I Wok the Line

Stir Crazy Cafe

When I was a waitress, I used to look for fast-paced, exciting restaurants in which to work. I wanted lots of tables, quick turnovers, and plenty of action. In short I wanted to be busy all the time so I could feel pleasantly exhausted at the end of the night while I counted my tips with the rest of the crew.

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.

So if you're as picky as I am, the way to order is via the printed menu. Asian chicken-noodle soup, a kind of won ton soup with a Thai coriander flavor, nicely counters that mall chill you may have taken if you spent your table-waiting time browsing the boutiques. You can get the same chicken dumplings that were in the soup as pan-seared pot-stickers, though out of the broth they seemed inappropriately bland and lukewarm to boot. Don't bother with the vegetable spring roll appetizer, which was as greasy as an egg roll you'd get from the food court.

If the restaurant is as busy for you as it was for me, stick to the Plum Crazy Chicken as a starter. Though the menu doesn't say so, this crispy rice noodle dish, tossed with hunks of chicken, crushed peanuts, and scallions, is served at room temperature, which means that no matter how overwhelmed your server is, it'll be correct. Because the plum sauce that united it was not overly sweet, the whole thing seemed a pleasant take on Thai mee krob.

Main courses, on the whole, were an improvement over the appetizers. I wouldn't expect realistic spicing in terms of chili peppers, but I would anticipate some reliability here. Bangkok noodles, though not as spicy as billed, were flavorful in a red curry sauce, accented by a good assortment of shrimp, green beans, bamboo shoots, and flavorful basil. Sweet-and-sour chicken wasn't the gloppy Cantonese version we've come to expect but crunchy, fried nuggets of chicken spiked with green and red peppers, onions, carrots, and a hint of pineapple. Our favorite, Mongolian beef, featured shaved pieces of steak sautéed with scallions and red peppers; the meat was then layered over crispy glass noodles, which provided some intriguing and necessary textural contrasts.

Stir Crazy acquitted itself especially well with one of the specials that evening, salmon in wasabi sauce. The pan-seared salmon was neither fishy nor dry and had been glazed with a pungent, mustardy sauce. The fillet was accompanied by aromatic jasmine rice and wok-tossed garlic spinach, a pile of emerald leaves that can also be ordered as a side dish. Unlike some of the other dishes, the salmon can be awkward to parcel out, but go ahead and reach for a small plate (there's a stack of them in the center of the table, next to a jar filled with chopsticks) and try anyway.

You could also attempt dessert, since the elaborate concoctions like banana won tons filled with white chocolate and topped with caramel sauce or key lime pie made with a fortune cookie crust sound so tempting. However, we skipped the third course, given that the entire meal process had already taken about three hours (including the wait). Wash the sweets down with a mango spritzer or a Thai Chi (Thai iced coffee with a slug of vodka and coffee liqueur). One thing is guaranteed: You won't come away from Stir Crazy enlightened on the subject of Asian food, which is all about subtlety. The place has already succumbed to the American way of doing everything bigger, better, and brighter, and by doing so has failed to some degree in its concept. But at least you'll leave a bit more stimulated than if you'd gone to the food court.

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