of cilantro, made a good sandwich the next day, especially since the ciabatta at hand was given a light smear of mayonnaise seasoned with sriracha.
And then there was what the menu called seafood porridge. It's possible this isn't congee, the traditional Chinese breakfast dish, which is somewhere between a soup and a porridge, but whatever name this goes by, this is outstanding. Most congee found on restaurant buffet tables, is deeply bland, waiting for the knowledgeable diner to add whatever seasonings their amah did. Better hotel breakfasts in Hong Kong have the electric cook pot surrounded by a constellation of add-ins, meat, fish, hundred-year-old eggs, seasonings like soy sauce, and the list goes on and on. But at Hot Wok, it's seasoned, and seasoned perfectly. As white as a bleached linen sheet, its ghostly look belies plenty of ginger, including a pinch of freshly shredded, enough pepper to make it not only the spiciest dish I'd had on either visit but to make it downright addictive. Slices and shreds of green onion, too, give a little color, and then there were a sort of crouton, slices of the thin Chinese cruller that's a morning street food in China. Resembling a churro but lighter, they gave a little more texture. And resting at the bottom of the steaming hot bowl, were thin pieces of white fish. Certainly an unassuming-looking dish, but deeply satisfying.
Next time, I'm going for the seafood pancake, the chive pie and the ting zai zhou, just because I have no idea what it is. (Googling hasn't helped.)
Lots of business, although not mobbed, some sort of gathering of young professionals in a back room and attentive, polite service.
14346 S. Outer Forth Rd., Chesterfield
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat., Brunch Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Brunch items: $2-$10