Let's talk about sushi. Not the nigirizushi you'll get in Japan -- slices of raw fish on vinegar-infused fermented rice -- but the Western variety: rolls made with cream cheese, imitation crab, cucumber, and avocado, to suit American palates.
If you're a purist, the sushi at Fort Lauderdale's new Asian-American fusion concept, Chow, could make you cringe. But if you'd prefer to avoid the raw stuff, you just might love it. A good portion of the menu is labeled "not so sushi" -- a list of soy-paper-wrapped "redneck rolls" that offer fully cooked fare like steak, fried chicken, and pulled pork wrapped in rice.
And if you're up for it, the Challenge Roll plays Russian roulette with your taste buds: five pieces of kani crab, cucumber, and asparagus drizzled in a sweet miso sauce, with a single mystery piece that hides an extra-spicy habanero.
See also: Chow in Fort Lauderdale (Photos)
None of this is technically sushi in its most traditional sense, but that's the point. Chow is playing with food, plain and simple -- and that's precisely what creators John Todora and Ian Rose are aiming for. The menu is an amalgamation of Asian-style comfort fare assembled to appeal to the masses. Even those who don't really like the cuisine.
"I wanted to make Asian food that's fun," says Todora. "The cuisine was always missing something for me. A few years ago, I would have never had sushi. I created Chow to be a reflection of the things I wanted from an Asian restaurant experience."
Pennsylvania-born Todora opened Chow in September, right smack in the center of Himmarshee Village. The longtime industry veteran, who also created Hollywood's Whiskey Tango, reminisces about the area's seedy past where -- just two years ago -- he considered the same space for a different concept but turned it down.
Today, Todora is operating two unconventional concepts with his craft-beer bar Bull Market next door, and now Chow. Together, these establishments have reinvented the space where concepts like PL8, Himmarshee Side Bar, and -- most recently -- Sub Culture restaurant group's Dubliner have previously failed.
"This neighborhood is really coming alive," says Todora. "I remember when girls were afraid to walk the streets here alone and no one came here to eat. It's not like that anymore. People are realizing this isn't just a late-night weekend scene."
In the past few years, Fort Lauderdale's entertainment district has made an obvious effort to "grow up" from a late-night-only bar scene for the college kids to one that is actively trying to be a sophisticated dining destination.
Central to that plot are Chow and Bull Market, alongside a troupe of newish establishments encouraging finer pastimes, from noshing on small plates and martinis at Stox Bar to sipping craft cocktails at Stache 1920's Drinking Den. Even the theater-going set can opt for a taste of modern American at Marti's New River Bistro, a new establishment set inside the nearby Broward Center for Performing Arts.
To prove it, on a recent weekday night Chow is humming with anticipation before the late-night set begins its usual bar street crawl. Even when slow, Chow is plenty atmospheric thanks to Todora's re-creation of pastoral Thailand, complete with corrugated steel and metal wire accents and a low-slung wood panel ceiling to evoke a touch of the country's slums. The short bar at back is transformed into a sushi bar, fashioned into a shanty of sorts. Nearby, handmade wood-pallet towers with chicken wire could be used to house live chickens but instead hold bottles of wine.
Todora and Rose say they traveled Asia extensively before opening Chow. For Todora, the goal was to bring a piece of the culture he experienced while visiting places like Japan and Thailand.
"Certain dishes stuck with me," says Todora, who points to the menu's gigantic sumo burgers (his version of Japan's iteration of the American sandwich), as well as the American-style, ketchup-infused Thai fried rice.
While Chow offers all the Asian staples Americans might expect, with a menu this wide-ranging, nothing is able to take center stage.
It begins with small plates and appetizers, new riffs on Asian fare, like Gringo Rangoons (crab, cream cheese, and house-made jalapeño-infused bacon); Asian Nachos (tofu-topped wonton-style chips with wasabi cream sauce and seaweed); and Japanese Tater Tots (lumps of fried sweet potato tots served with a spicy mayo). The Thai-style Brussels sprouts are the least traditional but deliver the best pairing of the evening: a bright blast of flavor from tender flash-fried sprouts coated in a creamy, sweet-spicy peanut sauce.
Some of Chow's creations are offered in larger, entree-sized portions, like the Mongolian beef stroganoff (rice noodles in a creamy shiitake-based sauce) or Asian spaghetti (lo mein noodles smothered in hot Szechuan sauce with pork meatballs). The kitchen was out of steamed buns for its Asian fajitas, so we sampled the Korean fried chicken instead, cooked to order and hand-brushed with a savory soy garlic sauce. It arrived slightly overcooked, shellacked crispy skin tasting mildly of burnt soy sauce with dry meat beneath, and plated beside a dull pile of watermelon-jicama slaw.
There are some other things to avoid, as well. While there were certainly a few original flavor combinations, the not-so-sushi rolls could use some work. The ingredients in the Pittsburgh roll sound tantalizing, but the French fries, coleslaw, and crispy onions were barely distinguishable from the mouthful of dry rice they were encased in, and the steak was tough and chewy. More of the Heinz 57 sauce would have helped to get it all down.
Memories of better dishes linger for days afterward, however. Crisp fried wonton tacos stuffed with crunchy cabbage slaw and lime-marinated lobster were drool-inducing, and a preposterously addictive bowl of American fried rice delivered unexpected layers of flavor and texture with just a touch of heat from that house-made jalapeño-infused bacon.
And what would a gastropub be without the imbibing? If it's inventive cocktails you're after, try one (or all three) of the Bang cocktails, the restaurant's signature drink. Each flavor, including one with a potent moonshine base, arrives in a plastic bag with a straw, similar to the street-style serving you'll find in countries like Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia. It's an adult Capri Sun, and they go down just as easily.
While Chow tries hard to be many things at once -- an Asian jack of all trades but master of none, it's also succeeding in more ways than one. In other words, it's doing exactly what Todora wants: breathing life into Himmarshee Village. To operate in such a fickle environment, a more streamlined menu -- perhaps with a focus on the specialty dishes they've nailed -- might help make Chow the destination dining location it endeavors to be.
Chow is located at 208 SW Second St., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-523-1213, or visit facebook.com/eatatchow.
Fried chicken $8 (three pieces) to $26 (12 pieces)
American fried rice $9.50
Pittsburgh roll $12
Brussels sprouts $8
Lobster ceviche taco $9
Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.
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