Wokcano is a relatively new local chain of Asian-fusion restaurants, with five locations in Southern California and ambitious plans to keep on growing (Long Beach will be the sixth). G&G attended a press event at the newest one, which you'll find open late every day of the week on Fifth Street near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard in downtown Santa Monica (where Akwa used to be, one door south of Jiraffe).
Wokcano aims to be an affordable yet upscale nouvelle-cuisine experience, catering especially to young professionals doing meetups after work, along with couples and posses looking for an after-event late-night venue for dating and debating. The recovering workaholics will be well served by the happy hour daily from 3 to 7 p.m., also available from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., with specials on appetizers and drinks. And for those night owls who refuse to go straight home after things wind down on the Promenade, the kitchen is always open until 2 a.m. The late closing time will make Wokcano Santa Monica a welcome oasis on the Westside, which is otherwise pretty sleepy at that hour. And did we mention there is no dark night? The restaurant and bar are open every day, 11 a.m. to 2. a.m. There are DJs on Friday and Saturday nights, and half-off Martinis on Tuesdays.
Chef Lum's dishes are a fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Korean influences. The well-stocked bar features all the cocktail-mixing mainstays you'd expect, as well as an extensive list of fine wines and beers, plus 13 brands of saki.
To complement the signature spiciness of the food, Gerald sipped a Jacobs Creek Shiraz while Georja enthusiastically knocked down a Newcastle Ale. First up on the sample menu was the Spicy Tuna Tornado Dip (pictured), just the kind of zinger starter for your meetup. You get raw tuna, spicy tomato, and avocado chunks blended in a tall Martini glass, topped with Doritos chips. It'll have you smacking your lips, loosening your tongue, and ordering a second round of thirst quenchers. If your whole entourage is there, get a few for the table.
Then came the sushi, which Wokcano does surpassingly well.
Georja: I liked the sashimi, thin-sliced salmon in ginger-Ponzu sauce. There was also some yellowtail. It was light and wonderful. The Tornado was too spicy for my palate, but my friends in New Mexico say I'm a pansy when it comes to fire in the mouth.
Gerald: Then came the combination sushi platters. Besides the stuff you'd expect, they had some unique creations, such as the Black Pearl, which is surrounded with a light tempura crust. Nice texture--and doubly tasty when you dip it in the soy sauce and Wasabi.
Four cooked dishes came next--Honey Walnut Shrimp, Black Pepper Beef Mignon, Double Kung Pao, and Shanghai Vegetable Lo Mein.
Georja: The Honey Walnut Shrimp was my favorite. The shrimp were plump, and the honey-walnut sweetness on them was perfect. It's served with sprigs of broccoli--just the right touch.
Gerald: I thought the black-pepper beef dish overdid it a bit--too much pepper and too much sugar in the soy-based brown sauce. Chef Lum makes his Kung Pao with both chicken and shrimp and adds asparagus, onions, peanuts, and dried pepper. I'm sure it will be one of their most popular dishes.
Georja: And for dessert, they brought individual-sized lemon cheesecake and carrot cake with white chocolate. Irresistible!
Gerald: The picky Virgo in me gives them extra points for having filtered water and clean plates with every course.
Georja: This location has an exciting ambiance. The biggest part of the restaurant is outdoors in a courtyard between two office buildings (which are closed in the evening). It has the impression of ultra-high walls with a starry sky for the ceiling. It has a waterfall and a huge pot filled with tall cactus stalks. The setting makes for a fun vibe.
Gerald: The courtyard is the place to be. They turn on the gas heaters, so it's toasty-comfy, and--I really like this part--it's not noisy out there. You can actually have a conversation with your companions without yelling. (No guarantees after the DJs start!)
Georja: These restaurants were founded by two young brothers from Canton, China. They say that most of the recipes are inspired by their mother's cooking.
Georja and Gerald wish to thank our hosts, managers Justis and Ryan. Special thanks to our attentive servers Armand, Faris, and Jessica.
Wokcano Restaurant and Bar
1413 5th St.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Open Mon-Sun 11 a.m. - 2 a.m., including holidays
Price range: Entrees $9 - 30, Sushi $4.50 - 8 per piece
(Lunch prices $3 less with rice)
To Go menu available
Georja Umano is an actress-comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.