Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Chinese Restaurants in Howard County 2009

Columbia is the ideal habitat for mundane takeout Chinese, but a few delicious options have evolved from the mass.

Anonymous shopping centers are the perfect place for anonymous Chinese counters or small restaurants. Most are named "Hunan" something. Most mirror the greasy joint where I discovered fried wantons during middle school. Please post in the comments about the good ones, but the truth is that I don't explore the "Hunan Whats" because I can choose Chinese food -- American-style, authentic Chinese, or boisterous dim sum.  (Update: 2010 update on local Chinese.)
  • For the Chinese food that has become traditional in this country, you should start at Jesse Wong's Asian Bistro. This is the place for dumplings, lettuce wraps, hot-and-sour soup, Szechuan green beans, chow fun, basil chicken, General Tso's chicken (renamed for Chef Xu). But the Asean Bistro goes far beyond your normal shopping center fare. First, the restaurant is beautiful, and there is live jazz on weekends. Second, the menu goes far past the Chinese-American staples and serves up excellent seafood, Thai and Malaysian-inspired dishes, and some unusual dishes like the spicy Duke Chicken that Mrs. HowChow and I enjoyed in December. This is a classy-but-casual place that lends itself to large dinners where you can fill a table with interesting food.
  • For truly authentic Chinese food, the trendy choice is a drive to Odenton. Grace Garden is a diamond in the rough -- literally. This is a family-run restaurant where chef Chun Keung Li -- formerly of Hunan Manor in Columbia -- serves up authentic Chinese flavors in a Spartan dining 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. Everything is on one of the two menus, and everything is well-described and easy to understand. I savored everything that I tried, and I will drive an extra five minutes for unique dishes, for the expert way that everything was cooked, and for the adventure of something new. Mrs. HowChow enjoyed her meal, but Asean Bistro's food and atmosphere are enough to keep her in HoCo. As I noted in my original post, you should read the blog posts that I collected. If the posts interest you, then you'll love the food.
  • (Update: I'm overly proud that you can also get authentic Chinese food off the "formerly secret" menu at Hunan Legend. After this post went up originally, I got a great comment from Wai -- who talked about a Chinese-language menu at Hunan Legend. Wai said that the dishes off that menu were authentic home cooking. Then, she translated the Chinese menu so that anyone can order from the secret dishes. By summer, people were requesting the menu from me, and people like Warthog were flourishing the hand-written translations, ordering Chinese and Malaysian dishes, and really getting to know the owners. Warthog posted on Chowhound about his experience. By fall, the owners trusted Americans enough to offer their own translated version -- typed and available to anyone who asks. Definitely check it out.)
  • For dim sum, check out Asian Court on Rte 40 in Ellicott City. They serve a Hong Kong-style dishes from a menu on weekdays and from carts on weekends. Grab a yellow dim sum menu even on weekends so that you can pick favorites and wait for -- or even request - your favorites. Everything from basic shu mai and spicy rice to authentic tripe and chicken feet. Save room for dessert because the coconut jelly and the fried sesame balls were the best dessert that I have ever had in a Chinese restaurant.
And if you can't decide what you want, go to Fortune Star Buffet in Jessup for a little bit of everything. This is an all-you-can-eat exploration. The food doesn't match any of the places above, but you can try a little of everything. I filled several plates with good options, and the best dishes were things that would have been my second choice if I had been ordering from a menu. But check out the comments on my original post because opinons range from "FANTASTIC" to "RUDE! and . . . substandard."

These options ignore one of the places that most locals seem to love -- Hunan Manor in Columbia. I like Hunan Manor, and I carry out from there, recommending dishes like the pickle appetizer, the Chinese broccoli and chicken in Oyster sauce. Honestly, the food is better than Fortune Star. But it remains second to Asean Bistro in my mind because every few times that I explore, I end up with a package of heavy, flavorless food that I don't really love.

Look on Chowhound, and you'll see eloquent posts about Hunan Manor and Hunan Legend and about Gourmet Garden at the Long Reach Village Center. (Every post by ElGringoViejo appears nuanced and based in experience, so I'm going to try Gourmet Garden eventually.) They talk about ordering authentic entrees off the menu, but I had a horrible meal at Hunan Legend where I asked about specials, etc. and got gloppy American-style food. Ironically, that was what sparked my whole Hunan Legend "secret" menu fun.

(Update: I am writing a new Chinese restaurants overview in July 2010.  Please post your comments about Howard County Chinese places there.)

This is part of the upcoming "What I Learned" series of 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.

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NEXT: Indian Restaurants in Howard County


Doug S said...

I'm a huge fan of "cheap American take-out chinese food". The small dive that you'd never actually eat there and hope that no one actually sees you coming or going. That place used to be Chinese Gourmet in Owen Brown's village center. I used to live a 1/2 mile from there and would frequent it often. When I moved over to Wilde Lake, I still went back for it (doesn't seem far, but could be a painful drive with the mall in the middle).

But, alas- they changed hands. It's still good, just not what it used to be.

So, if anyone has any recommendations for great cheap American chinese take-out - I'm all ears!

Jade's Mama said...

Hi, Doug,

Have you ever tried Lucky China Inn at the Oakland Mills village center? So far, their Szechuan lo mein, orange chicken, and mushu chicken are quite tasty and satisfying. It does not have really any traditional Chinese dishes as far as I can tell, but their Chinese American dishes are quite tasty.

Unknown said...

Hi, HowChow,

I was wondering, if you had seen this Chowhound discussion about Hunan Taste in the H-Mart shopping center in Catonsville. (See here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/668736) I haven't been there yet and my palate is not calibrated for authentic Hunan cuisine. However, the hype is pretty impressive and I am a frequent H-Mart shopper. I'd love to hear your opinion of the place, if you get a chance to sample.

HowChow said...

@Wai -- It's spectacular. We went tonight. I probably won't post until next week, but I recommend it highly.

Unknown said...

Thanks, HowChow! So exciting to hear we have identified another authentic Chinese restaurant! At this rate, maybe with time we'll give Montgomery and Fairfax counties a run for their money. ;-) I'll try to check it out next week and maybe share my Southerner's perspective on this more Central China cuisine.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone suggest where to find roast duck and soy chicken. I have to travel to Wheaton now....