Fed Fast

Hot Wok serves up tasty, inexpensive food quickly—but don't expect service with a smile

First off: Hot Wok Asian Bistro is not a bistro. The word "bistro" conjures up an evening in a quiet, intimate setting; comfortable conversation that stretches over several hours; and hand-crafted food from a tiny kitchen in the back.

Hot Wok has none of these things. The room is far from quiet; there is sort of an open kitchen, and the room is filled with plastic-topped tables. The floors are tiled, and the walls to the outside are all windows; there's nothing to absorb the clatter of all that wok-cooking coming from the kitchen. The tables seem to turn over at a steady pace, so I doubt there are many long, comfortable conversations at Hot Wok. In fact, you barely have time to settle in before your food arrives.

No matter; Hot Wok, which offers a mix of Asian cuisines, is a popular place. On the night we dined there, most of the tables were full, and there was a steady stream of customers picking up dinner to-go. There are good reasons for this: The food is inexpensive and, for the most part, tasty.

The menu choices are numerous, with offerings from different parts of Asia—although most of it is Chinese, at least as we Americans know it. The choices are listed on the wall along with big, bright photos of just about every item, so you get an idea of what to expect.

We sampled the Hot Wok egg rolls (95 cents, or four for $2.95), crispy green beans ($3.95) and Hot Wok beef ribs ($4.95) as appetizers. Our entrées included beef with pan-fried noodles ($6.95), black-pepper chicken ($5.95), pad Thai ($6.95) and kung pao shrimp ($6.95). The servings, including the appetizers, are good-sized—and leftovers are almost a given.

Everything arrives at the table piping- hot, albeit one dish at a time. And here, the service must be mentioned: The food was unceremoniously plunked on the table without a smile or howdy-do. (In fact, the cashier didn't even make eye contact.) When food is brought to the table in such a hurried manner, diners feel rushed, and almost unwelcome. Why not smile or have someone pass by the table to see how diners are doing? There's surely a better way to serve the food than to plop it on the table and rush off.

The egg rolls, although served sizzling, were merely OK, in part because they were a bit greasy. The green beans, served with a kicked-up mayo sauce, also failed to impress. (It must be noted that both tasted much better the next day while eating them cold. I think the chill allowed the flavors to come out.)

The beef-rib appetizer could easily have been an entrée. Four big, meaty ribs were cooked in a sweet and smoky sauce. That sauce was delicious, although there was too much of it. The ribs were tasty and nicely charred, but could have used a little more time in the oven, because they were unevenly cooked—tender one bite, chewy the next.

Entrées were hit-and-miss. The pan-fried beef-noodle dish looked good—it was a plate full of noodles topped with stir-fried vegetables and pieces of beef. But it also had too much sauce, which made the noodles soggy.

The black-pepper chicken fared better. A huge mound of white rice was served alongside good-sized bites of tender, battered chicken. The sauce was rich and thick, and heavy on the hoisin. Serving rice on the side worked nicely, because it didn't get soggy under all that sauce.

The shrimp in the kung pao was perfectly cooked. It, too, came with lots of white rice on the side.

The pad Thai was probably the best of the entrées we sampled. It contained both shrimp and pork. While it could've used a bit more tamarind tang, it would certainly satisfy any craving for this wonderful dish.

Hot Wok isn't the kind of restaurant that you'd drive across town for, but were it in my neighborhood, I would keep it on my list of places to enjoy a decent, inexpensive meal.