The next generation updates Wang’s with artisan cocktails, fusion plates, and Taiwanese home-cooking.
photographs by Justin Fox Burks
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Lisa Ansley, the powerhouse behind East Tapas and Drinks in Park Place Plaza, grew up at Wang’s Mandarin House, her family’s much-loved restaurant located next door. She was a toddler in 1982 when her mother, uncle, and a team of chefs from New York City’s Chinatown introduced Memphis to such long-standing crowd-pleasers as orange beef and sesame chicken plated with pretty garnishes.
At home, Ansley’s grandmother ran the kitchen, turning out Taiwanese home-cooking like scallion pancakes, spicy cucumbers, and piping hot noodle soup with vegetables, pickled cabbage, and shredded pork. “She would never let me cook, because she was afraid I’d burn the kitchen down,” Ansley recalls. “So before I went to college, I made her teach me how to make all her dishes.”
A natural cook like her uncle David Wang (“He is the best Chinese chef I have ever met,” she says), Ansley later translated her grandmother’s intuitive approach into a cookbook of recipes she gives away as wedding gifts. Meanwhile, at college and work, she embraced culinary trends from friends and travel, layering her Taiwanese palate with international diversity.
Still, Ansley’s role in the family restaurant was fortuitous, not planned. She earned a degree in finance, worked in East Coast cities, and returned to Memphis, where she now works with Morgan Stanley. But when Wang’s, the city’s perennial favorite for best Chinese food, was ready to expand, she jumped in to help, convincing her mother, Shelly Ansley, to offer a medley of fusion plates built around artisan cocktails, bourbon flights, and about three dozen wines, both boutique and mainstream.
For me, small plate and cocktail menus can be tricky to navigate, but an informed staff at East made ordering easy. On one of my first visits, I asked for a cocktail that was neither sweet nor too fruity. A few minutes later, my server delivered a powerful Vesper. The restaurant’s nod to agent James Bond combined gin, vodka, and lemon juice lightened with Lillet, a refreshing break from vermouth, the drink’s typical mixer.
On subsequent visits servers got it right again, recommending the La Boheme, a blend of muddled orange, St. Germaine, grapefruit juice, and gin, and a glass of Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc, a bright and zesty Sauvignon Blanc that smells like orange blossoms. The wine readied my enthusiasm for Kung Pao chicken pizza, an inventive marriage of Kung Pao sauce, chicken, peanuts, and mozzarella.
Open for two years, East Tapas is lively but comfortable, with pendant lighting, rich burgundy walls, and a central bar surrounded by four-tops. Drinks still steer the menu, but food shares a starring role. With help from her husband Rob Clapper, who is also an accomplished cook, Ansley updates hot and cold plates about every six months.
Some customer favorites, however, are permanent, and with good reason. The sensational guacamole is one of the very best takes in town, and the oven-baked mac and cheese, a collaborative recipe between Ansley and Clapper, sets a new standard. (She developed the sour cream and four-cheese blend. He updated the dish with a white truffle oil finish.)
Other plates at East are equally good. Try kimchee cold noodles, bacon-wrapped olives with smoked aioli, sashimi-grade tuna plated like a pinwheel with Ponzu glaze, or four jumbo shrimp, curtseyed on a bed of shredded cabbage with raindrops of honey-fire sauce, a signature contribution from Wang’s.
Chef Andrew Kratzke also is turning sushi into an emerging star. Don’t miss his soft-shell crab, deep-fried, quartered, and dressed with chili garlic sauce, cubes of mango, and green shiso, an Asian herb much like mint. Better yet, sit at the sushi bar and let Kratzke’s spontaneous inventions direct sushi choices.
Since the family’s two restaurants share chefs and kitchen, customers at either restaurant can order sushi or dishes from three different menus: small plates from East, traditional Chinese entrees from Wang’s such as my favorite Happy Family, or Taiwanese café dishes from “A Little Taste of China.” Sometimes, servers forget to offer the café menu, so be sure to ask. (It’s the one written in Chinese.) Offering 14 choices priced $8 or less, the dishes showcase Ansley’s cherished home-cooking, offering noodle bowls, braised beef shank, and cold noodles with sesame sauce.
“I would always ask the chefs at Wang’s to make these dishes for me,” Ansley says, explaining two of her favorites: noodles topped with minced pork in hoisin and bean sauce and pan-fried marinated pork chops served over rice. “I thought if I enjoyed these dishes, then our customers would too.”
Fortunately, two of Wang’s original chefs, Ta Chen and Hun Tung, are back in the kitchen, and they plan to stay until Shelly and David decide to retire. That may not happen.
“My mother’s been threatening to retire for years, but she and my uncle will never walk away from the restaurant,” Ansley says. “They are a great team, and they love what they do.”
Pamela Denney is food editor of Memphis magazine and writes the blog Memphis Stew at memphismagazine.com/blogs/memphis-stew.