Worth the Drive: 2 New Restaurants in the South
March 17, 2022
For Nashville chef/restaurateur Clay Greenberg, March 2020 is a month he’d just as soon forget. He was making final plans for a fun Pan-Asian pop-up at his restaurant Silo in the city’s Germantown neighborhood when the building suffered a direct hit from a tornado in early March. “The owners said it would take a couple months to rebuild, but we knew it would be at least a year,” Clay recalls.
Despite the tornado aftermath, he still planned to debut his new Punk Wok concept as a pop-up, but then, COVID shut down the Nashville restaurant industry entirely in mid-March. Clay began to seek out a permanent location for the future after shutting down Silo for good and discovered the new Sylvan Supply complex in West Nashville.
He spent most of the next year designing the menu and figuring out how to fit his restaurant into the small basement space next to the sprinkler room of the mixed-use development. “We’re probably the tiniest full-service restaurant in town at only 1787 square feet,” he jokes.
As the name of the restaurant would reveal, Punk Wok doesn’t take itself too seriously. Bold murals cover the walls, and the space behind the bar is covered by a mosaic made up of thousands of mahjong tiles. Former Sex Pistols rocker Johnny Rotten’s quote painted on the wall sets the mood for the entire space: “Don’t accept the old order. Get rid of it!”
The industrial look of Punk Wok has almost a Blade Runner vibe to it. Image: Punk Wok
Punk Wok’s new order is what Clay describes as an American izakaya, the Japanese equivalent of a neighborhood bar that serves great drinks and food. Teaming up with several crew members from previous restaurant gigs, Clay has created a staff that is comfortable with collaboration, though he admits that they now all need to use reading glasses in the kitchen.
The menu is inspired by Clay’s experiences growing up in Oklahoma City, a metropolis with a surprisingly large and vital Asian influence. Drawing from his favorite Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, and regional Chinese cuisine, he has divided the Punk Wok menu into creative sushi offerings of maki, sashimi, and nigiri that are artfully prepared using whole loins of tuna expertly butchered in-house. They also feature a house-made soy sauce blend with katsuobushi that is lower in sodium and offers an insane depth of flavor.
Punk Wok pays attention to both the vibrant look and fresh taste of their sushi offerings. Image: Punk Wok
In addition to sushi, the rest of the menu is divided into cold, hot, and wok sections. These are where the fusion really gets fun as Punk Wok combines traditional Asian ingredients with global influences and nuances. Pickling is important in both Asian and Southern American cooking, and Punk Wok pickles all sorts of vegetables. Egg noodles, dipping sauces, and kimchi are also made in the kitchen rather than purchased, and the difference in freshness and flavor is apparent.
Plates are sized for combining into a meal or for sampling and sharing. Highlights of the cold portion of the menu include Thai Tiger Tear salad with fried noodles to add a little texture, a Japanese-style potato salad with house pickles and custardy Kewpie mayo, and a trio of preserved veggies.
The hot menu is a little more substantial, featuring crab rangoon ingeniously stuffed with pimento cheese, a sweet and spicy char siu pork belly served with pickled cabbage for tangy contrast, and the most popular dish so far, a sort of Korean poutine made by ladling beef bulgogi chili, beer cheese, and kimchi over waffle fries. It’s exactly as decadent as it sounds!
House-pickled and fermented vegetables make their way into many menu items at Punk Wok. Image: Punk Wok
The Tiger Tear Salad packs enough spice to make your eyes water a little bit. Image: Punk Wok
Sweet and tangy char siu pork belly is a highlight at Punk Wok. Image: Punk Wok
Clay is still developing his wok menu, but once he fires up that jet engine of a cooker, you can expect more cheeky and inventive stir-fries coming out of the kitchen. A daily bento box deal offers a combo of four small dishes for a delicious and affordable lunch, and evening hours showcase the amazing selection of whiskey, beer, and sake behind the bar.
Another nice part about Punk Wok is that even though the gestalt seems a little rebellious, they are very open to accommodating guests’ dietary requests including gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, peanut-free, and shellfish-free options. Although his restaurant screams rock and roll, deep down, Clay Greenberg is really a softie!