Hidden behind the Mighty Taco and Black & Blue restaurants in the Williamsville Place shopping plaza, a little place called Wok & Roll is turning out some of the best Chinese food in Western New York.
I discovered Wok & Roll by picking up a flier inside Hoowa, the big Asian market at Sheridan Drive and Bailey Avenue in Amherst. It was Chinese except for the prices and the address, so I googled it and ended up on Sheridan north of Evans Road.
Like Peking Quick One of Tonawanda and Amherst’s Uncle John’s No. 1, Wok & Roll employees usually hand Americans a menu of American-Chinese dishes like General Tso’s chicken. That stuff is fine at Wok & Roll, but it’s not the main reason to go there –that’s the second menu, loaded with dim sum favorites and Cantonese.
Unlike other places, Wok & Roll not only has a website (thewokandroll.com), but has posted its Chinese menu there, titled “Cantonese dim sum, home dish, noodle soup.” (It also has a gluten-free menu.)
Cat and the kids and I have had a couple of runs at the Cantonese lineup, and there’s still at least a dozen more dishes I’d like to try. So far, my view is that this place has a cook or cooks demonstrating unusual finesse levels. We’ve enjoyed always balanced, occasionally beautiful dishes that are, at their best, worthy of a finer setting. By which I mean more swanky than a shopping plaza $5.25 lunch special mill, which is what the place looks like.
Here are the highlights so far, with numbers from the Cantonese menu:
Mini juicy pork buns (No. 3, $4.50) are six big, juicy dumplings that want to be dipped in the accompanying black vinegar with ginger. They’re the closest thing I’ve had in Western New York to the elusive Shanghaiese “soup dumpling.” Shrimp and chives dumpling (No. 8, $6.50) are fresh-tasting dumplings with garlic chives used as a vegetable for a light bite. They’re part of a 12-item dim sum menu available seven days a week.
Owner Maggie Wong said her dim sum is made in New York City and shipped in fresh weekly. Fish balls in curry sauce (No. 1, $4.95) were chewy but made kids think of fish hotdogs – a compliment. The roasted pork buns (No. 2, $3.25) are puffy white dough with a sweet pork filling, sort of like a Chinese Wonder Bread bologna sandwich, or savory angel food cake.
Cold shredded pork tripe with chili oil (No. 7, $5.50) was a good introduction to the dish, firm meat tossed with cilantro, sesame oil, carrot and bell pepper. I’d skip the honey chicken wings (No. 6, $5.95), which were just OK. Save the room.
The beef with sour cabbage (No. 36, $9.95) had slices of beef, pieces of scallion and pickled cabbage, and crunchy sour greens. I found it bracing and palate-stimulating, while others thought it just plain weird. I also liked the sourness of the pork with pickled cabbage noodle soup (No. 18, $6.25), which featured more pickles with your choice of noodles in a garlicky, porky broth.
There’s a range of casseroles on the menu, another departure. The chicken with black mushrooms (No. 34, $15.95) was a homey, heartwarming dish of tender bone-in chicken, shiitake mushrooms and scallion in a clear, gingery braising liquid. (Spicy eggplant with pork, and tofu and fish fillet are more choices.)
Crispy shrimp with walnuts (No. 56, $11.95) is a good example of dishes I’ve had problems with elsewhere. Here, the big, plump shrimp were enhanced with a crackly fried coat then slicked with a sweet mayonnaise sauce, dotted with candied walnuts and surrounded with broccoli spears. Not soggy, and not overly sweet, no mean trick for a dish that gleefully violates Western dinner-dessert boundaries.
Pork Chops Peking Style (No. 47, $14.50) was a heap of thin boneless chops that have been turned into tender yet crispy sweet jerky, with a touch of heat and scented with orange, served on cucumbers and orange slices. Gone in seconds.
When we were done with a 14-dish tour, the owner brought us a surprise: a whole lobster chopped up and stir-fried in the shell with ginger and scallions, a $16.95 special. It was delicious albeit messy, and I left wondering what other moves the chef might have.
All that said, the kids’ favorite: good ol’ boneless spare ribs, glossy candied pork bites. You can get it as a lunch special, with fried, brown or white rice, and soup, for $5.25.
Wok & Roll: 7 plates (Out of 10)
Look beyond $5 lunch specials and explore the Cantonese delights at plaza Chinese place.
WHERE: 5467 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 631-8880, thewokandroll.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Price Range: Dim sum and appetizers, $1.25-$6.50; noodles and soups, $6.50-$8.75; casseroles and entrees, $7.25-$15.95
Parking: In the lot
Wheelchair access: Yes