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Tour of China: how to break the ordering rut

Sauteed peppers with black vinegar at Gu's Bistro (credit for all photos: Becky Stein)

Sauteed peppers with black vinegar at Gu's Bistro (credit for all photos: Becky Stein)

There are the Chinese restaurants you go to because they are in your neighborhood, because they deliver and, well, because the chicken lo mein could not come any more steamy and tightly packed into its cardboard box. Say no more.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

Then there are the Chinese restaurants you go to because there are ducks hanging in the windows and fish swimming in tanks. Or because there are hundreds of items on a menu that promises a culinary tour of an entire region of the Middle Kingdom. Or because people whose proclivities lead them to Buford Highway and other prime dining destinations cannot recommend them highly enough.

Let’s talk about the second kind.

Let’s say you venture into one of these buzzed-about Chinese restaurants, and the waiter drops a pot of tea and — thud — a menu that’s an almanac of curious foodstuffs. Noodles and kidneys. Dumplings and tripe. Whole fish and frogs and scallops and pigs. Livers and lips, feet and bills. Something called “pizzle.” You suspect you know what it is, and you’re right.

So you begin to order. A dish or two you read about in a blog post or restaurant review. An appetizing item you saw on a neighbor’s table. And something that just sounds delicious, like “hot and spicy crispy beef” or “ginger lobster.”

When you return to the restaurant a second time, 50 percent of your order will carry over. You can’t not order the fried eggplant, which was so amazing. By your third visit, the menu will be 90 percent determined. After that? You don’t even open the menu. You’re set.

When I think about my favorite Chinese restaurants around Atlanta, I visualize the few dishes I always order and the hundreds left to explore. It was time to do something about that.

Zhong-style dumplings at Gu's Bistro

Zhong-style dumplings at Gu's Bistro

So I assemble a group to visit Gu’s Bistro — the quirky Sichuan restaurant on Buford Highway in Doraville that has a cultlike following. Like many Sichuan restaurants here and in other cities, Gu’s owes its popularity as much to crossover chileheads as to Chinese customers. It isn’t just the red-hot chile that makes people fall for this regional cooking style, but also the electroshock numbing effect of Sichuan peppercorns and the interplay of the two. Other heady seasonings include cumin, garlic and cilantro. You have to have an iron gut or be willing to take your chances. (I’ve joked that my reaction to Sichuan food can be summed up as “Eat, love, pray.”)

Since opening two years ago, Gu’s has shown a canny understanding of the adventurous non-Chinese diner. The beverage list has expanded to include such craft beers as Allagash White Ale, and the menu features pictures of Chef Gu’s dozen or so most popular dishes that must account for three quarters of all orders.

It does require willpower not to order the ferociously yummy Chongqing spicy chicken — nuggets of explosive flavor that nestle with whole chile pods in a foil-lined serving dish that collects the hot oil runoff. Or the tea-smoked duck, hacked into chunks of crisp skin and smoky, succulent flesh. You gnaw each piece appreciatively to the quick. Then there are Zhong-style dumplings, fat and bursty, stained dark from their sweet and spicy soy bath. And the crispy fish fillets, their batter as crunchy as that of the best fish and chips, tossed with hot chilies and peanuts. And … stop.

I am here to order some dishes that didn’t earn a picture in the front of the book. On a friend’s advice we order something called “sauteed green peppers with black vinegar.” It sounds benign, if not a total waste of stomach space when there’s stir-fried smoked pork belly with leeks to be had.

But those peppers with their wok-blistered skins and slippery flesh are the star of the evening. Each one — oily, tangy, sweet — you pop in your mouth brings a moment of pure pleasure.

Quirky jerky: Luo Jiang dried tofu

Quirky jerky: Luo Jiang dried tofu

A close second is Luo Jiang dried tofu — a dish we settle on after grilling an endlessly patient waiter about a dozen or more such mysteries on the menu. He aptly calls it “tofu jerky.” Sticks about the size of your pinkie come thoroughly saturated in an oily red sauce rife with both red and Sichuan pepper. It chews like beef and creates the most intriguing dance of intensity and blandness on your tongue.

Looks like I’ve got two more dishes that I may not be able to resist on future visits.

Not far from Gu’s Bistro lies Bo Bo Garden Asian Cuisine — another Chinese restaurant I’ve visited regularly since it opened 3 1/2 years ago. It got some attention early in its life when Danny Ting, a well-liked local Cantonese chef with a habit of moving from kitchen to kitchen, put out his shingle.

It’s a restaurant I liked well enough before learning to love. If that sounds like faint praise, it hasn’t stopped me from visiting often for the kinds of homey Cantonese dishes that soothe every fiber of my being. I’m talking clams in black bean sauce, limpid broth plumped full of noodles and wontons, mounds of sauteed greens with garlic sauce and whole steamed fish with ginger and scallion.

Three dumpling soup at Bo Bo Garden

Three dumpling soup at Bo Bo Garden

Bo Bo Garden specializes in hot casseroles — clay pots filled with assorted goodies and baked to a bubbly, sticky-edged amalgam of goodness. At one point I discovered the hot casserole filled with plump Pacific oysters, roasted chunks of pork and rolls of chewy dried bean curd skin. I have never not been able to order that dish, which is my very definition of comfort food — as comfortable as my favorite pair of jeans, leather armchair and new earbuds rolled into one.

Lobster congee: a million wows

Lobster congee: a million wows

It was an intention to order this dish that drew me to Bo Bo Garden one afternoon when I was ostensibly Christmas shopping. But then when I espied lobster congee on the specials list, I couldn’t resist.

Wow, wow, a million wows. A whole lobster had been hacked into chunks and thrown into a vat of rice soup with a hundred fresh ginger needles, ringlets of scallion green, a pinch of salt and little else. The carapace bled a bit of pale green tomalley and sea funk into the white soup. The hefty chunks of tail and claw meat are easy enough to extract with chopsticks, and they are both sweet and silky.

I ask for hot chile oil as I always do, but by the time the waiter brings it I realize this soup is perfect as is.

The soup was so good I returned the following week and started pointing to random items on the menu to see what they would bring. Bony, chewy chunks of chicken arrive in a spicy curry sauce with a side of steamed buns to dip in the sauce. Salted fish fried rice brings an exemplary mound of fried rice — springy and a touch greasy in just the right way — but you’ve got to abide with the saline pop of diced dried fish. I loved it, my wife looked stricken.

Tofu scallops

Tofu scallops

The real winner was a dish the waiter described as “tofu scallops.” Indeed, the silken bean curd had been cut into rounds and fried to resemble jumbo sea scallops, then bathed in a luxurious X.O. sauce containing soy, bean paste, ground pork and many, many roasted garlic cloves.

I liked this dish a lot and may order it on my next visit. But that will depend. I’ll have an oyster-pork casserole and a giant bowl of lobster congee on the table. I will also force myself to try one new dish. Unless I bring a small village to dine with me, there just may not be room.

Gu’s Bistro
5750 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-451-8118
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Tuesdays-Sundays; Dinner: 4:30-10 p.m., Tuesdays-Thursdays, 4:30-10:30 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays; closed Monday
Bo Bo Garden Asian Cuisine
5181 Buford Highway, Doraville. 678-547-1881
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover
Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Fridays-Saturdays

19 comments Add your comment

Uh, no

January 10th, 2013
7:56 am

Oh my, where to start? It all sounds great at both places. Thanks for the tips, John.

Sheriff John Brown

January 10th, 2013
8:05 am

Thanks John, Great read. You really are wonderfully creative voice to food scene in ATL.

zeke

January 10th, 2013
9:30 am

Two things for certain! Atlanta has not had a fantastic Chinese restaurant since the closing of Empress of China III on N. Peachtree Road! Nor a fantastic Mexican since the closing of US BAR y GRILL!

Lizzy

January 10th, 2013
10:06 am

John, delightful review – I live very close to Buford Hwy. so I will venture forth to these places which will now be packed after readers devour your food descriptions – yum!!! FM Fats, what is the Urban Dictionary’s definition of vitriole? The dictionary I use has this one (of three): something highly caustic or severe in effect, as criticism, i.e. your inappropriate and offensive comments. Get some much needed mental therapy by a trained, licensed professional and hopefully you’ll stop sucking the oxygen out of the universe.

FM Fats

January 10th, 2013
10:25 am

I can’t find vitriole in any dictionary, Lizzy. Maybe I’ll find it wherever you lost your sense of humor.

Edward

January 10th, 2013
10:29 am

Both of these restaurants are among my favorites. My partner is native Chinese, and I have a lot of native Chinese friends, so I’ve learned the difference between good “authentic” Chinese food and the unacceptable (to us) “American” Chinese food. Gu’s and Bo Bo consistently deliver delicious food and it is imperative that one explores the offerings as you’ve done. There is a world of yummy to be found. :-)

A-Town Down!

January 10th, 2013
12:40 pm

Make sure to try the Chengdu Cold Noodles at Gu’s. Life changing.

Sophie's Choice

January 10th, 2013
2:51 pm

The fish in hot chili oil at Gu’s = outstanding, as is the salt & pepper shrimp (best I’ve had in Atlanta). The crispy garlic chicken at BoBo…bliss! Love that you’ve featured two of my very favorite Chinese restaurants in one review.

FM Fats

January 10th, 2013
3:44 pm

John, do you feel that the local Chinese food scene is at last moving up in quality and comparable in a good way to the cuisine in the longer established Chinatowns of the country?

Lizzy

January 10th, 2013
11:37 pm

Fatso, my bad – a typo…..your sense of humor is so not funny… it’s a good thing this is anonymous…you are a sad little bufoon. John, I know you overlook these trifling squabbles. It’s a waste of space and time when your goal is to inform us of culinary pleasures. Fatso – Prozac is your friend.

Ali

January 10th, 2013
11:55 pm

Wowza, I’m hungry! Great photos, too. In the case you find yourself in a Chinese restaurant without English menus, check out Waygo. We are a free iPhone app that gives you instant Chinese to English food translations. We’d love to hear your feedback after using it! :)

FM Fats

January 11th, 2013
9:21 am

Since I can’t afford the kind of therapy you recommend, Lizzy, I’ll just go kill myself.

FM Fats

January 11th, 2013
9:22 am

And I can’t find bufoon in a dictionary, either.

A. Teesman

January 11th, 2013
10:33 am

@zeke What do you mean U.S. Bay y Grill is closed?

Rain

January 11th, 2013
11:41 am

thanks John. As a Chinese foodie, I will also recommend the Cafe 101, although the mandarin of the sign-board means spicy sisters or hot sisters. It is a Taiwanese restaurant. Try Preserved Vegetable & Pork. It is big plate, very authentic. I had two bowls of rice to go with this.

John Kessler

January 11th, 2013
7:12 pm

FM: not sure I know enough to comment.
Lizzy: thanks, I’m pretty chill. :)

Edward

January 12th, 2013
11:57 am

Is Cafe 101 still open? It used to be one of my favorites, but when the original chef left, and then new owners took over, the food went way downhill. That was reflected in patronage dropping considerably and the restaurant closed. After many months, it reopened with new owners and a new Taiwanese chef. The food was excellent. But, then again I noticed patronage dropping off. Last time I drove by it appeared to be closed again.

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

January 13th, 2013
8:52 am

Note that you can make a number of the dishes from Gu’s at home if you have the “Land of Plenty” cookbook by Fuschia Dunlop.

Zhong Dumplings
Peppers in black vinegar
Ma Po Tofu
etc

Some of the normally hard-to-find ingredients are readily available at the H-Marts around Atlanta. Anyway, it’s a very good cook book.

Lorenzo

January 15th, 2013
3:29 pm

Just when I thought there was nothing to write about Atlanta Chinese restaurants. Nice angle. I am definitely in a Gu’s rut, ordering the same five or six items again and again. They are just so good, and for the sake of my waistline I have to limit my number of visits, so I stick with the tried and true. It is indeed hard to break out of a Chinese ordering rut.