I wrote up Chinese restaurants in early 2009, but the truth is that we rarely eat the stuff around here -- opting for other cuisine or driving a little farther to check out better restaurants. A horrific dinner at Hunan Legend and some takeout failures made me expect glop on every plate, and I wondered if there was anything worth trying.
The answer: "Yes." But, to get the food that I want, you have to ask.
To get the Chinese food that I want, you need to find restaurants with a separate, authentic menu -- and you need to really emphasize that you want the authentic version. This frustrates some people, and it really frustrated me when my Hunan Legend waiter lied and denied that the Columbia restaurant had a separate menu of authentic dishes. But that led to a wonderful series of posts where Wai provided and translated the Chinese menu, then other people like Warthog used it enough that the restaurant put out an official version.
The flip side is that they can be very happy if you try. Noodles Corner in Columbia invested the time to translate its second menu of authentic items, but the managers were still visibly surprised when we ordered authentic dishes. They confirmed twice that we wanted Chinese versions. We did. They smiled.
But, with that said, I totally respect people like Little Audrey who points out that she can get terrific tacos at R&R Taqueria without knowing a secret password. She likes Hunan Legend for a quick kung pao, but she doesn't want to prove her worthiness to order authentic stuff -- so she drives the extra miles to Grace Garden.
You should drive there as well because Grace Garden tops my spots for local Chinese. I'm a complete novice, but I know where I have found fresh, interesting dishes that make me think you can get several provinces of special meals if you know where to ask:
Grace Garden in Odenton: Chef Chun Keung Li serves luxurious flavors in a Spartan room. This is a place for people who want to explore, who want to drive a little extra to enjoy tea-smoked duck, sliced pork belly, steamed whole fish, and fish noodles. Grace Garden stands out because of its skills and becomes it welcomes everyone. Ingredients familiar to anyone who eats Chinese -- chicken, fish, vegetables -- become stellar meals, and the exotic touches are there for anyone who wants to try. I understand that the menu tends towards southern Chinese cuisine. Check out my posts and search Chowhound or other local food blogs.
Red Pearl in Columbia: This authentic menu at this new lakeside place runs to spicy Szechuan food. Lunch at the Red Pearl was a hit for me -- a dry kung pao that was delicious and different than the American variety, a special vegetable (Chinese broccoli) that was crisp, and the Red Pearl posts have some detailed recommendations and comments, including ColumbiaJ who recommended potstickers with hot oil and flounder with soft tofu. (Update: Red Pearl added dim sum, which I think is absolutely delicious.)
Noodles Corner in Columbia: This is our newest find, and our single takeout meal wasn't enough for me to offer even my uneducated opinion. Apparently, this authentic menu is heavily Taiwanese, and I recommend the shredded pork appetizer, the asian chili wrap, and the pan-fried noodles with beef, chicken and shrimp. I was turned onto Noodles Corner by people like Wai, Jade's Mama, David P., Little Audrey, and William. From those folks, I have a "to do" list of fish fillet with XO sauce, black mushrooms with bok choy, the seafood or beef hot pot, and the northern Chinese noodles (even though Wai would like them spicier and saltier). William also recommended the tea -- no giant pot in the back; they put tea leaves into the pot that they serve to the table.
Hunan Taste in Catonsville. Although it's not Howard County, the extra miles are worth checking out the Hunan menu. This is the place that really got me excited for authentic Chinese because dishes like preserved sausage with smoked bamboo shoots were a revelation. New flavors. New combinations. I thought it was a tasty, classy, casual place, although you can get cultural clash with your meal. Several comments describe food that they didn't like and management who didn't seem to care. Another got great food at lunch, then watered-down takeout soup the next day.
Hunan Legend in Columbia: This is an odd recommendation because my only meal here was terrible. But that was off the American menu, and other people really love Hunan Legend's authentic dishes that trend Cantonese and Malaysian. People like Warthog convinced the owners to give the translated Chinese menu to everyone, and the Hunan Legend posts include lots of comments that recommend specific items. Also, Warthog sparked a long Chowhound string that lists dishes and discusses the whole stereotype that Americans don't really like Chinese food.
Asian Court in Ellicott City: This is for lunch-time dim sum -- rolling carts on the weekend and from the menu on weekdays. We think this matches the famous places in the DC suburbs, and we'll go again and again for steamed BBQ pork buns, steamed dumplings, sticky rice, and even for desserts like coconut jelly and sesame balls. You can explore beyond into chicken feet, head-on shrimp, and bitter melon rounds stuffed with shrimp paste.That isn't to say that you need to worship authentic Chinese. That's my taste these days, but Chinese restaurants make people happy every day with dishes that never saw China. A single kitchen could serve "authentic" to one customer, "comfort food" to another, and just give you a bag of takeout on a night when you can't face the stove.
- Jade recommended the Lucky China Inn in the Oakland Mills village center in Columbia -- especially Szechuan lo mein, orange chicken, and mu shu chicken.
- Anonymous recommended Hunan Express in Elkridge -- especially the steamed dumplings that come six for $4.
- Anonymous recommended ChopStixx in Elkridge -- really for pan-Asian noodle dishes like pad thai.
- Jake recommended Hunan Legend in Columbia -- for a friendly atmosphere, steamed dumpling and the kung pao triple delight.
What do you think about Chinese food in Howard County? Are there places that you recommend? Specific dishes? I think the most-useful advice is a description of a few specific dishes so a newcomer can start off with something delicious. Are there other places with Chinese menus? Other places where you love the American versions?
Specifically, has anyone been recently to Garden Gourmet in the Long Reach Village Center in Columbia? There is a 2006 Chowhound string between Warthog and Elgringoviego that makes me want to try their Szechuan food. Both those guys are thoughtful writers, and I wonder if Garden Gourmet still has special dishes.
This is an update to the "What I Learned" series of posts from 2009. They're a bit out of date by now, but they link to many other posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring about different cuisines. Or click to switch to the posts about shopping in Howard County or posts about areas and ideas.