Restaurant Review: Authentic Chinese Dining in Hoover
1917 Hoover Court (next to Green Valley Drugs)
By Deborah Lockridge
Maybe ordering the cold plate of sliced pig ears was a little too adventurous, but everything else we tried at Mr. Chen’s in Hoover was a delight.
Mr. Chen’s is a relatively new restaurant, tucked away in a strip mall next to Green Valley Drugs. It’s gotten a lot of good chatter on Internet foodie boards such as Chowhound for its authentic cuisine.
Despite the authentic food, Mr. Chen’s is still very approachable for novice Westerners. The menu is clear, the servers speak English, forks are provided, and the décor is attractive but casual.
It’s obvious this isn’t the usual Americanized Chinese restaurant when you look at the menu – no appetizers list with the usual egg rolls, wontons and Crab Rangoon. You can get dumplings, but they’re hidden under the “noodles” section further in to the menu. Instead, the first thing on the menu are “cold plates.”
We were fascinated by some of the more unusual choices on the menu – several different versions of intestines, for instance. We had eaten fried pig’s ear strips at Satterfield’s, so I guess that made us bold. Instead of ordering the braised beef shanks, which our server recommended and described as tasting something like roast beef, we went with the “spicy sliced pork ears” ($5.95). Other “cold plate” choices included spicy beef tendon, spicy basil squid, smoked chicken or smoked duck.
The pile of thinly sliced pork ears, garnished with cilantro and served over a bit of sweet-spicy cabbage, was generous. The flavor was good, with a very “porky” taste enhanced by the sweet-but-not-too-spicy sauce. It was a texture thing. The chewiness of the cold meat and the crunchiness of the cartilage was just too much for our Western palates.
Happily, the “small steam buns” ($3.95) that arrived while we were still pushing the pork ears around trying to make it look like we’d eaten more than half a dozen slices were a treat for the mouth. I’ve also seen these described as “soup dumplings,” because of the way the juices from the filling and the moisture from the steam are trapped inside the dumpling dough. When you bite into the dumpling, you get this wonderful rush of delicious broth in your mouth. There’s a bit of a trick to eating them that we haven’t yet discovered. If you try to pick them up inexpertly with chopsticks, you’re likely to tear the wrapper and lose all that lovely juice. They’re a bit large for a single mouthful, but again, if you cut them, you lose the broth on your plate. But we’ll happily keep practicing. The dumplings, 10 of them, were beautifully presented in a bamboo steamer lined with leaves, and they came with a delicious soy-based dipping sauce.
We also ordered the pan fried dumplings ($3.95), which you may know as pot stickers or gyoza. These had a wonderful homemade quality to them (I’ve made pot stickers at home before), and the filling had the distinctive bite of a generous amount of ginger. The dipping sauce was similar to that for the steam buns. The fillings on both types of dumplings seemed to have plenty of meat in them.
There are also a couple of soup choices, served for two: seafood hot and sour, and Taiwanese style wonton soup. You can also get seafood, meatball, or house “clay pot,” which must be more of a meal-type stew dish, since the prices are in the $12.95 to $14.95 range, compared to the soup at $4.95 which is clearly more of an appetizer choice. There are some more soups listed in the noodle section.
After the pig ears, we did not get quite so adventurous on the entrees. The menu is divided into chicken, seafood, beef, pork, tofu-vegetable, rice, and noodle dishes, plus a page of family-style combos with courses pre-selected for 4, 5, 6 or more.
Our server, after seeing our reaction to the pig ears, seemed to be making an effort to steer us toward more American-friendly dishes. Evan ordered Kung Pao Chicken ($7.50). It was one of the best renditions of this dish we’d ever had, with the chicken having that almost-caramelized sweet-spicy glaze. Instead of the usual suspects when it comes to Chinese vegetables, this had tender-firm wedges of zucchini and mushrooms in addition to the peanuts. The dried Chinese hot peppers were not too spicy.
Our server suggested a spicy shredded beef bean curd with cilantro ($7.95), which did sound interesting (bean curd is tofu, if you're not familiar with the term), or the sizzling beef ($8.95), but I asked about eggplant with pork basil in hot pot ($7.95). She asked if I liked eggplant, and I assured her I did. “OK, you like eggplant, you like this.” And indeed, you do need to like eggplant. It’s a huge serving of tender eggplant strips, with thin tender strips of pork and some sprigs of basil. The seasoning was subtle and really allowed the flavor of the eggplant to come through, without any bitterness you sometimes get from eggplant. Even Evan, who’s not that crazy about eggplant, agreed it was good. But I took half of it home; there’s only so much eggplant I can eat in a single sitting. I did wish they had put in single basil leaves instead of whole sprigs. It would have been easier to eat without the stems, and would have dispersed the basil a little better throughout the dish.
Some of the other interesting-looking choices on the menu included shredded chicken with cilantro, curry shredded chicken, sesame chicken, squid with crispy bean sauce, stir-fried anchovy with peanuts, whole fish in black bean sauce, salted crispy oysters, braised beef belly in hot pot, stir fry bitter melon with beef, pork spare ribs wrapped in lotus leaf, smoked pork with garlic sprouts, shredded pork with bean curd and bamboo shoots, crispy pork intestines with salty pepper, tofu with crispy bean sauce, sautéed sweet pea leaves, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, Taiwanese pork chop on rice, Szechuan beef stew noodle soup, wonton noodle soup, and Taiwanese stir fried rice noodles.
If you go for lunch, there’s a page of lunch specials that reads much more like the typical Americanized Chinese.
The menu features a whole page of cold and hot flavored teas. We enjoyed a cold hibiscus spice tea, a hot passion fruit green tea, and a strawberry-mango slush, all of which are delicious. The hot tea was served in a Styrofoam cup and the cold teas were served in plastic cups with a pretty plastic covering that made us think at first the drink was prepackaged. But after we saw them making the slush and it came with the same type of top, we realized it must have been attached with some sort of special machine there at the drink station. They’re supposed to get their liquor license by the end of July.
Another thing that’s very different from the usual Chinese restaurant – no carafe of soy sauce on the table. And indeed, the food really didn’t need any. But our daughter likes to eat rice with soy sauce, so we asked for some. What they brought us was very dark and very intensely flavored – maybe too much so.
Overall, everything was very good and we’ll definitely be back. We definitely recommend dining “family style,” where everyone shares all the dishes. This seems to be what they’re geared up for, because no two dishes came out of the kitchen at once. If you don’t eat family style, someone will have to sit there with no food while waiting for his or her order to arrive. And besides, it’s much more fun to try different dishes, and you’ll be able to build a more balanced meal, if you share. In fact, bring a small group if you can.
Review published July 2009