IN THE KITCHEN Co-owner Steve Liu, who hails from Beijing, always wanted to start his own business. He earned his MBA from Babson College, and during his studies decided to launch a food truck dedicated to Chinese barbecue.
The Wow Barbecue truck hit the road in Boston in 2013, and built up a strong following among local Chinese students and those simply curious about Chinese barbecue. The following year, Liu and business partner Yi Peng opened a restaurant in Malden focusing on more traditional Chinese cuisine. In March, the pair opened Wu-Er in Brookline. “Wu-Er” means “one of a kind,” Liu said; in fact, the name “Wow” was meant to evoke that Chinese word.
THE LOCALE The owners wanted their restaurant, housed in a brick building in Brookline Village, to have a unique interior decor, “where you come in and feel like you’re in Beijing,” Liu said. Certain elements, including the ceiling tiles, were imported from Beijing, and the space is adorned with concrete and stonework finishes. An aquarium with live fish and a waterfall pool containing koi at the entryway are eye-catching for sure. There is a bar toward the front, and the dining area has seating for around 70. Our waitress, Ester, expertly helped us navigate the menu as well as a peanut allergy.
ON THE MENU Chinese barbecue isn’t prevalent in the Boston area, but “it’s a street food we grew up on, so we thought we could bring it over and fill the void,” Liu said.
Wu-Er’s approach to barbecue, according to Liu, originated in inner Mongolia and northwestern China. “Historically, those two areas have an abundance of grass and they raise lots of sheep,” Liu said. Accordingly, the food truck originally only served lamb skewers.
The restaurant in Brookline expands on that concept considerably, offering at least two dozen different types of skewers, ranging from the more recognizable chicken (perfectly flavorful, tender, and juicy, we found), beef, and lamb to more unusual specialty items like chicken gizzards, lamb kidneys, and squid. For vegetarians, there’s grilled tofu, broccoli, and cauliflower. They’re seasoned with traditional cumin and salt, among other ingredients, and grilled to a nice char, and range from $1.50 to $4 each.
“Skewers are meant to be shared. There are so many different varieties, so you can order one of each kind and share it amongst your friends,” Liu said. “In China, barbecue places are basically the bar. People go there to hang out with their friends. That’s what we’re trying to do here.” There’s a full bar, he notes, with cocktails featuring baijiu, a popular Chinese liquor.
Beyond skewers, Wu-Er focuses on Asian fusion flavors, especially in tapas dishes like chorizo tiger shrimp ($12) and Asian ribs ($11), which are a bit fatty for my taste, but magnificently flavored with a sauce containing ginger, hoisin sauce, soy, honey, five-spice powder, and scallions.
The entrees “for two” are a sight to behold: These large trays could easily feed a small group, supplemented by skewers and tapas. The grilled fish ($32) is a whole tilapia bathed in a spicy Szechuan peppercorn and cumin-scented broth. The chili crab ($30) stir-fries five blue crabs in chili oil and herbs. With either of these, choose three vegetarian accompaniments, such as shiitake mushrooms, lotus root slices, and bean curd sticks.
A third entrée, the grilled lobster ($48), can be served in a ginger garlic cream sauce inspired by Italian cooking. A whole lobster appears before us, one claw jutting majestically into the air, accompanied by mussels, clams, tiger shrimp, grilled corn on the cob, and slippery, chewy udon noodles swimming in bubbling broth, a fire underneath the platter keeping the seafood sufficiently hot.
For those with smaller appetites, additional entrees include grilled salmon, lamb, and chicken dishes, and several noodle stir-fries.
Wu-Er is at 320 Washington St. in Brookline Village; 617-566-8858, www.wowbarbecue.com. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight.Rachel Lebeaux can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @rachjournalist.