When restaurateur and Hong Kong native Tom Poon opened DragonFly Chinese Cuisine and Bar with his uncle and successful restaurateur Raymond Lam in 2003, he had already studied Charlotte diners' proclivities and expectations of Asian cuisine. Poon made his reputation serving fairly standard, crowd-pleasing Asian recipes: orange beef, Singapore mei fun, crispy duck and egg foo young. He later sold his interest in DragonFly and in 2007, opened Ming Fu Chinese and Sushi Restaurant in Waxhaw. In October 2012, Poon opened a second shop in Matthews, in a space that had once been a revolving door of failed restaurants.
Poon and his wife Helen Yoo, a designer, immediately transformed the interior into a spiffy eatery. The 90-seat space, on West John Street, features a dining room at once modern, upscale and comfortable, despite the awkward entrance.
The straightforward and copious New Asian-styled menu has been streamlined for today's greener tastes and relaxed prices. The head chef from mainland China dots the menu with conspicuous echoes of the past. So, yes, you can get an order of fried dumplings and an egg roll or enjoy a healthier steamed asparagus starter.
Like any self-respecting Chinese-American restaurateur, Poon offers a pu pu platter — which has always been fun to order just to hear yourself say it. This roundup is half a dozen starters, including Chinese barbecue ribs, beef skewers, fried chicken wings and the oddly-named, all-American crab Rangoon (Rangoon is the British mispronunciation of the former Myanmar capitol Yangon, and these fried wonton wrappers are filled with cream cheese, an American creation). Better are the steamed, house-made pork dumplings. Another star is the tako-su salad, with thinly sliced, chilled octopus and cucumber in a rice vinegar vinaigrette.
Poon crafts the sushi, sashimi and maki in his Matthews store. The list of maki won't stretch the imagination, as it is a veritable checklist of what you have seen before and the results are perfunctory. You will not find high-end, high-quality, market-price fish on the list, but then the price for most rolls is under five bucks. You get what you pay for.
Most of the better entrées tend to fall into the familiar and comforting category. The Ming Fu Special arrives tableside sizzling and served in a long-necked foil swan, the standard leftover wrapper at many old-school Chinese restaurants. Thin slices of chicken mingle with scallops and shrimp in a bath of faintly pedestrian sha cha sauce. The sweetly crisped duck is made crisp not from a crackling skin, but from a light breading. Nevertheless, the duck dish has it going on with its super-moist flesh and deftly stir-fried vegetables.
The entirety of the menu is filled with what you might expect. Beef and lobster? Check. Egg foo young and moo shu pork? Sweet and sour chicken and Mongolian beef? Yep. They are all here. Rather than focusing on any one of the eight culinary traditions of China, Ming Fu does what many Chinese-American restaurants do and combines the flavor profile of two or three of these traditions. Add to this a complementary bowl of fried noodles, a few popular Japanese dishes, and then garnish with a noodle dish or two from southern Asia, and you have a formula that seems to have staying power here.
Not that I am endorsing the combination of Chinese and Japanese on the same menu, since it's rare to find a kitchen that can do a decent job in both traditions. (Although, Taiwanese chefs have successfully married these two diverse cuisines for some time now. Charlotte's only Taiwanese restaurant, Tomi, closed last winter.)
Yet Poon's success with Ming Fu is telling. Granted, this low-impact cooking isn't for everyone. Still, the food is good, inexpensive and served in an undeniably calming atmosphere. If you are pining for a dressed-up, neighborly place to get your fix of Asian, Ming Fu might fill that yen.
Ming Fu Chinese & Sushi
115 West John Street, Matthews. 704-844-6181. Hours: Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.