Chairs are interspersed with red-seated stools at the community tables.
The West End of Billings has another non-chain, locally owned restaurant whose owner is committed to making good food in an informal environment.
Last month we wrote about the Local Kitchen & Bar, located near Shiloh Road and Grand Avenue. The new addition to the West End dining scene is JP Kitchen Asian Bistro, located on what used to be the West End’s main drag, 24th Street West.
JP Kitchen is at 805 24th St. W., just north of Broadwater on the east side of the street. The owner-chef is Kalvin Tang, who grew up working in his parents’ Chinese restaurant, the Jade Palace, which closed last March. The JP in the new bistro is a nod to Jade Palace, but Tang is trying for something a bit different from what his parents offered.
“We wanted to really break away from American-Chinese restaurants,” he said, which have long been known for relatively heavy food, large portions and monosodium glutamate, or MSG. He is offering lighter fare, reasonable portions and no MSG.
“And also,” he said, “kind of a modern environment. And of course Jeremiah pushed the envelope there.”
That would be Jeremiah Young, the owner of Kibler & Kirch, which has an interior design studio in downtown Billings and a home furnishings and accessories shop in Red Lodge. He worked with Tang to give JP Kitchen a unique, unified feel, right down to the color of the chopsticks and the shape of the pine cylinders that hold them.
Young started with what Tang wanted to do, and that was to serve food made from the best ingredients and simply prepared. They carried that intent all the way through the design process, Young said, aiming at simplicity, elegance and fine craftsmanship.
Young tapped the long oak table we were sitting at with both hands. It was made by Montana Pines, he said, and it was built to last.
“I hope this table has a life of several hundred years,” he said. “It’ll never fall apart.”
The chairs are French-made, and they are interspersed with black stools with deeply inset, form-fitting red plastic seats, designed to be perfectly comfortable even for long periods of time, with no backs.
One striking design element is a huge photo of JP Kitchen’s signature red chopsticks, photographed by Jeremiah Young and printed by Clark Marten Photography.
The lack of backs was intentional, since there are five community-style tables, four of them 10 feet long and one, up near the front windows, 16 feet long. The backless stools create an illusion of personal space when sharing a table with strangers. For those who want the real thing, there are individual tables and chairs on one side of the restaurant.
Young’s attention to detail in the design is matched by Tang’s attention to detail in the kitchen. He has come up with some dishes people accustomed to other Chinese restaurants might find surprising. There’s the bacon fried rice, for starters, and another fried rice made with smoked trout.
He also has fried Brussels sprouts with bacon and honey sriracha, and pork belly buns with pickled cucumber and hoisin sauce. And in addition to more familiar entrees like sweet-and-sour chicken, Mongolian beef and stewed curry and shrimp, Tang has a vegetarian dish featuring grilled romaine hearts with five-spice fried tofu, orange-sesame dressing, pine nuts and rice vermicelli.
“It’s not necessarily fusion,” he said, referring to the hip mix of traditional Chinese with ingredients from a variety of other cultures, “but it’s pushing towards that.”
“He’s trying to do something nobody’s done,” Young said.
For dessert, JP Kitchen is offering ice cream from the Big Dipper, a Missoula-based business that opened a store in Billings earlier this year at North Broadway and First Avenue North, in the storefront below Young’s design shop. Young also designed Big Dipper’s distinctive space.
JP Kitchen has a beer-and-wine license and serves a variety of bottled beers and Montana microbrews on tap. In addition to red and white wines, three varieties of sake are available.
There is one more special item on the menu: “Mom’s Pot Stickers.” They are made by Tang’s mother, Salina Tang, who has come out of retirement to help in the kitchen on a limited basis.
Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Kalvin Tang prepares a meal in the restaurant’s open kitchen. Behind him is his mother, Salina Tang.
“She was pretty nervous about putting ‘Mom’s Pot Stickers’ on the menu,” Tang said, “but it’s worked out really well.”
Tang’s father, Stephen Tang, has also been making appearances in the kitchen. The elder Tangs ran Jade Palace, at 2021 Overland Drive, from 1989 until last March. Kalvin, 29, was born three years before the Jade Palace opened, so he grew up there and started working in the restaurant at 15, busing tables, washing dishes and later working in the kitchen.
His brother, Ken, followed the same path but is now working in San Francisco as a financial adviser. He is a silent partner in his brother’s restaurant, helping out with things like marketing and coaching.
For a long time, Kalvin Tang didn’t think he wanted to go into the restaurant business. But a few years ago, as he was finishing up work on a master’s in business administration degree at the University of Montana in Missoula, and thinking of going to law school, he came to a realization: “It just wasn’t my cup of tea, being in an office.”
So he started toying with the idea of having his own restaurant.
“What really made me want to do it was, being in the driver’s seat,” he said. “That was the lure for me.” He explained that he loves being around food, but he needed the extra incentive of using his business skills.
Tang saved some money during the remodeling of the strip mall space by painting the interior himself, with the help of his girlfriend, Kirsten Loop, who is also the restaurant manager.
A month and a half into his new venture. Tang said he is pleased with both the number of customers coming in and with the type of people who’ve discovered JP Kitchen. They welcome people of all ages, of course, but Tang also wanted to bring in a younger crowd than the one that frequented the Jade Palace.
“We feel that we’re getting there,” he said. “We’re seeing the demographics we were after, and we feel like our customers are kind of taking to it.”
JP Kitchen Asian Bistro is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. On Sundays it is open for dinner only and closed on Mondays. For details, and a look at a full menu, go to the restaurant’s website. For a good review of the restaurant on Billings365, click here.