As recommendations go, hearing indirectly from four mainland Chinese kids new to this country that Chinese Iron Wok is their favorite place to eat got plenty of extra points for authority from me. I had to check it out.
Their Seekonk location closed, but not before cloning off another place in Providence, which is where I explored their menu a bit. Owner Tom Liang used to run the Chinese food truck you might have seen around town, but he traded that in for this RISD- and Brown-convenient location on Benevolent Street.
We were taken to the roomy upstairs dining area, since downstairs is for evening overflow only. Plenty of windows let the light flood in for customers, but at the expense of accessibility for the disabled.
I had heard that the place was very friendly but rather flaky, service-wise. That was apparent immediately when a simple request for a wine-by-the-glass list to both the host and waiter resulted in communication breakdown confusion that only ended when I accepted the white wine they suggested. Fortunately, it was Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, so no harm, no foul.
Perusing the menu found prices somewhat high, compared to other Chinese restaurants as informal as this one — $9.50 for pad Thai, for instance, though meat dishes remain in the teens.
But, after all, value is as value does. And when our starters succeeded, other concerns receded. The 20 appetizer possibilities offered numerous temptations. I had been warned that their scallion pancakes ($4) were too dry, so I didn't want to test them. There were also a Sichuan-style vegetable salad ($6) and soup dumplings ($4-$6), but the latter wasn't available. For authenticity diehards, there is the hard-to-find (for good reason) beef tendon as well as beef shin ($9 each).
I had to choose cold sesame noodles ($6), a big favorite of mine, and couldn't have been more pleased. The dish is sometimes scanty on the chief flavor, but these fat wheat noodles were swimming in a puddle of sauce, mostly peanut but with some tahini for the title flavor. Our second choice was another winner, listed as steamed vegetable ravioli ($6), six fat green half-moons with some unfamiliar chopped ingredients in the vegetable filling.
My vegetarian hot and sour soup ($3/$4) was among more than a dozen soups, five in cup as well as bowl portions. It was dense with ingredients and had nicely balanced flavor.
On the specials board, a peaches and shrimp main dish made me lick my chops. But that was left on the list before the kitchen realized it had no peaches. The offering was quickly removed.
Tellingly, among the 17 chef's specials, only five have a little red chili pepper next to them. In that category, I considered having the un-spicy tea-smoked half-duck ($17), but chose chili pepper chicken and beef ($14) and didn't regret the decision. The meat component was abundant as were a variety of vegetables, predominantly green bell pepper in the tasty dish.
The sauces on that and the other two main dishes we had looked identical — slightly thickened and with red pepper flakes — but all tasted different, according to the ingredients they were merging with. The sautéed fish fillet ($14) was composed of small, thinner-than-usual pieces of cod, to maximize the batter-fried flavor. Halved baby bok choy surrounded the pile. Johnnie wanted the house-style tofu ($9); the lightly floured and fried triangles were accompanied by broccoli and carrots, mainly. Other tofu possibilities included Shanghai cabbage, with broccoli, curried, crispy, or in a Sichuan dish called mapo tofu, which has small pieces tossed with chili sauce.