The Cambodian restaurant on South Park Street, Angkor Wat, came and went so fast, few people got the chance to eat there.
That’s a shame, because Cambodian food is rare in Wisconsin. But the restaurant that replaced it, Chili King, offers some of the best Chinese food in town. And its initial bare-bones ambiance is evolving under a recent change in ownership.
Chili King opened in February in the longtime home of Inka Heritage, and had a “grand opening” sign up for more than six months. It came down after employees Li Yang, Xia Xian Hui and Xiang Lin took over the restaurant Aug. 18 from landlord Jiang Xun Jang, who had been running it.
The same landlord also owns the building that houses Ichiban, a fantastic and more stylish Chinese restaurant centering on Sichuan food, down the block. With Orient House on the same block, too, and Asian Sweet Bakery, Double 10 Mini Hot Pot, and Jade Garden nearby, this section of Park Street is becoming Madison’s own little China Town.
Li Yang recently painted the restaurant’s name in Chinese and English directly on the brick exterior in a way that looks both homespun and striking.
Inside, there’s a simple feel. The owners were trying to spruce up the room one recent night when I stopped in. They were putting up maroon curtains in the windows where pinkish ones used to be. New matching linen tablecloths and single red roses on the tables bring some refinement now.
Li Yang and Xia Xian Hui had already been cooking at Chili King — Li for two months, Xia for five months — before buying it, so the food hasn’t changed with the new ownership.
The wide menu is full of Hunan specialties that most Americans are unlikely to order, things like beef tendon, sliced pork ear with chili oil, hot and sour chicken gizzards and steamed fish head.
On my first visit, I played it safe, I thought, by ordering Chef’s Special Chicken with Noodles ($13.99). That proved unwise because small bones and skin were still in the mix. The cellophane noodles, about the thickness of spaghetti, and some choice portobello mushrooms, were the best part, but couldn’t redeem the dish.
Another selection from the same “specialty” section of the menu was a wild success, and has become one of my favorite meals anywhere: string beans sautéed with eggplant ($10.99). It should be noted that it’s not always vegetarian because on my initial visit it came with ground pork on top. On a subsequent visit, there wasn’t any pork. The sauce is fairly oily, but that’s part of what makes it so delicious.
Chicken in garlic sauce ($11.95), was similarly incredible — colorful and bright, featuring lots of big pieces of chicken breast stir-fried with onions, red peppers, carrots, broccoli and wood-ear mushrooms. The sauce, while also oily, wasn’t too garlicky. Sliced garlic showed up in both dishes.
They also each contained a fair amount of chili flakes or sliced chili peppers, underscoring the restaurant’s name.
Cucumber salad ($6.99) is a strong start to a meal, and different from Thai or Laotian versions. The skinless cukes were chopped in big chunks and simply served in a light broth. There was nothing else involved.
There was no information about the egg roll ($4.75), listed singularly on the menu, but my server, who provided fast, helpful service, told me later they come with or without pork. I wasn’t asked which version I wanted, so I didn’t know what to expect. What showed up were four, smallish, crispy rolls with just a trace of vegetables and noodles inside. Still, the egg roll skins were flaky, and the sweet and sour sauce was the kind I like.
A handwritten sign on the door advertised bubble tea, so I stopped in one afternoon to get some to go. Unfortunately, there had been lots of orders that day and they had run out, so I wound up with a strongly-brewed ice coffee ($3.50) with enough condensed milk to make it sweet. It wasn’t as good as most Thai versions, but it provided a nice caffeine boost.
Then I showed up on another afternoon later in the week and was told it wasn’t available, but advised to stop back in the next day. At least the sign on the door was gone.
On one of my visits, another customer, who seemed like a regular, wanted to compare notes about the cucumber salad, which he loves. I raved to him, meanwhile, about the eggplant and string beans, and the garlic chicken.
I still have yet to try that elusive Chili King bubble tea, so if you get some, please let me know how it is.