Master Chef Chu circles the dining room, stopping at every table to raise his glass of beer to each customer, tipping it back with each toast. His smile is wide, his laugh boisterous and unrestrained. He doesn’t speak of word of English, and it doesn’t matter—the language of celebration is universal. Of slight build, he wears a wide belt over his T-shirt, the kind used by weightlifters for support and protection, a necessary precaution for a 64-year-old man who has made a 55-year career of standing over a stove.
Yes, your math is correct. Master Chef Chu—born in the province of Hunan, raised in Taiwan—began his culinary training at the age of 9. It was a diverse education: seven years with a Taiwanese noodle chef; a year learning Szechuan cuisine with Liu Han Fa, former Imperial Chef to Pu Yi, the last emperor of China; years traveling the world as a cook on trade ships; and the constant influence of his grandfather—a chef specializing in vegan cooking. After moving with his wife and four children to Cincinnati in the 1990s, Rich Chu commanded several local kitchens, including House of Tam (formerly in College Hill, now closed), Cheng-1 Cuisine (now King Wok), and Oriental Wok in Ft. Mitchell, until his retirement in 2005. Despite a minor stroke a year or so into his retirement, he was restless to get back into the kitchen. He begged his son Johnny, an artist, to open a restaurant. Johnny initially rejected the idea, insisting that he would rather be a poor artist than a poor restaurant owner, but eventually his father won him over. In 2008 Johnny Chu bought AmerAsia, and Master Chef Rich Chu returned to his passion.
Chef Chu raises his empty glass one last time to the dining room. The two dozen or so customers (near capacity for the tiny restaurant, save a few open seats at the bar) reciprocate by lifting forks, chopsticks, even the distinctive, bulbous-bottomed beer glass encased in a wooden stand that holds Belgian Kwak beer in mutual appreciation. The chef and his assistant cook spin on their heels and exit stage right behind the curtain that separates the kitchen from the main room. After all, there are plates of sticky pork riblets, Buddha Delights, and Happy Family Reunions to attend to.
The celebratory cruise is a ritual for the chef, who is clearly grateful to be cooking for the diners who fill these seats six nights a week. And apparently, he likes a beer or two. “That’s not his last beer for the night,” our server confesses, her affection clear. Who can blame him? Not only has he been cranking out heaping plates of slippery noodles and bowls of rich, peppery hot-and-sour soup thick with vegetables and tofu, his little restaurant has a beer list that rivals the best in the city.
If that beer list had been left up to Johnny Chu, you’d still be chasing your Mongolian beef (a dish mild by default; set to Awesome when ordered with a heat index above three) with a can of Budweiser. Enter beer angel Micah Wright, a home brewer and regular AmerAsia customer who introduced Johnny Chu’s palate to the synergy of good microbrews and good Chinese food. Soon after, Budweiser and its anemic friends were banished, Micah Wright was installed behind the bar, and Red Rice Ale—with its beautiful rose color and elegant smack of berry, malt, and sake flavors—became the best selling beer. That’s just one of what Wright calls “the usual line-up,” a daily list featuring 100-plus stouts, ales, IPAs, lagers, porters, pilsners, and more. (A limited-release list of about two dozen beers with the likes of Schlafly pumpkin ale, Great Lakes Nosferatu, and Southern Tier Jahva imperial chocolate stout also contribute to AmerAsia’s fabulous beer portfolio.)
Many of the beers also find their way into Chef Chu’s dishes, particularly the beer chicken, which requires you, the customer, to provide a shot or two from your glass for the kitchen, where marinated chicken breasts and thighs are slowly simmered in your beer of choice (accordingly, each iteration is distinctly different), and served over a bed of seasonal vegetables.
This sense of energetic fun defines AmerAsia. It often begins and ends with the 28-year-old Wright who—even ensconced behind the bar—shouts a welcome across the room when you enter, and a “thanks for coming in” when you leave, all between his beer sommelier duties, assisting with menu choices, and running food. The interior design channels this energy, a mash-up of Johnny Chu’s and Micah Wright’s friendship, their personalities displayed in art, color, and novelty collections.
The deep red front walls are lined with Chu’s Kung Fu movie posters: cult favorites Enter the Dragon, The Game of Death, and Fist Fighter, and idolatrous parodies Beverly Hills Ninja and Kung Fu Panda. The back walls are handpainted by Wright and Chu with street style cartoons. Contemporary pendant lights cast a gentle glow over glass-topped tables that hold tchotkes, fish bowls (minus the fish), and paper strips of cookie fortunes tucked around the perimeter by customers. But it’s the simple, glossy paper menu that conveys the spirit of father and son best. Designed by Johnny Chu, it is info-saturated and kitschy, depicting the chef as a wok-wielding warrior, or a “Kung Food” master, fighting the evil fast-food villain (wearing an iconic crown, clownish shirt, red braids, and freckles) by force-feeding him with chopsticks from a bowl of noodles. Its tongue-in-cheek epithets—“fly rice”; “General’s Sesame Street Chicken”; “Brocco-Lee”; and “Big Bird’s Nest”—and Shanghai style font embrace the millions of Chinese-American carryout menus that have been tucked into oily brown paper bags.
Still, skepticism is understandable. After all, haven’t we only just recently laid to rest the notion that orange sweet-and-sour chicken and gloppy, cornstarch-heavy sauces shrouded in cartoonish names are authentic Chinese food? Here’s the Chu difference: the food is fresh. The mother sauces that traverse the menu—brown with soy and garlic, white with ginger—are delicate. The seasoning is subtle (and occasionally, when it calls for “kick-butt spice,” not). Soups are made from scratch. The wonton soup is as good, maybe better, than the chicken and dumpling soup made by your Jewish bubbe.
Pot stickers, dumplings, and wontons are hand-shaped. Chef Chu’s Dragon’s Breath wontons were easily the best plated five dollars I’ve spent in months and the sort of simple food that invades my dreams. Seasoned ground pork, onion, and cilantro meatballs are wrapped in egg dough, wok simmered, and topped with thick, spicy red pepper sauce and fresh cilantro. I shared six wontons at four dinners over two weeks. Twenty-four wontons later, I am still thinking about them, and planning my next reunion.
As good as they are, noodles are clearly Chef Chu’s specialty, with zonxon (a tangle of thin noodles, finely chopped pork, tofu, and mushrooms cloaked in spicy dark sauce and crowned with peanuts and cilantro) and Matt Chu’s Special (shaved rice noodle, fried chicken, and seasonal vegetables in gingery white sauce) topping the menu’s flavor charts. This spring, Chef Chu takes his noodle skills to the front of the house, where a demonstration table has been set up for diners to experience the full kick-butt, Kung Food Master experience. As Johnny Chu tells it, “We are converting people to real Chinese food and real beer.” Go Johnny, go.
521 Madison Ave., Covington, (859) 261-6121
Inexpensive, $1.25–$16. Carryout and delivery available.
Fun and friendly father and son restaurant, with good food and one of the best craft beer lists in the city.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue.