Cantonese Chinese is in some ways the most familiar of Asian cuisines and the most foreign. I certainly learned to appreciate new, unexpected flavors and textures in the Cantonese Chinese restaurants my parents took me to when I was growing up. (True, we’re talking about canned water chestnuts and Sterno-singed beef skewers, but still…)
As a young adult I found that the boisterous Cantonese restaurants in the cities where I lived were the easiest to get a handle on. It’s hard not to fall in love with dim sum, hard not to fall in love with barbecued ducks and pork, hard not to fall in love with wonton noodle soups. If you’re a fan of messy bone food, it’s hard not to fall in love with Cantonese seafood — whole fish in black bean sauce, hacked-up crabs in ginger-scallion sauce, and big dishes of steamed clams.
But then you dig a little deeper and find out that Cantonese cooking is infinitely varied, infinitely weird to outsiders, based on a huge repertoire of dishes that make use of every part of just about every creature that moves.
There are at least a dozen Cantonese-style Chinese restaurants on Buford Highway. One of the newest is Bo Bo Garden — a restaurant I’ve been eager to try since it opened last summer to good reviews on food blogs and restaurant forums. It’s a clean, comfortable spot in Pinetree Plaza, and the service is well tuned to the curious newbies, such as ourselves.
I mostly liked what we ordered, though not as much as the similar dishes I’ve tried at Wan Lai, just down the street.
The restaurant specializes in hot pots, such as this soupy, flavorful one bobbing with large, firm oysters and slippery slices of pork ($14.95). The slick, elusive bean curd skin bundles were the morsels we fought over. But I have to say the beef rib and taro hot pot with coconut milk that I tried at Wan Lai is a dish I still dream about.
The casserole rice dishes are interesting — perhaps more something to order for oneself than to share. I would definitely come back at lunch for this combination of chewy, fatty riblets and diced taro ($7.25). I loved the crusty edges of the rice — just like the tahdig on Persian rice.
This generous portion of dumpling soup ($5.75) feeds two amply and features pretty good pork, seafood and vegetable dumplings. I did find the same dish at Wan Lai superior because the dumplings looked and tasted so completely different. These were more like three shades of the same color.
I love all the messy picking, licking and scooping that goes along with a Cantonese-style crab in gloopy sauce (MP, ours was $20.91). What I felt was missing here: those pockets of sweet, dewy, untouched crab that play so well against the surface seasoning. I want more of that contrast of great ingredient/great sauce. I think this specimen was a little small and was cooked a little too long.
Tender, small stalks of gai lan met a little oyster sauce and some whole, blanched-then-fried garlic cloves in this simple, satisfying dish ($7.95).
We also tried a not-particularly good version of salt-and-pepper squid ($9.95) that was a bit limp, greasy and incredibly salty. This dish is best when it’s served so hot it envelops you in a cloud of fragrant spice. Not so here.
But I do hope to go back. It’s an interesting menu, and the service is great. There’s a lot to explore here, though I may be too wimpy to try the goose intestines in chef’s special soy sauce.
Bo Bo Garden: 5181 Buford Highway, Doraville. 678-547-1881. Open for lunch and dinner, 7 days.