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Naked Tchopstix
***
Out of a possible five
$$$

Spicy sauce where East meets West

Never underestimate the power of a condiment.

Like spicy brown mustard on a bratwurst and Buffalo sauce on a chicken wing, their presence can lift dishes to new heights.

Naked Tchopstix is an Asian crossover restaurant in southwest Fort Wayne, in the hard-to-get-to spot that once housed Tumbleweed Southwest Grill and Antigua Mexican Restaurant. The restaurant, off U.S. 24 near Interstate 69, has a tasty sauce that highlighted every dish it came on.

The sweet wasabi sauce, according to general manager Greg Roper, is made by combining the signature ingredient with mayonnaise, a little sugar and – believe it or not – a touch of lemonade. The creamy, white, silken-textured result is more sweet than spicy, but has a nice little kick. It was the star of the Toast and Jam appetizer, rounded out the unique Playboy sushi roll perfectly and worked fantastically as a dip for the diced raw tuna in the Hawaiian Poke appetizer.

A server wasn’t surprised to hear me rave about it, saying he likes the sauce on about anything, including the Subway sandwich he brought in for lunch that afternoon.

The Toast and Jam had a thin cracker made from toasted sticky rice topped with strands of spicy crab, which was dotted with jalapeno, the sweet wasabi and Sriracha hot sauce. It was the perfect blend of sweet and spicy, and I could have eaten 20 pieces of it instead of just the six that came in my order.

The Playboy roll was one of the most interesting sushi creations I have tried. It was made with tempura shrimp, steamed asparagus, spicy tuna and tempura bits inside the rice, and cooked shrimp with the sweet wasabi, Sriracha and unagi (a sweet soy sauce) on top. It was wrapped in foil, which was doused with grain alcohol, ignited and allowed to burn out before serving.

When I opened the foil, the aroma reminded me of a charcoal grill, and the exterior of the sizable roll was charred a bit, which gave each bite flavor you don’t expect to get from sushi. The shrimp inside was crunchy, the asparagus was tender, the tuna was spicy and that sweet wasabi was the perfect elixir to bring it all together.

The sauce had the least effect on the Hawaiian Poke appetizer, but that didn’t keep it from being a favorable dish. There was a generous amount of fatty, delicate tuna mixed with julienne-cut mango and daikon radish and creamy ripe avocado in this refreshing salad of sorts. The spicy yuzu dressing acted like vinegar would in a slaw.

The other starters were disappointments. The Asian lettuce wraps were basic to the point of underwhelming. The Shumai shrimp dumplings were steamed just right, but were so tiny – about 3/4 of an inch thick and as big around as a quarter – it was hard to taste anything but the wrapper.

The entrées were a mixed bag:

•The General Tso’s Tofu was a great spin on the classic chicken dish and was a flavorful option for vegetarians. The large cubes of tofu were soft and creamy, and each was touched by the wok on the outside to give them a little texture. The spicy-sweet sauce was thick and plentiful and included the standard broccoli and carrot.

•The chicken tempura was coated in an extra crunchy Panko breading that was so clean it was hard to believe it ever hit the oil, and the chunks of chicken breast inside were juicy and tender.

•The charbroiled “Kalbi” Korean short ribs were OK, but the serving size was scant for the $17.99 price. The best part of the dish was the afterthought slaw underneath, made from cabbage, daikon and carrot, which was wilted nicely and tasted great with the ribs’ sweet sesame-soy garlic sauce. Another price problem was the $3 upcharge for fried rice – a small portion of the same quality of any cheap take-out place.

•The bento box had some real goodies – a fantastic piece of crab-plentiful Rangoon and a crunchy deep fried pot sticker – but it also included a chintzy California roll with crumbly rice and minuscule slivers of crab, avocado and cucumber.

Naked Tchopstix didn’t fail when it came to aesthetics.

The old roadhouse-style structure looks pretty much the same on the outside, save for some faux bamboo and a few Asian-inspired statues scattered about, but the inside has been transformed into an uber-cool venue with all of the usual Far East accents melded into its modern design. The main room, featuring a long sushi bar, made me feel like I was sitting in a dojo, and the booths along one wall were made to emulate sunken-floor tables found in the tatami rooms of stateside Japanese restaurants.

The servers were prompt, attentive and knowledgeable, and the restaurant was as packed on what I thought would be a slow Monday as it was during my Friday night prime-time stop.

Food took a long time to arrive at the table during both nights.

Restaurant: Naked Tchopstix

Address: 8607 U.S. 24 W.

Phone: 436-2211

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cu isine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu

Menu: Toast and Jam ($10.99), Shumai dumplings ($3.49 shrimp; $3.99 pork), Hawaiian Poke ($8.99), Playboy roll ($14.99), Genral Tsos’ tofu ($11.99), chicken tempura ($6.99), Bento boxes ($14.99 to $17.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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