Wok 28: Getzville Chinese + East Amherst's Samurai, Updated

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Wok 28
1634 Hopkins Rd., Getzville, NY 14221
Phone: 716.636.0597
Rating:    [learn more]
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Only a handful of Chinese restaurants in Western New York are actually known outside their immediate neighborhoods, and then, the almost complete disappearance of truly distinctive places - the semi-fancy New York, N.Y. and Rita's Crystal Palace, or even nice budget spots like the former standout Five-Star Chinese Buffet - has left non-descript take-out joints to dominate Buffalo and its suburbs. Wok 28 is amongst them: astonishingly ranked #2 of all Getzville restaurants on Urbanspoon, the place is visually indistinguishable from the China Kings, China Maxes, and myriad other chalk white-walled take-out places that dot the local landscape. Before you read further, know up front that we're not going to try and tell you that Wok 28 is going to blow your mind, because it's not.

In fact, after seeing the place at the Hopkins Square Plaza and catching a whiff of pizza from the small Bocce's location a few doors down, we briefly thought about changing our dinner plans. Once in the door, the only thing that might charm some people - and turn off others - is the smell of hot wok oil in the kitchen, which is largely visible from the small dining area. Maps of the town hang behind the counter and cash register, presumably to aid in deliveries rather than to serve as decor, and white paper signs on the windows and walls add french fries, a few eggplant dishes, and tofu to the extremely familiar paper menus. Someone walked in from outside just to order the french fries when we were there; it's not the type of thing we're accustomed to seeing happen at Chinese restaurants.

But there were plenty of other people coming in and out, too. By the time we'd finished eating our meal, more than a dozen take-out orders had been fulfilled, with obviously repeat patrons stopping in and immediately reciting their phone numbers to claim their bags of food. Why so busy? Everything on the menu, with the exception of literally one $10.50 dish, sells for less than $10. That includes 23 Chef's Specials - duck, seafood, and multi-meat plates - plus all of the other take-out items you'd expect to find at a Chinese place around here, many in sub-$5 pint-sized portions and $6-9 large portions. Moreover, Wok 28 was putting the sort of fresh-outta-the-wok sort of stuff into those bags that still tastes hot when you get it home. Gourmet Chinese? No. No way. Not even Gin Gin level. But roughly on par with the Chinese half of Red Pepper's menu, and a full two steps on the food chain up from China King. The menu might as well be the same, but the preparation and proportion of ingredients at Wok 28 is better, particularly for the prices.

Take, for instance, the Happy Family ($9.75), a dish we routinely use for testing Chinese take-outs because the recipe's fairly easy - meats, seafood, and vegetables woked with brown sauce - but the pricing and ingredients separate the good places from the bad ones. Wok 28's version was topped with lobster claw meat and packed with significant portions of good shrimp, scallops, sliced beef, chicken, and fine pork, plus a bunch of broccoli, snow peas, and bok choy. That it was heavier on meat than vegetables and so well appointed in the seafood category was a positive reflection on its other dishes, which similarly arrived very well-balanced in the meat department. Moo Shu Beef ($8.15) had numerous large slices of meat rather than an overwhelming quantity of sliced cabbage, and a General Tso's Chicken ($8.75) was pretty close to right in the meat to batter department: unlike China King, which uses mediocre chicken and heavy batter coatings, Wok 28's pieces were on the small but good side of quality, and tasted more like meat than coating. And they cost less, too.

This isn't to say that the flavors at Wok 28 were amazing; they weren't. There was nothing standout in any of the dishes - a Seafood Delight Soup ($2.95/pint), for instance, had fair portions of shrimp, scallop, and imitation crab pieces, plus sliced vegetables, but most of the bowl was a thickened white egg broth that wasn't worth finishing. Thanks to a lack of big chili peppers, the General Tso's Chicken was more of an Orange Chicken, sweet and citrusy, than powerfully spiced; only small pepper flecks were obvious in its sauce. And the rest of the items we tried, including a simple pint of Vegetable Lo Mein ($3.25), were similar: what you'd expect from a good enough Chinese take out, no more, no less.

Clearly, the quality and pricing are a strong enough combination to make Wok 28 a popular neighborhood take-out restaurant, and if we lived nearby, we'd probably be regulars, too - a Chinese meal doesn't need to be gourmet-quality in order to satisfy at this price level. That said, we'd love to see places like Wok 28 follow the Uncle John's model and offer more authentic dishes as alternatives to the main menu. This area clearly doesn't lack for Americanized Chinese options, or take-outs, and as easy as it may have been for Wok 28 to add french fries to its menu, Western New York would surely benefit more from greater culinary diversity.

Wok 28 on Urbanspoon

The balance of this article contains an update to our prior review of East Amherst's Samurai, a Japanese restaurant that earned a 1.5-star rating in 2008. We watched as Samurai made significant improvements to its menu, personnel, and preparation throughout 2009, and after two follow-up visits to verify that the changes weren't just temporary, we felt that an update to the prior review was warranted. The following text and eight new photos have been added to the earlier article:

Though the venue's decor remains the same, personnel changes are obvious from the servers to the sushi bar, as are tweaks to the food. Samurai's prior tendencies towards over-saucing dishes are thankfully gone, and the escolar previously served as "white tuna" has been replaced, with a number of changes to the menu. We've replaced all of the photos from our original review, and are adding two paragraphs of new text below.

Our updated 2.5-star rating is based more substantially on Samurai's generally good sushi than other items on the menu, which we'd describe as ranging from fair to good. A Pork Dumpling Soup consisted of three steamed gyoza floating in a chicken broth with sliced green beans and mushrooms - plain and unimpressive - while a Coconut Chicken Corn Soup was a milky, chowder-like broth that mixed chunks of corn with a Thai coconut-style soup and few small pieces of chicken meat, satisfying two people who ordered it. Items in a Chicken Teriyaki Bento Box, interestingly offered at night when many Japanese places sell it only at lunch time, were generously proportioned and generally good, with a surprisingly large portion of tempura - including two big shrimp - in the lacquered black and red box. An appetizer of Soft Shell Crab initially impressed with the large size of the battered and fried crabs, which were pre-sliced and served with a chili dipping sauce, but the meat was almost spoiled from having been in the freezer too long. This is a risk of ordering soft shell crab off-season, but a reason that quality-conscious places don't serve it year-round.

Sushi and sashimi were, however, almost consistently good: not the freshest we've had in the area, but solid. Tuna pieces were thicker than they look from our photo, and every piece of fish sushi and sashimi was at least acceptably tasty, including a piece of sea urchin that didn't look like much when it arrived, but tasted fresh. Rolls were okay: a California Roll was better than an Asparagus Roll, which was stuffed with three nearly flavorless, chewy pieces of asparagus and wasn't worth finishing. Desserts were mixed: the inexpensive Mochi Ice Cream (spelled Moche on the menu) consisted of two standard frozen rice and green tea ice cream balls, cut in half and served with whipped cream - fine - while a Fried Banana dessert was a somewhat elaborately decorated but muddled mix of strawberries and bananas inside a deep-fried tempura shell. Fried Ice Cream surprisingly arrived as a flambe with a long-burning alcohol that produced blue flames for minutes - too long, really - charring the already fried tempura-covered ball of chocolate ice cream. All of the desserts were fine. Though we couldn't call Samurai a real local standout in any way, it has recovered from a very weak start to become a good restaurant that is stronger at sushi than other items. On the edge of 2.25- and 2.5-star ratings, we'd go with 2.5 given the extremely sushi- and sashimi-heavy menu, which you can stray from with greater risks.

Samurai on Urbanspoon

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