Sunday, March 6, 2011

Two Cheers: Three Forks Wok and Grill

The avalanche of groupon-imitators that began last summer has brought C and I to a near-stand still on eating. We have a basket full of coupons and can never decide where to go next -- in part because once we use one, we usually want to go back to that place immediately. Such has been the case with Three Forks Wok & Grill, a restaurant we frequently shop and study near, but not one I regularly craved, until a half-off coupon reminded me of the beauty of their sweetly-crunchy slivered almonds set atop coconut curry, jasmine rice, and tofu.

Three Forks is a Eugene-grown business that has semi-recently expanded from a single storefront in the Willamette south strip mall to a second location in the Delta Oaks area. It is also a regular participant in every festival that cascades through Eugene in the summer -- my first taste of their wares, in fact, was at the UO's Street Fare, nearly five years ago.

The menu here is eclectic and difficult to define except in the way that the sign does: all of the food is either grilled or cooked on the wok. Another way to describe this place: it's a local, pan-Asian Chipotle model. There are about seven basic dishes: a grilled veggie salad; the hippie bowl, which has a rice or noodle base, protein, toppings, and salad mix on top; yakisoba; the rice wok; coconut curry; teriyaki bowls; and pad thai. To any of these, you can make significant customizations: choose your own protein (tofu, tempeh, steak, chicken, ahi, shrimp, asian barbecue, or duck), choose your own vegetables (sprouts, mushrooms, cabbage, carrots, snow peas, bell peppers, onions), your own spices (garlic, ginger, thai basil), and your garnishes (sweet almonds, green onions, sesame seeds, and peanut sauce). Oh, hey, you'll also decide how spicy you'd like the food (a five point scale), and what size (medium or large) you'd like your serving.

This menu provides nearly endless combinations that still, somehow, manage to taste pretty similar no matter what you order. Meat changes things; peanut sauce and garlic change things; curry changes things, but the rest are tweaks. This is, therefore, a great place for people who want all the control of cooking their own food and none of the clean up. You can add a glass of wine or a pint of local beer, too, and make this a real escape from the kitchen.

Three Forks basically manages to consistently encompass both the best and worst parts of Eugene living and eating into two compact spaces. They have "hippie bowls" sharing a menu with duck and tuna and the more standard meats. That menu is a dizzying, confusing, build-your-own-but-under-our-supervision thing, and combined with the scowl of the all-knowing, dred-locked cashier, it can make the restaurant feel downright unwelcoming. That runs in contrast to the open floor plans of both branches and the culture of those same cashiers, who -- should you brave a question -- will drop the scowl to explain the food, the source of it, what tastes best, and what's on special. It is a restaurant where you will bus your own table, fetch your own drink, and box your own leftovers, but you'll be paying prices -- $7 to $15, depending on the size and protein you like -- that will remind you of a sit-down, service restaurant.

This duality -- off-putting hippie joint and trendy mid-range eatery -- enables Three Forks to be a favorite food stop for both the upper-middle-class "and after this, let's look at Home Depot again at that adorable ceiling lamp to install in the formal dining room" couples and "I've been seriously considering reducing my use of shampoo from four to three times a month" couples. In other words, this is a place that has one foot firmly in the Delta Oaks shopping center, next to a Starbucks and a Jamba Juice, and the other firmly on the ground in the Willamette south business distract that regularly grows lines out the door at Off the Waffle.

The cost of this bi-Eugenian appeal can be a place that feels welcoming to neither cheap college students (with or without shampoo-avoidance predilections) nor those who don't mind dropping $30 for Sunday lunch. And the imbalance has another problem: the best of Three Forks is also the most expensive. Sure, you can get lunch here on the cheap -- a small salad or hippie bowl with no meat will run you right at $5 -- but you miss a lot of what's interesting and, well, tasty if you skip the protein portion of the meal. (Beyond that: you'll be hungry again in an hour). C likes their rare seared ahi quite a bit; I've heard and witnessed good things about their chicken; and their tofu, while not inspired, is at least solidly grilled and abundant on either sized bowl.

What Three Forks does best, I think, is a comfortable kind of pan-Asian food that's hard to quantify, easy to want, not too difficult to make yourself, and perfect as festival food. A paper carton of quick-fired pad thai noodles with peanut sauce is a wonderful thing when you're wandering between booths of sweets and fried foods, and six or seven bucks for the novelty of healthy-ish food doesn't seem too steep at an event. It can, sometimes, seem steep in the restaurants themselves, but taken as a break from the monotony of cooking at home -- or of eating fried foods, fast burritos, and whatever else it is the college kids eat these days -- it's a nice place to land, every once in a while.

And a coupon doesn't hurt, either (which may be why they seem to come out pretty frequently in the local circulars).

Locations: 2560 Willamette Street; 3003 N. Delta, next to Starbucks
Hours: Willamette: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Delta: Weekdays: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Weekends: 11:30-9

Three Forks Wok & Grill on Urbanspoon

Three Forks Wok & Grill on Urbanspoon

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