If you're a diner of the adventurous sort and happen to visit Lucky's King Wah in Glendale, it's a good idea to remember the words "Chef's Special."
Not a single dish but an assortment of several, the Chef's Special is more or less the Chinese restaurant's off-the-cuff version of omakase, the Japanese term that leaves your meal up to the chef. In this case, Hong Kong-born Kwok Pat.
You won't find the Chef's Special on the menu. Kwok — or his wife (and Lucky's only server) Kitty — most likely will suggest it, usually after noting that you and your dining companions have set aside the Americanized menu and are either painstakingly perusing the 100-plus dishes in the Chinese one or gazing in utter helplessness at the numerous specials (all written in Chinese) colorfully marked on several dry-erase boards lining the restaurant's walls.
"Do you like Hong-Kong style Chinese food?" One of them will ask.
Relieved at the offer of assistance, you, of course, say you that do. Next, there are two more brisk inquiries having to do with allergies and spiciness, and then, just like that, Kwok or Kitty disappears into the kitchen and the deal is done. Chef's Special for you.
See a slideshow of Lucky's King Wah.
With about 40 years in the restaurant business, the Pats are hardly newcomers when it comes to reading their customers. Kwok, who came to the Valley in 1977, previously cooked in now-defunct restaurants like Lucky's and Silver Dragon in Phoenix and Eddie Chan's Asian Bistro in Scottsdale for years before opening Lucky's King Wah (the sign out front says "King Wah" in English, with "Lucky's" in Chinese) two and a half years ago. Kitty, originally from China's Guangdong province and married to Kwok for 30 years, has accompanied him nearly every step of the way.
Cantonese, the style of Chinese cuisine most familiar to Westerners, dominates the menu here, but given that 90 percent of Lucky's customers are multi-generational Chinese families, the cooking isn't altered to suit a Westerner's palate. Featuring a dizzying array of affordable entries — braised, steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, and using a modest amount of spices and nearly every kind of edible meat — the enormous selection of average to satisfying to very good dishes is almost too much contemplate. All of which make Lucky's Chef's Special a dining option that's as enjoyable as it is effortless.
If it is your first time at the restaurant, the Pats will probably keep your Chef's Special on the more conventional side. Not such a bad thing.
To start, you may be offered a plate of golden-hued fried cubes of light and crispy silken tofu topped with shrimp. Their delicate appearance belies the hell-hot temperature that one might fall victim to without sufficiently letting them cool. The same caution should be observed if the chunky, deep-fried Buddhist-style rolls, packed with veggies and wrapped in bean curd skins, are served.
You'll most likely get a soup as well. Perhaps a simple but satisfying broth of sweet corn and chicken that can be kicked up, if you like, with a bit of requested homemade chile sauce or Kwok's more vinegary version of the hot and sour. Packed with hunks of tofu, shrimp, bits of barbecued pork, mushrooms, and scallions, it's a kind of tart, Hong Kong-style gumbo.
In respect to the main courses, chances are your table will receive the Hong Kong-style fried rice, a dish you've most likely had before but perhaps not so satisfyingly sweet, thanks to handfuls of of red-tinged barbecue pork bits interspersed among the rice along with egg, scallions, and puffy pink shrimp. If there is salt and pepper fish, the pieces of battered and fried sole will be spicy, but probably not as crispy as you'd like — something that can't be said for the delectable Shanghai (Sing High) chicken, whose chunks of tender meat are topped with a highly crunchy, paper-thin skin splashed with soy, salt, and scallions.
Pushed for more, or on your return visit, Kwok's Chef's Special starts to get more interesting.
Remembering that you liked the shrimp on the tofu appetizer, Kwok may show it to you again, this time as a paste and spooned into a fried trio of fleshy slices of eggplant, tofu, and soft yellow peppers doused in a briny sauce. Or as honey walnut shrimp, a decidedly unhealthy but addictive indulgence of lightly battered and fried shrimp coated in a clingy, sweet, and lemony mayonnaise-based sauce amid a handful of candied walnuts. And because you answered yes when he asked if you liked lamb, you may be served an excellent, ginger-spiked stew of it, its tender meat needing little effort to be coaxed from the bones and the accompanying strips of long, half-chewy bean curd heavy from having taken on the flavor of the broth.
If there is duck, you may wish it were more seasoned. But if you must try it, order it as a homestyle meal, in which a moderately spicy sauce along with bok choy and large thin pieces of lightly sweet daikon enhances the flavor of the chopped and roasted meat.
The best dishes at Lucky's may be the variety of meats, and offal lovers should take note that getting one or more included in a Chef's Special, at least initially, means having to ask after them — usually to the surprise and delight of Kitty and Kwok. You'll know you've arrived when Kitty brings out an appetizer of bright red pieces of crispy and fatty fried pork intestine without ever being asked.
Before then, you may be treated to pieces of beef and slippery, chewy tendon over cabbage in an anise-kissed sauce for something akin to a Sunday pot roast dinner by way of a Cantonese kitchen. There also is very good oxtail and gelatinous pig trotters that, when nibbled, sucked on, and gnawed at in the grips of your chopsticks, could very well cause Kitty to cluck in approval as she glides by. But the most interesting offal offering — and the one you'll most wish could be chased with a Chinese beer — is a porky and pickled concoction of chewy pieces of pig's stomach and crunchy, sour vegetables like peppers and onions. Delicious.
It is rare to hear music playing at Lucky's, especially around dinnertime, when the sparse but tidy restaurant fills up with the sounds of large groups of diners sliding into booths and taking seats at large tables while catching up on the day's events. Some talk to each other, others to Kitty, and still others to Kwok, who darts back and forth from the kitchen to the dining area with an energy you wouldn't expect most 60-year-old men to have.
"We have two kinds of customers," Kitty says. "Regular customers who have been following Kwok for years and new ones who have come into the restaurant for the first time." Then, without missing a beat, she sets a fork down in front of my dining companion, who is clumsily fumbling with her chopsticks, and says, "The new customers are who we do the Chef's Special for. We want them to come back."