The first I heard of King Chinese BBQ was at a dinner party. One of the guests, Patricia, raved about the Arlington restaurant; she'd been an ardent regular there for a decade. She was so enthusiastic that I suggested we all reconvene there, and soon.
We did: for a Sunday lunch in February. We feasted – on flavorful pei-pa roast duck with magnificent lacquered skin; sticky rice with Chinese sausage and peanuts; rice noodle rolls filled with savory Chinese doughnuts; crisply fried, luscious eggplant and more. Patricia ordered most of the dishes, her favorites. I requested a couple as well, plates that were featured on a special Chinese New Year's menu (snow pea leaves with dried scallops!). Where had this restaurant been all my life?
Up went choice photos of some the dishes on my Instagram feed, when suddenly one @petey.feng jumped in with a comment: "I love this place. It reminds me of my grandmother's food every time I visit there. For me, they've got the best Cantonese bbq around Dallas."
Who was this Petey Feng?
As it turns out, he's Chih-Ming Feng, a line cook at FT33, the five-star restaurant in the Design District. He went on to rave about the "badass clay pot beef stew full of ginger, garlic, bok choy, beef belly, beef tendon. Really solid cooking from Hong Kong."
Wow! I asked whether he loved any of the restaurant's other dishes.
He mentioned a braised chicken dish; roasted pig with crackling and roasted duck; "must have" stir-fried flat rice noodles; roasted duck and wonton noodle soup and more. "Always ask the chef special of the day," he counseled, "or what is recommended and fresh in the house." He added that it's best to go with a large group in order to try "lots of interesting food" at a reasonable price.
Got it! I'd invite Feng to lunch there with friends and let him order! The number of dishes on the various menus, including a Chinese white-board menu of seasonal specials, was overwhelming, so it would be a boon to have him select the dishes.
On the day of the lunch, my husband and I show up early, and we're greeted in the parking lot by Feng, who wears an impish smile, a backward Abercrombie & Fitch cap and a tee-shirt featuring the Pink Panther in full Mayan headdress on an emperor's throne. Feng is 38 years old, but "19 at heart." He calls himself Petey, a name he adopted when he came to the U.S. from Taiwan in 2002 for his sister's wedding. He's already been inside consulting with co-owner Kai Lok, who opened the restaurant 13 years ago, and the manager about the menu.
We're joined by three of Feng's friends, all fellow cooks at FT33: pastry sous chef Rose de la Rosa; line cook Kendra Valentine; and sous-chef Justin Mosley. The four frequently eat out together on their days off, often at off-the-beaten-path spots Feng has discovered. We're also joined by two of my friends. Eight diners is just right for one of those round tables with a lazy Susan in the middle.
First comes a gorgeous platter of assorted Chinese barbecue. "Everything is on there," says Feng, pointing out the roast duck, char siu pork, crispy roasted pork, marinated pig's trotter and barbecue chicken. "Chinese barbecue is like charcuterie for us," he explains, adding that traditionally it's served with pickled vegetables (not here, though). How apt that he loves it: As garde-manger chef at FT33, he's in charge of assembling the charcuterie board (and other cold dishes).
Most Chinese barbecue around Dallas-Fort Worth is too sweet, Feng says. "This is always balanced for me." We dig in, picking up pieces of succulent pork and duck with our chopsticks: delicious. "Crispy pork is my favorite," says Feng, though he wishes it were served with the sweet and sour plum sauce you'd get with it in Taiwan; hoisin stands in just fine, though. I flipped for the cool slices of poached pork trotter, pleasantly chewy and just perfect with their gingery vinegar sauce.
After that, things go a little off script. The idea had been to eat what Feng loves to order, but somehow the management interprets that differently and winds up serving us a traditional New Year's banquet (though the lunar new year ended six weeks earlier).
We have fish-belly and crab soup (soup is normally served at the end of a banquet, but the restaurant thought we Westerners would prefer it beforehand). Then beautifully cooked shrimp on celery, snow peas and other vegetables surrounded by pillowy deep-fried milk custard. The custard is sweet, which is a little odd; it reminds pastry cook de la Rosa of mochi, sweet Japanese glutinous rice cakes.
Between courses, Feng fills us in on his background. His father grew up in a wealthy family in Shanghai; they fled to Taiwan during the Communist takeover of China in the 1940s. His grandmother helped raised him. "I was really short," he says, "and I couldn't reach the food on the Lazy Susan." She always made him a plate. "I really miss her." He was denied a visitor's visa when he came here in 2002, because of his status as retired military combat personnel (he was a sky-diver in an airborne unit). His sister suggested he enter on a student visa, so he applied to Baylor University, where he enrolled in an English-as-a-second-language program. When the program folded, he transferred to Texas Christian University, passed the TOEFL English-language exam, studied computer science for a semester, then tried software engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. But "I could not see my future doing coding," he says, and he fell into a depression, at which point his sister suggested he enroll in culinary school. He did – at the Art Institute of Dallas. When he graduated, he says, he went on to do stages (unpaid kitchen internships) with Brian Luscher (the Grape), Sharon Hage (York Street) and Jason Weaver (the French Room).
After that, says Feng, "I got into Charlie Palmer and worked all the way up from banquet to the garde manger station to sauté, sides and fish stations in about one year." Next he helped Michael Sindoni open CBD Provisions, he says, where he stayed 2 ½ years. There he learned "why the customer is very important to me as a cook, why I am only as good as my last plate presented to the window, why my station is like a small restaurant and why I am only as good as my tools."
He met FT33 chef-owner Matt McCallister, he recalls, when McCallister stopped in at Charlie Palmer to borrow the kitchen for a pop-up event.
"I knew I wanted to work for this guy one day. I was not doing great as a leader in management at CBD, and I felt I needed to start over to learn more." He did a stage at FT33 and was eventually hired. "It has been the best career choice for me in my short culinary life."
Ah, the next course lands: the "badass" clay pot! On the menu as Beef Tendon and Beef Brisket in Hot Pot ($10.99), it's similar to a beef stew his mom makes. "This is very close to my heart," he says. "I have to take a picture." (Yes, our table is sort of Instagram-happy.) I find the rich, star-anise-perfumed braised beef, with chunks of slippery tendon that might challenge less adventurous diners, to be super-tender, flavorful and soulful. Feng seems to enjoy it, though he's a little subdued. A couple days later Feng tells me in a note that he was "a bit disappointed." Stew, he says, needs to rest overnight and he didn't think this one did. To him it was "not tender enough and needed more love to develop deeper flavor. I guess they did a fresh batch for us and as a result it does not shine."
The next dish, a new chef's special - King Special Stir-Fry - turns out to be the crowd favorite (including mine): fish balls, fried tofu and tiny dried shrimp with peanuts and a lot of fresh garlic chives. (Feng later calls it "surprisingly delightful.") Thin hand-pulled egg noodles follow, loaded with seafood, baby bok choy and char siu pork. Feng, who has long loved the noodles here, was delighted to learn that all are hand-made, including thin rice noodles, which he says are difficult to master. The seafood, vegetables and pork sit on a nest of the egg noodles that's crisp on the outside, he explains, and soft on the inside: He mixes it all up for us so we get soft and crunchy noodles in each bite.
The stream of dishes seems endless: shiitakes with bok choy; pan-fried egg white and seafood with broccoli; a whole steamed bass with scallions and cilantro; fried seafood (like a Chinese fritto misto, as Feng describes it); sizzling beef with bell peppers.
It's way more food than Feng would normally order. Nevertheless, we demolish most of it, sipping chrysanthemum tea and oolong all the while. At some point - maybe when the bass lands - my husband quips that he wishes we could have a beer; we have assumed the restaurant doesn't sell it. But it does! Tsing Taos all around! And then fortune cookies. The bill, before tip, for the eight of us: $213.73, less than $27 per person, including the beer.
I can't exactly judge the cooking as a critic, as restaurant staff knew in advance we were coming (we had to make sure they did not mind having a videographer and photographer there). I will say that it was all very good. Feng and I concurred on what was excellent (the King Special, the barbecue, the fried seafood). I suspect we would have enjoyed it even more if we had flown under the radar; sometimes trying too hard can stymie one's best efforts.
Will I be back? You bet. I'll have a cheat sheet of Feng's faves in my hot little hand.