The House of Wu is an exotic dream come true. It feels far away, as if it should be tucked into an alley in a city like San Francisco or New York City. From the outside the windows are blacked out; nobody can see in, so it’s like you and the other diners are sharing a little secret. Inside, there’s a mix and match of high bar stools and low dining chairs surrounded by a minimal open kitchen. It is so clean in both aesthetics and decor that you can’t help but feel a little guilty when you spill something onto the perfectly polished comic book counter.
The actual experience here is solely about the food: dumplings.
If you ask co-owners Andrew Berman and Keith St. Peter, dumplings are to be enjoyed as a quick lunch or as a leisurely meal over several courses and a few cold beers.
“You can order over a mass amount at once or order as you go” St. Peter says, “and it has the potential to turn into a sake-fueled drunken night to remember.”
House of Wu could very well be any one of those places that you see celebrity chefs go to on glorified TV shows as they rub shoulders with in-the-know service industry and savvy travelers. It’s the same kind of atmosphere that you get at its sister restaurant, the local beloved Kojin Noodle Bar. It’s quaint, and intimate thanks to the open kitchen where guests can watch the small pillowy bites being prepared by hand before being steamed to perfection. The small dumplings, like shrimp shumai and chicken dumplings, take five minutes to steam, while the BBQ pork baos and vegetable baos take 12 minutes. Perfection here is time sensitive.
In total there are only seven dumplings to choose from on the menu and they recently just added $3 house pickles to act as a slightly spicy palate cleanser between bites of the umami-filled wontons.
“We’d rather do a small menu so that we can stand behind all the items”instead of having a huge menu and saying this is good, but this isn’t.”
Berman and St. Peter want to be proud of what they do even if it means closing early because they have run out of the daily scratch. There’s no such thing as day-old dumplings. There is also distinct attention to detail. Everything is served in bamboo steamers with a side offering of hoisin sauce, Chinese mustard and chili garlic oil. (And soy sauce if you need it). The dishes look like those thin white paper plates that parents used to serve birthday-cake on back in the day, but they are actually sturdy, reusable plastic. There are shiny bright red chopsticks (and forks just in case you need those, too), and they refuse to keep any butter or oil in the kitchen. Their food just doesn’t need it. It cooks ever so gently by steam alone.
The joint is unassuming and casual, to say the least. There’s nothing fancy about it, but still it inherits a unique character that is found nowhere else on the island and maybe even in all of Florida.
One day while working at the Café on Southard Street, St. Peter looked across the one-way street and noticed an empty commercial space with a lot of potential. It had at one time been a Dunkin Donuts and then a Wings and Wieners, but he would soon turn it into the very successful and popular Kojin Noodle Bar.
The House of Wu is in a location that some business owners might be hesitant to pursue. It’s in a small strip mall behind the Conch train station on Truman and Duval. It is not an obvious find and can easily be described as being off the beaten path. Yet it is the perfect place for St. Peter and Berman to do what they do best.
St. Peter fell in love with cooking while working as a fine dining wait captain at a flagship restaurant for the New England Culinary Institute in his home state of Vermont. He was lucky enough to attend classes at the top-rated school for free as long as he put in his hours. Because of this he may not have a diploma to tack up on a wall somewhere, but he also didn’t have to pay the $90,000 tuition. After fine tuning his skills, he “fled the arctic tundra” of the north and followed a friend to a little place on the southernmost tip of America that he had never heard of before. Today he is well-known in the community and has worked all around Key West including the popular Blue Heaven, Banana Café, Latitudes and Tavern & Town.
Berman grew up in Washington, D.C., and with a little help from mom, taught himself to cook. He moved to Key West after being hired as the executive chef of the late Café des Artistes, where he reigned as one of the island’s most highly respected chefs for an impressive 18 years. He learned everything on his own and freely admits that cooking is a lifelong education. Like St. Peter, his skill set is in French and European cuisine, but his passion is for Asian food. That is why when the two finally crossed paths, all they needed to do was talk about their common interest and the rest you can say is history. Their immediate friendship would, in time, initiate an entrepreneurial partnership that has now become a local institution.
“When we met we talked a lot about what we like to eat,” Berman says, “eventually we said if we want to eat the food that we want to eat, then we have to make the place ourselves.”
Not only have they figured out how to make the food that they love, but they have created two of the island’s favorite go-to restaurants for comfort food and the newest destination in Key West for foodies looking for the next Instagrammable thing to devour. ¦
The House of Wu, 500 Truman Ave. #9, Kojin Noodle Bar 601 Duval St. #4 (the entrance is actually on Southard Street).