Ignoring food critic Karen Brooks’s warning to avoid restaurants with an exclamation point in the name, we set out to try Kung Pow!, a brand new restaurant on Northwest 21st from the owners of Shandong on Northeast Broadway. For a neighborhood nearly devoid of Chinese food, this is a major development.
Kung Pow! strays from the Northern coastal cuisine of Shandong with Sichuan flavors, highlighted by garlic, ginger, and an arsenal of chile firepower, served under glowing red lights and a massive Chinatown mural. The sprawling menu of appetizers, soups, noodles, and protein options has a more balanced chile barometer than most Sichuan spots in town, hovering gently below incendiary with a careful use of Sichuan peppercorn and vinegar funk.
Kung Pow! does its namesake dish justice, with morsels of quickly-fried chicken tumbled with whole peanuts and ruddy chiles. The heaping plate of “honey dry” chicken wings ($8) is even better, with a super crunchy shell, acidic bite, and quiet, lingering heat. Foot-long, hand-pulled noodles don’t yet have the right elasticity, while the tough, dry wontons stuffed with napa cabbage and pork still need some work.
This isn’t the spot to transport you to Sichuan’s humid climes, or introduce you to the chile oil-bathed offal that punctuates much of the region’s kitchens, but it’s a damn fine Chinese take-out spot. With a cocktail menu playing off the zodiac (from “Pigs & Prosperity,” with baiju, coffee-flavored rum, Bailey’s, garnished with a fortune cookie to “Rafter Rat,” whiskey and a PBR), and dinner served until midnight on the weekends, Kung Pow! will undoubtedly become a go-to neighborhood spot for late-night 21st Avenue revelers.
500 NW 21st Ave