Tuesday, February 7, 2023 Feb 7, 2023
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Gung Ho Rescues Asian Fusion From Itself

With novel riffs on Chinatown classics, executive chef Kirstyn Brewer delivers a different kind of comfort food on Lowest Greenville.
By |
Kevin Marple
On a warm Greenville Avenue night, you enter the space that formerly housed the retro-posh Remedy to find that the modern soda fountain has been replaced by Gung Ho and the energy of its casual, shared-plate dining. But a hint remains. The interior was beautiful before and it’s beautiful now, double-wide with a cozy bar and a red floral-wallpapered hideaway. Electicism is drilled deep into its studs.

There is a more tangible—and more important—presence you might not notice right away: executive chef Kirstyn Brewer. Previously in the kitchen at the now-closed Victor Tangos and Hibiscus, she has been on the team since before owner Elias Pope (HG Sply Co.) traded in griddled bologna sandwiches for swirls of Asian flavors and cocktails with ingredients like tamarind syrup and lapsang souchong tea. But Brewer has been tasked with delivering a different kind of comfort food at Gung Ho.

I have recurring memories of one outstanding dish she devised for Pope’s latest concept: a whole roasted fish served with scallion pancakes. The pancakes are slightly yeast-raised, with duck fat and garlic chives. The fish is presented beautifully. You are meant to pull off its tender flesh and wrap it in the soft scallion cakes, which are somewhere between a tortilla and Indian roti and are like nothing I’ve had before. Together, the fish and pancakes form an unusual, wonderful taco, piled with Thai basil and crunchy bean sprouts and bathed in green peanut sauce. Gung Ho is worth a visit for this alone.

Glazed eggplant with fermented chiles.

Brewer visited as many big-city Chinatowns as she could for inspiration, exploring her fond childhood memories of Chinese food. She favors ingredients you’d find only at Asian markets. The result is a collection of intelligent borrowings, a beacon for those who have been searching for fusion done well. She works nimbly in the familiar registers of fermentation, spice, and salty-sweetness; and when the flavors meld, they do so beautifully.

To start, small bites show her predilection for tang that pushes flavors forward. Black vinegared peanuts that are a delight to pluck up with chopsticks. Celtuce, with all the crunch and juiciness of a cross between celery and lettuce, wonderfully topped with furikake, a seasoning of nori and sesame seeds. (In Japan, you’d sprinkle it over rice.) Fermented napa cabbage with a profusion of crunchy toppings that makes it appear like a small helping of noodles. The cabbage was created for the pickled vegetable egg rolls, but Brewer liked it so much she serves it on its own.

It was a smart choice on a menu full of them. The bright confetti of ginger salad shows up with bitter radicchio. Nubs of sweet-savory Chinese sausage dot a smashed cucumber salad. Preserved lemon is scattered over a side of gai lan (Chinese broccoli), with piquant punches from vinegar creating a sauce at the bottom of the willow ware bowl. The crunchy white cloud mushroom Tiger Cry salad is like eating a delicate seaweed salad. Even glazed eggplant—brushed with egg whites and fried fast so it’s creamy inside—feels like a novel take on a standard.

At its best, the cuisine’s layered approach delivers sensations that feel like being inside of an addiction. Take the strawberry sundae with Chinese five-spice soft serve, a jam like a tart strawberry gastrique, and the crunch of cornflakes. Fun and simple, it feels new.

The pozole won me over on a drizzly night, a rich, mesmerizing dish with notes of star anise and hominy’s familiar texture. It was delivered in a clay pot cradling chuck flap that was so tender, I stopped my dining partner mid-sentence, whispering, “Wait—you have to try this.” I felt the same about other proteins. Giant cubes of tender beef tongue anchor the soulful caramelized onion curry, all warm spices, sweetness, and coconut milk, with pickled onions that break through with just the right assertive zing. Char siu pork, tinted from the nine-spice marinade, is a do-it-yourself assemblage. Fat still clinging to its morsels, the pork is placed between pillowy steamed buns and served with house-made peanut hoisin and fermented mustard greens as condiments. Here is where you see that the mission is delivering creature comforts in new guises.

Shape of Things: Gung Ho’s energy comes through in a stylish interior full of mood-setting jewel tones.

Of my four visits, only the first and last were outstanding. The night we ended up with two orders of jackfruit fried rice showed the kitchen’s inconsistencies and over-promises—one seasoned darker than the other and the jackfruit’s presence lending a barely detectable tutti-frutti sweetness. This joined a slew of more ordinary dishes: a list of soggy noodles; Wuxi-style pork ribs lacquered but lacking flavor; bland smoked tofu; and a thick handling of black bean sauce that deluged a bowl of clams in pungent salt. It made it hard to feel where the restaurant’s true pulse lay.

That, and it was loud. We joined an eclectic mix of diners whose primary mode of conversation was shouting. On that Saturday night, I wanted to leave.

I returned for the crab and coconut rice—pretty puffy soft-shell crab over a rich base of coconut-fragrant rice. I’m glad I did. There was genius in four-fifths of the table’s kaleidoscope of dishes that night. Bamboo steamers sailed between tight-packed tables; a cocktail bore a colorful umbrella. I felt the energy of the first visit. And I discovered the magic of the malt-powder Milo float: a chocolate egg cream with five-spice fudge, the nudge of malt, and the power to catapult you back to childhood. Perhaps yours; perhaps Brewer’s.

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