Umai Wok: Stir-Fried Wok in a Box

The dining scene in Lebanon suffers from an acute imbalance of cuisines. Italian and French you’ll find aplenty, but search high and low for foods from Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent (sushi exempted), and your options are numbered.

Just last week a friend was asking me for recommendations in Thai cuisine, and besides a few solitary dishes the delivery specialist Jai boasts, there really is no such eatery. If your idea of traditional Asian grub merges with P.F. Chang’s offerings, I admire the bubble you live in.

Umai Wok in Mar Mikhael is a fast food joint that can accommodate at best eight guests along its barstool-studded wall. Located along the same street as Smoking Bun, C.R.P Factory, and Taco Milagro, Umai Wok (translating to “good taste” in Japanese) stir-fries your selection of ingredients, beginning with a rice or noodle base, moving on to protein and veggie add-ins, and finishing with sauce.

Fried rice with shrimp, sirloin and a medley of veggies stir-fried in a wok and then boxed

Manning the duo woks, a young, stern chef exhibiting fierce focus and dexterity. And what a performance he puts on as he switches effortlessly between two round-bottomed cooking vessels held over varying heat intensities.

Manning a wok is serious business

Beginning with your meat choice—fresh raw shrimp, beef sirloin, and/or chicken—he optionally pan-fries it with an egg and slowly incorporates choice produce—bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, ginger, bamboo shoots—carefully measured out from sealed, dated containers (Boecker-certified!). Thereafter, he tosses in the noodles (egg, Chinese, udon, or soba) or rice (steamed or fried) for a carb base. Suffering from celiac disorder? No biggie, as Umai Wok offers gluten-free rice noodles as well as a vegetable mix to suit your strict regimen.

Add-ins are carefully measured out for standardization

The final touch is the sauce, either Oyster, Teriyaki, Sweet & Sour, Sweet Chili, or Yellow Curry & Coconut. Once all elements have been blended uniformly, the chef scoops them into a firm paper box, just as in the movies, for your convenient consumption with either a pair of chopsticks or a fork.

My box blended soba noodles, derived from buckwheat flour, with shrimp, sirloin, shiitake, bean sprouts, and broccoli, all doused in Teriyaki. My companion’s called for fried rice—or steamed rice stir-fried in a wok—with identical add-ins simmered in Sweet Chili. Between us, we split sriracha shrimp and spring rolls.

Soba noodles with shrimp, sirloin and a slew of veggies

Sriracha shrimp -- flamin' hot!

Every component is so fresh and flavorful, which you wouldn’t expect from a veritable hole-in-the-wall in Mar Mikhael. But Umai Wok is as serious and studied as the huge industrial fan that sucks out all the heat and air billowing from the woks, which themselves are enclosed behind glass panels for reasons of hygiene and safety. It is clear the folks behind this concept haven’t cut any corners, and if luck favors them, they’ll soon be launching a full-fledged dine-in restaurant in Hamra paying homage to various cuisines across Asia.

In the meantime, the wok station is more than consolation if you’re willing to go at it modestly. It’s all about the box contents, after all—the scenery becomes mere afterthought. 

Mar Mikhael
Ibrahim Pacha Street


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