It’s official. The Joy Luck is still unofficially open and serving authentic Taiwanese food in the Highlands.
Has been since February, but owner Alvin Lin hasn’t made that public. The official grand opening will come sometime soon, though when exactly is even his best guess.
“We’re kind of laid back when it comes to doing that because we’re still working on a few things,” Lin said. His father, called “Uncle Lin” by everyone, is a veteran chef whose food was a known entity, “so we knew we could manage that part of it. So there wasn’t any reason not to open when we did.”
Its website even claims it opened in 2013, but Lin confessed that’s a fib. To say it opened in 2014 would require the use of the number 4, which in Chinese culture, is bad luck.
“It’s the same as 13 being bad luck in American culture,” he said. “Even when spoken, the word for the number 4 sounds a lot like the same word for death.”
The Lins, including Alvin’s mother, Pauline, ran Asian restaurants in Lexington before seeing the former Kashmir open up last year. Alvin Lin said, “We knew that’s where we wanted to be,” and they moved. “We knew there was an opportunity to bring more authentic food to that part of the city.”
The 55-seat restaurant (not including several more seats at tables on its patio overlooking Bardstown Road, directly across from Mid-City Mall) is not your average Asian spot. Designed by Barry Wooley, the space has no dragons or Phoenixes, no red color scheme or faux-gold gilding. It’s contemporary and casual, yet subtly elegant.
“I wanted it to be different from anything else that looks, you know, ‘Chinese,’” Lin said. “Enough with the dragons and Phoenixes. That says, to me at least, ‘typical Chinese,’ and our food isn’t that at all.”
Describing it as authentic Taiwanese, however, is a little tricky, Lin said. Rooted in Chinese cuisine, Taiwanese food is heavily influenced by Japanese cuisine, thanks to that country’s early-20th century invasion.
“To understand all the subtle differences in just Chinese food you have to imagine them as a little bit like different styles of barbecue in the South,” Lin said. “If you’re familiar with them, the differences seem obvious. If you’re not, it’s just barbecue.
“Taiwanese food is a fusion of Japanese and Chinese. That’s where my father comes in. He insists on it being authentic.”
Though they met in the U.S., Lin’s mother and father are from Taiwan, where he learned to cook. Her role, according to Alvin, “is queen bee over the whole place.” (My observations of her constant movement throughout my visit proved the queen bee wasn’t waiting around to be served. She’s busy.) All three are, as one might expect, charming—the type of restaurant owners you want to visit with as much as eat their food.
And that food is really good. I asked Lin for a few suggestions, and he sent out sample portions of the Taiwanese sausage roll, Formosa chicken roll, Beijing roasted duck in hirata buns, braised pork over rice and beef short ribs in black bean sauce. All were delicious.
“That’s the kind of food we want to help people try,” Lin said. “We want to get them out of their comfort zones so they can try the real thing.”
How? By leading them through the door of known dishes such as General Tso’s chicken or shrimp, or sesame chicken or beef.
“Those aren’t even authentic Chinese dishes, but it’s what people know and are comfortable with,” he said. Uncle Lin then puts his twists on them to make them more liked they’d taste if served in his homeland. “If people can understand some newer flavors in a dish they already know, there’s a chance they will try other things.”
Like the short ribs in black bean sauce.
“I mean, how safe can you get, right? They’re ribs,” Lin said. “They’re not like ribs you pick up with your hands, of course, but it’s beef, and the sauce is different. It’s all a starting point.”
Unlike many Chinese restaurants, there is no “Chinese menu,” although those in the know can request to get the real deal. The Joy Luck’s one-pager is all there is, which is how Uncle Lin wants it.
“We want to do a few things very well,” Lin said. That means 11 starters, five soups, four noodle dishes, four wholly inauthentic American desserts (including fried cheesecake) and 28 entrées.
Arguably more diverse—surprisingly so, in fact—is the bar, which features a wide and balanced range of premium spirits. Its craft cocktail menu isn’t online yet, but be sure to ask for it when you arrive.
“I grew up in Lexington, so bourbon’s important to me,” Lin said. “A really good bar was something you also don’t see in many Asian restaurants. In this neighborhood, we felt that was important.”
Want an endorsement of how good it is?
“Really? That’s him? He’s here all the time,” Lin exclaimed. “I guess that’s good.”
Yes it is. Really good.
PS: For fans of Amy Tan’s book, “The Joy Luck Club,” don’t expect any connection to that dramatic and haunting tale and this restaurant’s name.
“The Joy part of the name comes from our hope that everyone who works here will like it, that we’ll all get along,” Lin said. “And the Luck part, well, we’ve always had luck, both good and bad. I guess it’s that simple.”