Monday, July 26, 2010

Chinese Restaurants in Howard County 2010

This post started a few months ago as the question: "Is there any Chinese food worth eating in Howard County?"

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.

I have decided that Chinese restaurants are just different from other places.  My Chinese-speaking friend said that Chinese people are very aware that foreigners can be put off by their food, and he said people seemed surprised that he wanted real Chinese food -- even in China where he had clearly made an effort to speak the language and live there.  My friend joked that Americans assume that everyone in the world wants to eat a hamburger and commute in their own car, but Chinese people are so aware that foreigners might be put off by spices or flavors or ingredients that they often just don't want to risk making you unhappy.

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 MamaDavid 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.
Jake's recommendation brings me back to the Big Three because no discussion of Howard County Chinese could be complete without the established trio of Hunan Manor, Hunan Legend and Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro.  When we lived off Rte 108, Jesse Wong's American-style dishes were our go-to takeout, and the pretty ambiance still makes it a nice place to take people for a casual, but classy night.  Hunan Manor has been a family mainstay for people like Kevin of Kevin & Ann Eat Everything, and some people even swear by Hunan Legend's regular menu.  These are places that serve memories along with the food, although there are disputes with all three about whether they have declined over time.  Two years ago, I would have held Asean Bistro up against any other kitchen, but I don't think that anymore.  For now, I would rather explore my six places than go back to the old standbys.

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.


K8teebug said...

I second the steamed veggie dumplings at Hunan Legend. Their General Tso's bean curd also hits the spot on a day after you may have had too many beers

LauraAllred said...

I just had Garden Gourmet delivery this past weekend (due to a friend's roudy small child who wanted nothing to do with going out to dinner), and we went simple with seaweed salad, some sushi rolls and vegetable singapore noodles. Delivery took 30 minutes but it arrived hot and nicely seasoned and the noodles were full of veggies (cabbage, carrots, baby corn, snap peas, broccoli). The curry was light and not juicy and the noodles were great. I think I will actually go there and check out the in house menu soon. If anyone else goes, I'd love to hear about it!

Sarah said...

I think Gourmet Garden has changed ownership since 2006, but I'm not 100% sure. I haven't been in a few months but I remember their food wasn't bad, but I didn't think it was great, either.

Another good place that's also no in Howard County but in Catonsville for Chinese is Hanoori Town next to H-Mart. It's a Korean-run cafeteria-style place, but they have Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food there.

Dave said...

What about China Chefs on Hickory Ridge Road? My wife loves their chicken fried rice.

Jenny said...

What are people's thoughts on China Village on Montgomery Road? Online reviews rate it higher than Hunan Legend, and we've tried it and found it serviceable though not authentic (though perhaps they have a secret menu too? I don't know.)

kam said...

We went to Red Pearl a couple weekends ago. Had the jellyfish as an appetizer. I really like it. The sauce is fairly mild, but I think the fun is in the texture. It's like firm, almost crunchy noodles.

China Chefs I went to with some friends and really enjoyed a dish involving chicken with ginger, baked in a clay pot. Very tasty.

I haven't gotten food from China Village in years. The few times I did, I was fairly unimpressed, but I was getting Americanized dishes, so I can only compare those.

My usual takeout place is Hunan Express, which good for when you want something quick and reasonably good, albeit Americanized.


Marcia said...

We're on a similar wavelength! We stopped at Noodles Corner yesterday, it's been 2 yrs or so since we last went. Good, well-prepared, authentic food just like we remembered.

little audrey said...

Great post! :) Re:China Village, we tried them when we moved to EC, and remember being underwhelmed, and thinking Hunan Legend was better. Well, we got takeout from Hunan Legend over the weekend, and it was the first truly BAD meal we've gotten there. Chef Glop was in the house. (BTW is Grace Garden the only place where we know the name of the chef/owner? Does that tell us something?)

We'll give China Village another shot, and I still have to get to Red Pearl. That photo you posted of their kung pao chicken always makes me drool.

Anonymous said...

Our "go to" place is Peking Chef in Hickory Ridge Village Center - They have a number of Columbia Magazine awards on the wall for "Take-out", but people are missing out on sitting down to experience it fresh out of the wok! We have never had a bad meal there (since we moved here in 1993!) and they will gladly whip up anything you can describe, even if it's not on the menu. And yes, they have a menu I can't decipher, and native/heritage families gather there for celebrations.

HowChow said...

@KirkPasf: Peking Chef is a new place to me. I'd love if you grabbed a copy of the Chinese menu next time and emailed a PDF.

Y said...

Hunan at the Lark Brown plaza in Elkridge is my go-to for quality Americanized carryout. I only order from the combo menu. There are closer Chinese carryouts from me but it is where I go.

AlPal3 said...

I like Jessie Wong's and Noodle Corner, but for me I have never been able to get Chinese as good as the old Jade Palace in the Columbia Mall (not Jade Palace Express). The Szechuan Lo Mein was impossible to stop eating before it was gone. The Szechuan Beef was stuffed with delicious chunks of beef and crispy vegetables. Seems like whenever I order beef in a Chinese meal these days it's hard to say for sure if they gave me beef or pork or some other meat.

Joan M said...

Noodles Corner is one of my very favorites! Delicious Pad Thai -- my favorite version is here. Also wonderful Chinese broccoli, and fresh brewed-at-the-table jasmine tea. Their prices are very cheap too, and service is quick.

palguy said...

Chinese buffet go to Fortune Star
in Jessup very good chinese food

Skip said...

Does anyone know if the owners of the old WOK 175 have reopened? It was located next to the Chick-Fil-a off Dobbin Road.

They had some of the best Chinese Food around at reasonable prices.

My favorite was "Governor's Chicken" with their " Sesame Chicken" as my wife's. The Hot and Sour soup was also very good.

Sapna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sapna said...

Our go to is Peking Chinese on Oakland Mills-- tasty, reasonably priced, good portions, and most importantly, their peking duck is pretty authentic and well priced. Thoughts? Anyone?