Monday, December 8, 2008

Grace Garden Chinese in Odenton

The drive and the cuisine at Grace Garden are more than worth the effort if you are looking for an adventure in Chinese food.

If you want to explore authentic Chinese flavors, then you should drive to Odenton -- to Rte 175 just north of Rte 32 -- and dig into the "Eastern" menu. Ignore the paper menu with the takeout standards. Fill your table with sliced pork belly, steamed whole fish, basil chicken, fish noodles, tea-smoked duck, and pocket tofu.

(Update:  Grace Garden closed briefly because of snow damage to its roof, but it reopened in March 2010.)

The Grace Garden food is delicious. Mrs. HowChow and I loved the spicy pocket tofu and the sauteed Chinese broccoli. The broccoli was 100% talent -- humble vegetables, sauteed to that perfect point of cooked but crisp, then dressed in a light sauce. The pocket tofu was 100% new. I had expected something like the tofu pockets that I buy at the H Mart, but instead, the dish looked like dumplings in a thick, chili sauce. Spectacular. The outside skin is thin, but miraculously strong and wrapped around a tender filling of minced shrimp.

I also liked the Sichuan braised beef, which was an enormous bowl of sliced beef with bamboo shoots, onions and something from the bok choy family. Again, this was Chinese cooking like I have rarely had before. The sauce was viscous, and I instinctively tensed at the first bite because thick Chinese sauces have always meant gloppy flavors. But Grace Garden's sauce was spicy and bursting with flavor. The texture was silky, not gloppy.

(Update: If anything, the tofu pockets and braised beef were exceeded by later meals of fish noodles and braised pork.   The noodles are literally noodles made from ground fish. They have the texture of rustic pasta, and a mild flavor that says meat without being fishy at all.  Then, they serve pork without being greasy.  This is pork belly -- the same cut that people use for bacon. But Grace Garden serves pork that is crispy and tender, a flavor of pork and the spicy sauce.)

All this is 20 minutes from most of Howard County, but it comes with a HoCo pedigree. The chef Chun Keung Li opened his own place in 2005 after years at Hunan Manor in Columbia.

Again, go to Grace Garden if you want an adventure. Last summer, this was the center of a food blog explosion that started on Chowhound, and the City Paper named it Best Chinese Restaurant for 2008. People who know Chinese food have posted all about Chef Li's history and talent and about the dishes that blew them away -- Skillet Doux, Skillet Doux II, Tea and Food, This is Gonna Be Good, Minx Eats, reviews on Yelp.  You'll read mentions of how this is truly a family-run place and even some comments that the planned widening of Rte 175 may force Grace Garden to relocate. If those posts interest you, then a table of Grace Garden delicacies will make you happy.

Only a few articles mention that Grace Garden falls somewhere between "Spartan" and "scary." On a dark night, we drove past blocks of shuttered restaurants and found Grace Garden's strip shopping center pressed against Rte 175 between Cluck You Chicken and a barber shop. Inside, there were a handful of tables, a few photos on the wall, no customers, and a teenaged waitress who couldn't have been less engaged. By the end, I was entranced. Mrs. HowChow was happy with her meal, but she wasn't going to clamor for an early return when she could also go back to Bangkok Delight or Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro.

Read the menu. Read all the blog posts, the City Paper review and especially that Chowhound page. After an extremely disappointing meal at Hunan Legend, I drove to Grace Garden with a list of things that I want to order. (Next time, I'm getting the fish noodles and the basil chicken.) Don't count on the waitress to recommend.

(Update: So much for my cute ending. See Skillet Doux's comment below that you *should* get the waitress to recommend if your waitress is Mei, one of the adult owners. That would just make a Grace Garden visit even better.  And see BMoreCupcake's comment on Chowhound that everything on the "American menu" was excellent as well.)

Click here for my 2010 write-up of Chinese restaurants in Howard County.

Grace Garden
1690 Annapolis Road (Rte 175)
Odenton, MD 21113
Note: They're closed on Sunday.

NEAR: This is on Rte 175 just north of Rte 32. It is in a strip shopping center right against the road. There is parking in back of the center.

Grace Garden on Urbanspoon


Erin said...

It's like you read my mind! I was just reading all of the GG information yesterday since the family decided to go there for our traditional Christmas Eve dinner. I can't wait!

FYI, if you are looking for great Chinese, we usually go to Full Key in Wheaton, which I guess is MoCo, not HoCo, but it's amazing if you are willing to make the trek. Get the soup with dumplings and the snow pea leaves.

DAS said...

I've eaten at Grace Gardens twice with a friend who's been to China (and lamented the lack of authentic Chinese food here ever since), and it is definitely the real deal. Very crummy neighborhood, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Those pocket tofu look amazing.

Anonymous said...

FYI, the teenage waitress is almost assuredly Mei and Chun's daughter. I've never drawn her, so I can't speak to her level of engagement. But I can state with confidence that if your waitress is Mei, you absolutely SHOULD listen to her recommendations :-)

HowChow said...

Sounds great. Our waitress was guilty only of being a teenager, and I recognized that because I looked exactly the same at my time!

HowChow said...

THIS is part of an email from a reader who hosts Chinese students and had some great insight into Grace Garden ---

"Grace Garden was a breath of fresh air. I suspect most Americans who think of themselves as sophisticated restaurant-goers would be put off by the physical surroundings and the lackadaisical service by our standards. I think your frame of mind has to be that you've been invited to dinner in a Chinese home where the cook is harried and doesn't have much support, but he sure can cook!

We had a big group for our dinner including four Chinese students so we tried at least ten dishes. The most notable for me was the Szechuan braised beef. I also especially liked the seasonal vegetable (that night, pea shoots), spicy eggplant and several of the tofu dishes. I wasn't blown away by the fish noodles but they were certainly good. For comparison, the Chinese students had previously identified Bob's Noodle 66 in Rockville as a favorite, but they said that GG was better."

Marianne said...

I have lived on Ft. Meade for the past 6 years and have passed that location at least a million times. It's such an unremarkable looking restaurant. I will definitely try it out soon. I am surprised at the treasures that are located right in my backyard (literally)

Tony said...

I've been hearing about Grace Garden and after reading the review and comments will definitely go there. BTW- has anyone heard what happened to Mr. Kim & the Okinawa restaurant, right down the road from Grace? This was a fabulous sushi place.