I paid my first visit to Chow Down Grill the first week that they opened, about a month ago. This is often a somewhat dicey proposition, even more so for a place that is as unabashedly D.I.Y. as Chow Down Grill. And sure enough, the A/C wasn't working, they'd just gotten their license and hadn't stocked up on beer yet - but the food showed real promise. I went back recently to try it again. The good news is that the A/C is cranking, the beer is well-stocked and cold, and the food delivers on that promise, providing some interesting and well-executed spins on old-school Chinese classics (with some occasional straying into Vietnamese territory).
The chef behind Chow Down is Joshua Marcus, who spent some time in a number of Miami kitchens before venturing out on his own. His resumé includes China Grill, BLT Steak, Timo, and the now defunct North One 10, and it seems he's picked up some tricks at each of them. But Chow Down Grill does not aspire to be like those places, and instead sets out to adapt and update Chinese-American dishes with fresh ingredients and some modern twists in a budget-friendly format. The menu he's put together is fairly short but sweet: a selection of about a half-dozen dumplings for starters; a salad, a couple soups; a choice of a few banh mi style sandwiches; entrées with a choice of protein combined with a choice from about a half-dozen different sauce/vegetable pairings; and fried rice or noodle sides to round out your meal.
Those dumplings are a great place to start. Shaped like oversized potstickers, they come four to an order ($6), and the couple we've sampled were unorthodox but good. A striking black wrapper, colored with squid ink, surrounded a finely diced shrimp filling brightened up with fennel and corn, while a minced chicken dumpling came wrapped in a vibrant basil-green skin. Equally satisfying were the wontons, slightly smaller and more delicate, which came with a peanut sauce that carried a nice undercurrent of spice.[*] I'm not big on salads, but I still found myself picking repeatedly at Mrs. F's "Chow Down Chop" ($8 + $3 to add chicken, shrimp or beef). It's a spin on the iconic Wolfgang Puck Chinese Chicken Salad, with a mix of fresh, perky Napa cabbage, onion, corn, cucumber, carrot, radish,cilantro and slices of mango, all dressed in a brightly flavored chile lime vinaigrette.
It was a bit of a mystery to me why the sandwiches are not called what they clearly are: banh mi, the classic Vietnamese sandwich. Chef Marcus explained: his girlfriend is Vietnamese, and won't let him call them "banh mi" because they're not sufficiently authentic. (This also explains why the "House Special Noodle Soup" is not called "pho"). Whatever it's called, the 24-hour braised beef ($8.50), meltingly tender like a pot roast, makes for a great sandwich. A pâté aioli is an inspired way to combine a couple of the traditional banh mi components and adds even more richness, offset by the fresh flavors of the pickled carrot, cucumber, radish, jalapeño, onion and cilantro.
Entrées offer a choice of shrimp, chicken or Black Angus steak matched with a list of sauces, each with its own particular vegetable accompaniments: spicy Szechuan, spicy garlic-herb, orange chile, Mongolian bbq, sweet and sour, or green curry. I've only tried one so far: shrimp with Szechuan sauce actually delivered on the promise of the "spicy" description, a bright red sauce with a deep bass note of peppery heat, served with green and white asparagus, cubes of bell pepper, and almonds. It was an unusual combination but it worked. A side order of fried rice was a far cry from the typical stale-tasting, soy-sauce loaded Chinese-American filler; here it's spiked with peas, corn, flecks of scrambled egg and bright green chives, and redolent with sesame oil.
The shoebox-sized space along Harding Avenue has its own unique charm, with some funky, furry-looking lamps hanging over about a half-dozen tables, and a long bar stretching out in front of the open kitchen. Everyone is friendly and eager to please, and they have now stocked up on a "carefully selected" list of craft beers and wines.
It is perhaps an over-generalization to say that Chow Down Grill is doing with Chinese food what Sakaya Kitchen does with Korean, but it's not so far off. There's a focus here on quality ingredients, freshly prepared foods, bright, vibrant flavors, and bang for the buck. That's a combination that works for me.
Chow Down Grill
9517 Harding Ave.
Surfside, FL 33154
[*] Here comes the point in this post where I display what an old fart I am: these wontons jogged a long-dormant food memory of the silky chicken dumplings in peanut sauce that they used to have at Chrysanthemum, a Chinese restaurant on South Beach that's probably been closed for more than ten years.