John Liu takes his Sichuan crispy beef very seriously. "I personally eat it at many places," he says. "They cook it American-style but it doesn't come out right.
"Sometimes," he continues, "you can overcook and it has a burned flavor. If I serve it that way, you're going to come back and tell me, 'Hey John, I want my money back. I don't want to eat charcoal.' This crispy beef Sichuan, you have to have a very good chef, very skilled."
Mr. Liu thinks he has found such a "very good chef, very skilled" -- just the right person for the delicate crispy beef -- in Cheng Yu Huang, his partner in their new restaurant, First Wok, located in Glenmont Towers off Loch Raven Boulevard in Towson.
Mr. Huang has had 19 years of experience as a chef in Taiwan and, according to Mr. Liu, was given the designation "Excellent Chef" by the government of Taiwan.
They came together last year. "He was looking for somebody nTC could handle the dining room at the same time I was looking for somebody could handle the kitchen, and a friend of mine knew a friend of his and we got together," Mr. Liu says.
Together they have transformed the space that originally housed the Tom Jones restaurant from a dark and gloomy steak house into a bright white-with-burgundy restaurant with an ambitious Chinese menu that includes Mandarin, Sichuan and Hunan dishes.
The restaurant seats 100 people in a dining room divided into several areas. The restaurant had been closed for nearly a year when Mr. Liu took it over. He completely repainted the dining room and gutted the kitchen, putting in all new equipment.
All of the food is made from scratch at the restaurant, even the egg rolls and won tons. "We have crab Rangoon, which is crab meat and cream cheese wrapped up in won ton and deep fried. It's a little different. Very popular," Mr. Liu says.
Monosodium glutamate is used only lightly in a very few dishes, he says. "The chef makes his own broth, almost like a concentrated soup broth, so dishes come out even better than if you put MSG on them."
The menu is an extensive one offering some unusual things. There are nine soups, for instance, including baby shrimp with sizzling rice soup, vegetable delight soup, and seafood and chicken soup, in addition to the traditional things like won ton soup and hot and sour soup.
Entrees include sesame chicken, steamed or crispy whole fish, kung pao scallops, Peking duck, crispy eggplant, seafood combination, crispy chicken, General Tso's chicken, lobster with ginger and scallion, shrimp with black bean sauce, bare palm bean curd, Sichuan beef, sesame shrimp, "happy family" with seafood plus chicken and beef, sizzling sha-cha steak, and braised duck with four treasures.
One of the special dishes at the restaurant is Taiwan crispy duck. "That's new in this area. Once they eat this duck, they
want it again."
Mr. Liu has owned several local restaurants over the past decade -- the Captain's Table in St. Mary's County, the Center Restaurant on Charles Street and the Fung Wong Chinese Restaurant on York Road. After he sold the last of these restaurants in 1987, he got into real estate for a few years, then recently decided to return to the restaurant business.
Mr. Huang was at the Bamboo Garden in Frederick and the China Dragon restaurant in Eldersburg before joining Mr. Liu at First Wok.
They offer carryout and an inexpensive fixed price early-bird dinner for two from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. (except holidays).
Private parties can be arranged for from 30 to 120 people.
The restaurant is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays.
First Wok is located at 6920 Donachie Road in the Glenmont Towers apartment building. The telephone numbers are 296-1688 or 296-1689.
If you miss that old fern bar atmosphere, you'll feel right at home the new Pat and Mike's restaurant, a slick new restaurant and bar on Kenilworth Avenue in Towson.
The menu has a wide assortment of soups, burgers, steaks, chicken and fish dishes, salads and pastas, plus baby back ribs and prime rib.
The restaurant seats 300 people in a high-ceilinged dining room with lots of plants and exposed wood framework.
Pat and Mike's is owned by a corporation that also has another Pat and Mike's in Gaithersburg and Oscar Taylor's in Rockville.
The hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays to Wednesdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays and 11:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays.
Pat and Mike's is located at 720 Kenilworth Ave. The telephone number is 821-9303.
One of the best cookbooks of the season, "The Taste of Summer" (Bantam, $14), by Diane Rossen Worthington, has just been released in paperback.
Ms. Worthington, also the author of "The Cuisine of California," seems to be able to pull off a really neat trick by creating recipes that are incredibly imaginative while at the same time still somewhat simple to make.
Here is a recipe for grilled swordfish that makes something special out of ingredients (except the swordfish, of course) that you might already have in the kitchen. You might also want to try using the marinade for baked fish as well.
Spicy citrus-grilled swordfish
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons natural rice vinegar
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped scallions
3 tablespoons safflower oil
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
a few drops of hot pepper oil
4 swordfish steaks, 1/3 to 1/2 pound, no more than 1 inch thick
Whisk the marinade ingredients together in a medium bowl until blended.
In a large, shallow, non-aluminum dish, arrange the fish steaks and pour the marinade over. Marinate for 1/2 to 2 hours in the refrigerator.
Prepare the barbecue for medium-heat grilling. Remove the fish from the marinade and grill about 3 inches from the flame for 4 to 5 minutes on each side or until desired doneness. Serve immediately.