Co-Owner and manager, Yi Peng, explained to me how he and Steve Liu started the WOW Barbecue food truck some time in 2013 that featured Chinese street food (BBQ skewers) as its staple cuisine. The truck’s popularity and success allowed them to expand and open two restaurants – one in Malden, MA and one in Brookline, MA. On this occasion, my wife and I were graciously invited to try their Brookline location called, “Wu Er.”
The name, “Wu Er,” means “one of a kind,” in Chinese. As a native English-speaker, I pronounced the name as two words sounding like, “Woo Air.” Mr. Peng pronounced the name quickly for me almost like one word, which sounded like, “Ware.” He then sped up the pronunciation for me and I started to hear the word, “Wow.” Basically, they called their food truck “WOW Barbecue,” because that’s what it sounds like in English when “Wu Er” is pronounced quickly. They then took the actual spelling of the name and assigned it as the name of their Brookline location once they established a loyal following.
I didn’t know what to expect from Chinese BBQ or from the varied menu featuring a wide array of skewers, small plates, and larger entrees. All I knew for sure is that the menu was unlike any Chinese restaurant I visited in the Boston area. The owners are well aware that their food is different than what most people in the Boston area would associate with Chinese food, but that is exactly why it fills a void.
Wu Er by WOW Barbecue
320 Washington St.
Brookline, MA 02445
Phone: (617) 566-8858
(plus locations in Malden, MA and soon to be in Providence, RI)
Service and Atmosphere
From the outside, Wu Er in Brookline, MA is actually a little hard to find. The only indication of the restaurant’s presence are the words “Bar & Grill” over the receded doorway inside a brick arched entrance. Inside, the bar is to the right amid a modern, clean, and yet mildly still Chinese inspired decor with black, red, and gray as the primary color scheme.
Left of the bar are some tables set up with benches and chairs. In the back, there is more booth style seating in a more dimly lit part of the restaurant. We sat across from the bar and really enjoyed the scene because it felt private when other diners showed up, but we could still people watch around us. The service is friendly, attentive, and our server helped us to not only understand the menu, but she gave us some key recommendations for what to order.
Even though Wu Er and WOW Barbecue are Chinese restaurants, they don’t limit themselves to that one cuisine type. Instead, Wu Er draws from other cultural inspirations with flavors inspired by Japanese, Indian, and American cuisines. Often, this kind of cuisine fusion can result in confusion on the menu, however, Wu Er does a fantastic job of blending styles to produce original dishes while staying true to their Chinese roots.
Cocktails – The New Frontier – I started my experience at Wu Er with a signature cocktail featuring tequila, thai chili, lime, and garam masala (an Indian spice mix). The first sip tasted like a wrestling match between Mexican and Indian flavors, which was weird, but in a really good way. It goes in tasting like a margarita, but goes down tasting like Indian food and yet somehow it totally works. It might not be for everyone, but the originality of the cocktail is in line with the type of thinking behind the dishes at Wu Er.Fried Dough with Glaze – The beginning of our meal started with a complimentary serving of dense fried dough in a sweet sugary glaze. Rarely do Americans start a meal with a sweet dessert-like dish, so this is probably great for anyone looking to have dessert before dinner. The dough was fried very nicely, but was also very dense. I was careful to taste it without eating the whole thing right away so as not to ruin my appetite. Saving some for later was nice because I could break up the savory flavors of the meal if I wanted to later.
Lamb Skewers – Our server recommended the lamb skewers as her favorite skewer. I’m glad we took her advice because this turned out to be my favorite skewer as well. The owner and manager explained to me that their approach for this skewer is to grill lean lamb meat, but to place pieces of fat in between the pieces of meat. This allows the fat to flavor the meat while also providing a contrast in texture that would be hard to achieve with just a fattier cut of meat. The skewers were tender and grilled perfectly and had a simple delicious flavor. They came with a side of carrot hummus, dill yogurt, and a chili dip. Each dip had a unique blend of flavors that all changed the profile of the skewers completely. I enjoyed the yogurt dill, but found the chili dip to have a strangely interesting coffee flavor to it as well. While the skewers don’t need the dips, they do allow you to change the flavors as much or as little as you like.
Specialty Skewers – Pork Belly, Chicken Gizzard, Shitake Mushroom, Sausage – If the standard skewers of beef, lamb, and chicken are not adventurous enough for you, then the specialty skewers are worth a try. There are a variety of different meats ranging from sausage to pork belly to chicken gizzards as well as some vegetarian options like shitake mushrooms or tofu among others. The specialty skewers all have a specific dry rub applied to them consisting of various spices including a strong presence of cumin. The cumin is not a spice I generally associate with Chinese cuisine, so it was a different experience for me. This is perhaps the Mongolian and Northwestern Chinese flavor influence. The rub is very strong in flavor, so it can overpower some of the more delicate meats like the pork belly. It did go well with the mushrooms and sausage though. My personal recommendation is to try the specialty skewers mostly for fun texture variations with a striking spice combination, but go for the standard beef, lamb, and chicken skewers to showcase the meat.
Eggplant – I absolutely loved this cold eggplant small plate and, truth be told, I generally don’t even like eggplant all that much. This dish featured an almost mashed eggplant mixed with soy sauce, vinegar, scallion, thai chili, and perhaps some yuzu. We found the coolness of the dish extremely refreshing along with the citrus notes and chili flavors. I was completely surprised that the eggplant wasn’t bitter at all and didn’t have any skin on, which was a brilliant choice. I would highly recommend this surprisingly incredible dish.
Tiger Shrimp with Chorizo – The creamy sauce flavored with shrimp and chorizo that accompanied this dish along with the soft toasted garlic bread actually outshone the shrimp! I could have eaten just the sauce with some bread and considered this a successful fish. The tiger shrimp were a little on the small side for tiger shrimp and unfortunately had the entire shell still on. I felt that the dish tasted wonderfully, but the mechanics of eating it made for a very messy experience requiring us to ask for a stack of paper napkins to deal with messy hands covered in sauce. If the shrimp were just peeled or at least just had the tails on, this dish would be much more successful in terms of pure execution. Despite that, the combination of flavors as well as the sauce were delicious.
Teriyaki Steak with Udon Noodles – Another surprising dish to find on the menu of a Chinese restaurant was this teriyaki steak over udon noodles, which was much more Japanese than Chinese. Regardless, I really enjoyed this dish and even though I was very full at this point, I couldn’t help myself from digging in. The meat had a nice simple preparation with some mild teriyaki notes and the perfectly toothsome udon noodles contrasted nicely with the crunchy cabbage. I would easily recommend this entree.
Wu Er by WOW Barbecue is a great addition to Boston because it provides another take on traditional Chinese cuisine that features dishes inspired from flavors found in other cultures. The unique street food style of the Chinese barbecue skewers is what made their food truck popular, but it’s the rest of the menu at Wu Er that gives diners a true sense of their culinary skill. I would easily recommend Wu Er to anyone seeking a delicious yet different style of Chinese food that ties in traditional street food with inspired regional dishes.
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