In his 1825 book “The Physiology of Taste,” French food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that “poultry is for the cook what canvas is for the painter.”
If that’s true, then chef Peter Wang makes a masterpiece of a chicken at Iron Horse, his Chinese restaurant in Olathe. The time-intensive meal, called Beggar’s Chicken, costs $28.95 and must be ordered 24 hours in advance.
To make Beggar’s Chicken, Wang seasons a whole chicken with a secret blend of spices and wraps the bird with lotus leaves and foil. Then, he smothers the foil with a layer of soft clay. After three to four hours in the oven, the clay hardens into a shell that locks in the chicken’s juices.
The preparation dates back to beggars in ancient China who stole whole chickens, then covertly baked them underground.
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When I recently went to pick up my first Beggar’s Chicken at Iron Horse, Peter’s wife, Helen Wang, emerged from the kitchen pushing a metal cart. On top of the cart was a tray piled high with what looked like baked mud. Using a bright green baton, Helen broke open the cracked clay shell to reveal gleaming foil underneath.
Helen peeled back the foil and the soft, steamy lotus leaf to free a golden bird that smelled as good as Thanksgiving. Using two big spoons, she shredded the tender chicken and then smothered it with steamed vegetables and long white Enoki mushrooms thinner than matchsticks.
“Yum yum,” she said as she handed me a spoonful of white meat. The hot, juicy chicken had a pure, clean flavor — it wasn’t dry, salty or overseasoned — and it had subtle sweetness from the lotus leaf.
Peter Wang is a perfectionist in the kitchen. He says it took him more than a decade to learn how to make the hand-pulled Chinese noodles that Iron Horse is known for. The ingredients for the noodles are simple — flour, salt, yeast, water — but the technique is complicated. It involves smashing, pulling and rolling the dough by hand into long, uniform strands with just the right density and thickness.
“He says it’s a dying art,” says Wang’s stepdaughter, Michelle Yu, who often translates for him.
Wang has cooked all over the world, from China and Japan to South America, Los Angeles and Omaha. Six years ago, he and his wife opened Iron Horse in a strip mall off Interstate 35 in Olathe. Helen Wang and Yu wanted the small dining room to feel casual and fun, so they painted the walls deep turquoise blue and pasted photographs and descriptions of the restaurant’s menu everywhere, even on the drop ceiling.
Iron Horse is a true family business: Yu and her fiance, Andy Jackson, often work as servers. Helen Wang prepares appetizers and desserts such as sesame balls ($3) and steamed red bean buns ($2), and Peter Wang keeps very busy making noodles and other authentic dishes.
It takes the chef about two hours to make a batch of noodles that lasts the whole day. The fresh strips of dough simmer in boiling water before they’re served in dishes such as the spicy General Tso’s Chicken ($8.25) and the popular Ja Jang Myun ($8.95). The latter tops a nest of hot, tender noodles with black bean sauce, onions, zucchini, beef and shrimp.
Yu says some customers are scared off by the glossy black sauce on Ja Jang Myun. Don’t be — the sauce is subtle and tasty. Another standout is Iron Horse’s noodles with the Pot Roast Beef ($9.95) — fall-apart tender strips of slow-cooked beef tossed with sauteed bok choy, green beans and garlic.
Iron Horse offers all the dishes you’ll find on a typical American Chinese restaurant’s menu (think beef with broccoli, crab rangoon, chicken fried rice and eggdrop soup). But Wang also whips up several house specialties that I’d never tried before. Among them: The Beggar’s Chicken and Lotus Leaf-Wrapped Fried Rice.
The Lotus Leaf-Wrapped Fried Rice ($8.95) is made by wrapping shrimp and roast pork fried rice in a lotus leaf, then steaming the hefty package until the rice is piping hot and infused with the sweet flavor of the lotus leaf. The fragrant rice dish, like most of the masterpieces on Iron Horse’s menu, is a nice match for an ice-cold bottle of Tsingtao beer.
Enterprise reporter Sarah Gish writes about Johnson County restaurants every first and third week of the month. Contact her via email at email@example.com or tweet @sarah_gish.
Iron Horse Chinese Restaurant
Location: 918 E. Old 56 Highway in Olathe
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Free lot
Don’t miss: Ja Jang Myun ($8.95), a house specialty, tops homemade noodles with glossy black bean sauce, onions, zucchini, tender beef and juicy shrimp. Another specialty is the Beggar’s Chicken ($28.95), a whole chicken baked in clay for up to four hours. You have to order Beggar’s Chicken at least 24 hours in advance, but it’s worth it because the chicken is so juicy and flavorful.
Vegetarian: Try the tofu and vegetable lo mein ($6.95 at dinner) or the basil tofu ($5.50) at lunch. You can also substitute vegetables or tofu for meat in most dishes.