World Oriental Kitchen (W.O.K.)
Downtown. 349 King St.
Serving: Lunch and Dinner
Downtown. 86 Society St.
Serving: Lunch & Dinner
There's something about the loss of old bona fides along the King Street corridor that sours the day. The old "KGB" — that's King, George, Burns Lane for you newbies in town — is all but decimated, the venerable old Horse and Cart a distant memory whose vestiges hang on at the Upper Deck Tavern. Granny's Goodies dead and gone. The Radio Room? History. But I never thought I'd see the Chopsticks House go down. Not with its ultra-cheap counter service, and the secret little room in the back always packed with poor students and professors alike, dropping six bucks on piles of sesame chicken and pork fried rice served up by a tuxedo-clad waitress who speaks in broken English.
Gentrification is for the dogs. Charleston needs to be a bit more like Austin, Texas, where they're proud to keep it weird and local. We need a defiant cadre of guerrilla eaters who refuse to be had by the flash of slick marketers and chain barbecue. But we also need innovators, local folks who push the envelope and invent the future, as long as it tastes good.
So when I last went to get my down-and-dirty Chinese fix, I couldn't believe my eyes. Some local guy turned the oldest noodle house on the block into a whiz-bang fashionista with New York written all over it — the only familiar remnant being a ubiquitous stack of City Papers next to the front door. What was once a rundown lobby akin to the public bathroom at an interstate rest area now flows crisply with the sparkle of glass against rock and bamboo. It's an urban oasis with a window bar that puts patrons on display as they observe the street scene beyond. The side aisle leads past an open kitchen and the counter at which you order, where craft beer is on display and colorful organic fruit-infused sakes wait to be sipped, where huge exhaust fans blow a smoky torrent strong enough to ruffle your hairdo.
Forget the fact that the trendy seating area in the back could be a satellite spin-off of David Chang's Momofuku in New York, or that the place is so "green" that the college waitress didn't talk to us about the food, but rather the provenance of the soy-based seat cushioning foam under our asses and the many virtues of using multi-ply laminated sorghum stalks as a raw building material for everything from the tables to the flower boxes anchoring the rough concrete block wall. This is World Oriental Kitchen, the new W.O.K. on King Street. Very cool, very chic, very now — but the greasy smoke gets in your eyes.
It's the food that counts, right? Dishes are created with a three-step process. Pick some noodles or rice (step one, five bucks), top it with everything from shrimp or chicken to chestnuts and edamame ($1.50-2.50 each), then hit that sucker with a splash of sauce (gratis) — they've got teriyaki, General Tso, sweet and sour. You get the drift. Everything claims some wondrous buzzword pedigree: hormone-free, organic, local. It's a good concept, but they're batting .333 with me. Two out of three times, the food has been downright bad, and I'm a gracious eater, unafraid of the nasty bits. I've had burnt rice noodles, a ginger-lime sauce that lit up a bowl of lo mein like it'd been bathed in the wax of a citronella candle, and some rather acceptable black bean garlic over brown rice. The food comes in takeout boxes, and I've choked down as much as I can take alongside a cold Fat Tire brew trucked in from Colorado and left the rest for the garbage. How's that for eco-friendly?
Somehow, as I skip back past the kitchen, through the cloud of greasy wind, I miss that little doorway that used to peer into the inner workings of the Chopsticks House, where a three-foot high stack of raw chicken might be piled into a gigantic bowl on the bare floor and the click-clack din of chuan and hoak would be clattering a jangly tune. You might even see a little guy hunched down next to the dishwasher, sitting on an overturned plastic bucket and slurping down hot noodles straight from the pan. I yearn for that sticky, syrupy, cloyingly sweet rendition of General Tso's chicken, extra hot of course, and wonder which of these woks is more "real."
So I hang a right, walk two blocks to Society Street, and get my fix at the new Chopsticks House, which everyone likes now because they don't display the raw chicken anymore, the seats are so new they still have the plastic wrap on them, and they continue to serve that goopy General Tso's and the fat, breaded sweet and sour pork that got you through penniless stretches of downtown life long ago. It's much like the old, but shinier and off the beaten path (where Normandy Farm bakery used to be). They're open until midnight on the weekends, and they deliver all 145 menu items for free, which should make them a dorm room staple for years to come. You can still score lunch for under 10 bucks, and if you need help getting there from W.O.K., then the takeout menu provides a handy map with directions from the old location.
The new-and-improved version still features the old Chinese zodiac placemats (I'm a rabbit who should avoid cocks, for those wondering), dishes up crazy flashing Chinese toys with every kid's meal, and ends the whole extravaganza with a plateful of fortune cookies. But it's a new day over there. Somehow, they've removed the grit, but none of the flavor — a feast for true fans of hardcore Americanized Chinese takeout. It fits the bill nicely, from the nice warm glow of the new interior lighting to the gracious service of people who give a damn about whether you leave happy or not. And that's what it all comes down to. A good experience doesn't take flashy marketing, feel-good slogans, or slick design. It takes people who put their heart into the food. And when you can feel the love, you've found a good place to eat. W.O.K. seems to have found the right concept, but what it really needs is to find some measure of heart and soul before it can make that concept work.