Monday, December 3, 2018

Quick Bite: Monkey King

What exactly is Monkey King? A lot of things, it seems: A cocktail bar, a dim sum spot, and a pan-Asian restaurant. It's cool, trendy, and just about the least authentic place you can go for some Chinese food. Amy and I decided to venture into the wilds of the Gaslamp Quarter this past week to try it out.

The interior is decorated in a funky jungle theme, complete with mock trees above the central bar and a "no evil" monkeys motif. Since it was a quiet Wednesday, we were immediately seated in a comfy side booth without any problem.

The most exciting culinary flourish of the night came right at the beginning. They put down a plate of crispy fried wonton skins and what looked from the texture like one of those cloyingly sweet chile sauces. I was surprised, though, to find that a bright and unusual blend of flavors somewhere between a sweet red chile sauce and a salsa. It sounds bizarre, but it was actually the perfect balance of tangy and slightly sweet with a spicy kick. When I inquired, the waiter explained that it was their house mézé (?) sauce, a pomegranate base blended with herbs, Fresno chiles and white wine vinegar. Weird, yet wonderful.

Our drinks were tasty though not too unusual. Amy's Salt Collins was, as advertised, a bit salty from the salted plum-infused rum, but was otherwise very much a Tom Collins, right down to the touches of citrus. The Mai Tai I had was tropical and classic, with a tinge of almondy orgeat in the aftertaste.

Since we changed our appetizer order from calamari to hamachi sashimi. The tender slices were laid in a base of ginger soy and topped with a basic seaweed salad and red chiles. It was fairly simple yet mouthwateringly good, layered with toasted sesame and a heaping dose of heat.

Cashew chicken isn't exciting to look at
so here's hamachi instead.
The entrées weren't bad, but seemed to be stuck in a creative rut. My cashew chicken was lightly spicy and a little sweet, with cashews toasted to bring out their nutty flavor. I appreciated the delicately sautéed scallions and the fresh crunch of water chestnut. Nothing much to complain about, but then, nothing to rave about either. Amy's honey lemongrass chicken was, in a word, boring. That's not to say it was flavorless—it was mildly honey-sweet with strong onion overtones—just that it was lacking in complexity. Even the lemongrass was MIA.

There are certainly dishes to like at Monkey King, but it seems the optimal strategy is to skip the too-conventional entrées and double down on the drinks and dim sum (which, really, is just their word for appetizers). And put that sauce on everything, because why not?

Score: 6.5 out of 10 (Good)

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