A Food-Centric Family
Tans explore Asian cuisine at Mr. Wok and in books

By Katherine Michalets

Dec. 22, 2018

Mr. Wok co-owner Jian Tan in the kitchen, where she experiments with Pan-Asian dishes.
Kenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman

WAUKESHA - There’s a little unassuming Asian food restaurant in a Waukesha strip mall that many people may have driven past - or even eaten at - but not have known that one of its fans is famous in the literary world.

Mr. Wok, 2128 Silvernail Road, counts Chinese-American author Amy Tan as an infrequent but raving customer, as is supported by art on the wall from Tan that includes photos of her with the owners that reads “Thanks for another fantastic dinner.”

Of course, it’s a little easier to make Tan a fan when she’s your aunt.

Mr. Wok is owned by C.S. and Jian Tan. The author is Jian’s aunt, her mother’s sister.

However, Tan’s writing is also highly descriptive of food — the way that only a diehard food connoisseur could write.

In the novel that launched her to literary fame, “The Joy Luck Club,” Amy Tan wrote, “She is stuffing wonton, one chopstick jab of gingery meat dabbed onto a thin skin and then a single fluid turn with her hand that seals the skin into the shape of a tiny nurse’s cap.”

Tan’s books celebrate Chinese culture, both from mainland China and its presence in the United States.

Her niece Jian Tan not only incorporates Chinese dishes into Mr. Wok’s menus but food from other Asian cultures that she finds delicious, including Malaysian, which is where her husband’s ancestry lies.

When Amy Tan is doing a book tour she will swing by the little Pan-Asian restaurant in Waukesha.

Jian Tan says while many consider her aunt a celebrity, to her she is just family.

Jian Tan, co-owner of Mr. Wok, takes pride in her Pan-Asian dishes that are made to order.
Kenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman

Cultural influences

C.S. and Jian Tan enjoy traveling and tasting dishes that inspire their entrees in Waukesha.

“That’s the beauty of it, people don’t get to travel a lot on this part of town,” C.S. Tan said, emphasizing that they can taste food inspired from as far away as Thailand at Mr. Wok.

He said with people exposed to more food and travel shows they may hear of an exotic dish and not get a chance to try it, but then they walk into Mr. Wok and can get a taste.

Everything made at Mr. Wok is cooked to order, including the sauces.

C.S. emphasized that you won’t have the same sauce for five different dishes at Mr. Wok, like you find at many Chinese restaurants.

“Customers need to enjoy their food and not just fill their tummy,” C.S. Tan said.

He said Malaysian customers will bring their friends to try a typical dish and at first they are hesitant, but once they taste and like it they start to become more adventurous with their selections.

Dishes on Mr. Wok’s menu include king dang, a stir fry with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, baby corn and green onions in a red curry sauce with coconut milk, as well as panang, a stir fry with coconut milk, ground peanuts in curry paste and lightly sprinkled with lime leaves.

For those looking for something a little more familiar, there is chop suey and chow mein on the menu, as well as fried rice and dumplings.

On the wall of Mr. Wok in Waukesha is a framed print featuring photos of Chinese-American author Amy Tan and her husband, niece Jian Tan and her husband, C.S. Tan, as well as covers of Tan’s acclaimed books.
Kenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman

A long history

For 30 years, Mr. Wok has been filling tummies. The Tans said they plan to keep the restaurant going into the foreseeable future.

“We work until we can’t work anymore,” Jian Tan said, joking that’s the Asian way.

When they started the restaurant, which is still in the same location, C.S. said the customers’ palates were more meat-and-potatoes than volcano chicken, but that has changed as people become more “food-minded,” he said.

“They are more savvy now,” he added.

Jian said people are ordering more from the Pan-Asian menu than they did years ago.

It’s a family operation with the Tans’ children part of the business, and often working behind the counter.

Even the customers have become close to the Tans through the decades.

C.S. said one customer has been eating at Mr. Wok since day one and before the Tans and the customer had kids. Now, their kids are in their 20s.

“We met our close friends who were customers,” Jian Tan said.

But ultimately, the Tans are taking their business day-by-day and look only about three to five years out.

For now, the focus is on the quality of food and the customers’ experiences, they said.