As soon as Jeng Tong Vue learned to walk and talk, his mother taught him how to make rice. It’s his earliest memory.
“Every single morning she would wake me up,” Vue said. “I didn’t really know how to start the fire, but I knew how to make rice.”
These days, Vue is making rice — white, brown and fried — on a grand scale at his new Monona restaurant, Jeng’s Asian Kitchen, which he opened Dec. 9 in the former Salad Creations, which some may remember before that as Rosario’s.
Vue, 33, who is Hmong, is the oldest of eight children born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and was responsible for cooking for the family. He left the refugee camp for Madison when he was 9.
He runs Jeng’s with wife Jamie Xiong, 22. Vue works the kitchen, while Xiong takes orders at the cash register and delivers food to the tables.
Vue is bothered that many customers assume he serves Chinese food, when his menu is instead his own, influenced by Chinese, Thai and Japanese cooking.
I visited one recent weeknight between Christmas and New Year’s, when the restaurant was fairly quiet and found nearly everything I tried worth ordering again.
That was particularly true of the “signature” egg rolls (two for $2.75) with vegetables, egg, tiny bits of pork, and cellophane noodles. What made them stand out was their thin, super-crispy skins, even if they were fairly greasy.
The cream cheese wontons (three for $3.25, six for $5.69) were unusually large, but with a limited amount of filling. The homemade sweet and sour sauce served with both appetizers was a startling red-pink color, yet it tasted better than most.
In terms of entrees, my favorite was the “Wild Mongolian” ($6.19 to $8.25, depending on size and protein type) with a brown sweet and spicy sauce. Its perfect sweet-spicy balance was enhanced by mushrooms, garlic, white onions and green onions. It can be ordered with chicken, beef, shrimp or tofu, and I chose tofu, which was deep-fried before being stir-fried to give its edges a nice crispness.
Another dish that had the right sweet-spicy thing going on was the Thai coconut curry ($6.19 to $8.25), though its neon yellow sauce was concerning at first. We ordered it with shrimp, and were given a generous portion. The dish also held a good mix of vegetables, but more bamboo shoots than I knew what to do with.
The chicken teriyaki ($7.69) also impressed, with a large portion of dark-meat chicken cut into long, but manageable pieces. (If you want white meat you need to specify). There was plenty of sauce, but it could have used more broccoli.
Each of our entrees came with a choice of white, brown or fried rice. We mixed and matched and all three worked.
Vue and Xiong spent almost six months renovating the space and it shows. The room is open, clean, and well-lit, with tastefully-designed menu boards and take-out menus. Vue said he is ordering photographs of markets in Asia to liven up an otherwise sterile atmosphere.
What will make him successful is not just his food, but his story, which Vue hopes will resonate with people. He talks about how the refugee camp was bound by wires and remembers chasing after cars as a young boy and getting stuck in those wires.
When he got to the United States, he said he felt like a bird with his new freedom. “You are free and you can fly and do anything you want.”
Vue came to the U.S., and Madison, in 1991. In 2010, he opened Chi-Pan Fresh Asian Grill in Portage. He did well enough there to close Chi-Pan and open Jeng’s here.
All that rice making as a youngster is beginning to pay off.