Wrapped Up in Lettuce Wraps
I’m not sure if it’s the clear blue skies on these sunny days or all that watercress I ate last week, but something has me craving light, bright and refreshing fare this springtime — I just can’t get enough of it! And since we’ve been on a green kick here at Dining Out, I’m keeping that trend going with some love-filled lettuce wraps.
This type of dish is so exciting to explore because it’s found all over the map. Although the concept is quite simple across the board — take some lettuce leaves, fill them with meat, veggies or seafood, and dunk into a scrumptious sauce — you’ll never taste the same lettuce wraps twice from restaurant to restaurant because every cook has his or her own unique variation on the filling.
We’ll wrap lettuce around spring rolls in Vietnamese cuisine, use it to envelope savory Korean meats and banchan in ssam, and scoop up minced meat with it in Laotian and Thai larb. I love all of the above, but I recently found a few more renditions that swiftly have moved to the top of my list.
THE HOUSE OF DELICIOUS WRAPS
If you ask David Chang, general manager at Little Village Noodle House, to tell you about Chinese-style lettuce wraps, he’ll explain that most of the recipes we’re familiar with are, in actuality, Chinese-American fusion dishes. This type of fusion fits in perfectly with the Smith Street eatery’s approach to cuisine, as it boasts a signature blend of Northern-style Chinese fare with touches of American and local flavors.
Little Village’s recipe for Lettuce Wrap ($9.95) is a winning one, to say the least. “Ever since we opened our doors in 2001, we’ve been selling lettuce wraps, and they’ve been very, very popular,” says Chang.
The secret to the success of this dish lies in the minced chicken mixture that customers pile onto large, firm cups of lettuce. Layered with various flavors and textures, the filling features chicken breast meat enriched with shiitake mushroom and a distinct saltiness from Chinese preserved vegetables — not to mention a juicy burst of water chestnuts.
“We top it off with candied walnuts that give it an extra kick of texture,” says Chang, adding that tried-and-true hoisin sauce is served on the side.
The dish, like most offerings at Little Village, can be tailored to vegetarian diners and prepared without the chicken.
“It’s a simple, nice, fresh start to any lunch or dinner,” continues Chang.
Little Village Noodle House
1113 Smith St., Chinatown
SETTING THE STAGE FOR GREATNESS
For today’s cutting-edge chefs, lettuce wraps present the ideal blank canvas to experiment with various flavor combinations to create a powerful pop for the taste buds, all inside one green bundle. Ron de Guzman, executive chef at Stage Restaurant, is one of those culinary wizards who has put a modern twist on the dish with his Duck Wraps ($12).
The centerpiece of this appetizer is duck that is prepared confit-style, meaning it has been cooked in its own fat for extra richness. The chef playfully adds spicy pepper and house-pickled red onions on top, as well as springy green herbs. The butter lettuce is much more than a base, as the Hirabara Farms vegetable lends a lovely silkiness to the dish. And a mildly spicy hoisin sauce on the side brings enough sweetness to make the whole dish sing.
The chef says that while the restaurant changes up its menu from time to time, this appetizer always has stuck around, because of its popularity among regulars and first-time patrons alike.
In Duck Wraps as well as other menu items, de Guzman pulls from the various cultures of Hawaii to find inspiration for his contemporary Asian-American cuisine. It’s all served up on the second floor of Honolulu Design Center, amid a stylish decor scheme filled with fun chandeliers and eye-catching art — the perfect setting for the restaurant’s vibrant cuisine.
Honolulu Design Center
1250 Kapiolani Blvd., second floor