By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Had it existed then in my part of the world, I might have applied at the two-month-old Stir Crazy Cafe in the Town Center in Boca Raton. I haven't seen such a scene in a long time: at least an hour's wait, tables turning over like pancakes, so many waiters waiting and bussers bussing that the restaurant practically bristled with energy. Yes, I most certainly would have wanted a job here. Night after night the collective vibe would have kept me amped; I'd have pocketed a ton of coin and wouldn't have had to exercise ever again.
As a diner, however, I have to admit I was exhausted by the time my beeper went off -- yes, my beeper -- to clue me in that my table was ready. Even before I was seated, I had to conclude that Stir Crazy, a chaotic pan-Asian restaurant the emphasis of which is naturally on stir-fry dishes, was appropriately named.
A mini chain from Chicago, where there are three such eateries, Stir Crazy is concept incarnate. Proprietor Gary Leff started the place after visiting the East several times and concluding that Americans could use a restaurant that "introduced diners to the wonderful flavors of Asia," a press release notes. In it Leff himself reveals that he "wanted to elevate Asian food from takeout status to a festive experience."
What is this, 1980? Sorry to inform you, but we've all become a little too sophisticated about world cuisines -- particularly Asian fare, which has been inundating South Florida -- to need an introduction. And we have plenty of eateries where we can enjoy top-level food of all Asian ethnicities in pleasant settings without having to resort to gluey takeout.
That said, Stir Crazy does seem to fill a need in this part of Boca. For example the highly stylized restaurant, which exhibits huge, colorful murals of Asian life, cherry-wood tables, a slate floor, and giant chopsticks hanging overhead, is a nice alternative to the campiness of neighboring T.G.I. Friday's and the grease of the Town Center food court (where I once saw two rats playing near a garbage can). This may be the first time in recent memory that I've noticed young teens dining together sans parents, whether they were on dates or it was just "a group thing."
Fortunately, too, the menu doesn't target the gastronomically naive with overexplanation. The point of origin for each dish is noted in its name, as in Hong Kong steak or Thai curry chicken; only one name, the Vietnamese pho bowl, is redundant enough to annoy (since pho is a Vietnamese word meaning "soup in a bowl"). The menu portrays dishes simply, the only exception being edamame, salted soybeans that are misleadingly described as "Japanese peanuts."
The most rigorous elucidations are left to the waiter, who must explain the "Create Your Own Stir-Fry" process. Six steps take a diner from hunger to -- well, the staff hopes it's satisfaction. You begin by telling the waiter that you'd like to make your own, which always starts as vegetarian. He'll ask you if you'd like to add one or more meat options (chicken, beef, shrimp, fish, or squid) and/or a starch (white rice, brown rice, lo mein noodles, flat rice noodles, or round wheat noodles). Then, timing it with the readiness of the other entrées in your party, he'll bring you a bowl with the choices you have made thus far.
Are you with me? Now it's your turn. You take the bowl up to the "market" area, where you can throw in still more stuff, namely vegetables like broccoli and water chestnuts. Then you move on to the homemade sauce bar, where you ladle in enough black bean, garlic-ginger, teriyaki, or peanut sauce (to name several) to flavor the whole. Finally you hand the bowl to one of the chefs standing behind this counter, where eight woks are simmering simultaneously. He tosses all the ingredients in, you wait for them to cook, and voilà! You have a designer meal, and if you don't like it, there's nobody to blame except yourself.
That's if everything goes according to plan. Our plan was sent awry by the waiter, who forgot to bring out one bowl of beef and rice noodles before the other entrées were served, which meant that my guest was waiting for her meal to be cooked while the rest of us downed ours. The other problem comes in with the cooking process, and here's where Leff and company try to take advantage of the masses' lack of culinary expertise. In real wok cooking, those ingredients that take longest to cook, like beef, are wokked first. Then the veggies are added, then stuff that's already cooked (like noodles), and finally a little sauce to bring it all together. The whole process takes no more than three minutes, and the meat should be tender while the vegetables remain crisp. At Stir Crazy, the wokkers take their time, and since all the ingredients are thrown in as equivalents, what you're usually left with is soggy vegetables, disintegrating noodles, and perfectly cooked meat.