You may not know it but you probably have never eaten in a real Chinese restaurant. There are many around the States that claim that category, but would hardly be recognized by the man in the street in Beijing. They adapt to the local expectations, as I learned when I got red eye gravy on my cashew chicken one time in North Georgia (they had probably been influenced by Saban’s tastes from the Wayfarer). Even where some of the dishes go by the same name, the Moo Shu Pork--which is actually one of my favorites in the Americanized Chinese fare--bears little resemblance to the same dish I have eaten in the back alleys of Taipei.
But Mr. Chen’s Chinese Restaurant in Hoover advertises itself as serving authentic Chinese cuisine, and it is usually full of Chinese people, so Bunny and I had to try it.
According to the menu, Mr. Chen’s offers Mainland and Taiwan cuisine. You can still get some of the American style dishes like Mongolian Beef, that Mr. Chen’s serves because that is what Chinese restaurant goers expect. And at the small space in the Highway 31 shopping center, even that less-authentic plate is less suffused with sugar than at most other so-called Chinese places. And you can get the typical items like General Tso’s chicken, if you are too chicken to try the real thing, like a simple country girl, but those dishes are not what Mr. Chen means by authentic.
If you don’t mind braving the Orient laid bare, better to go for the Beef Belly in Hot Pot and the Pork in Black Bean Sauce. Or, if you prefer seafood, the Salt Oysters or the Basil Squid. I knew better than to try this with Bunny, but you can even order Crispy Intestines.
The Beef Belly is not as exotic as you might think, because it is not the real innards. Rather it is meat from around the belly. What makes it more unusual is that this midriff meat includes the tendons that attach the muscle. You might say that is un-American but it is very true to China.
Tendon is loaded with glycerine and is frequently used in dishes that call for a little sauce or what we would call gravy.
That is because the collagen-like substance in the tendon is a natural thickening agent. And the Hot Pot comes out in its own little heating dish with meat, turnips (not potatoes, though that is what they look like), and hearty sauce-OK, go ahead and call it gravy. And the heating dish keeps it piping hot, good and fortifying for a cold November night.
The basil squid is truly redolent of basil flavor, which is a little surprising since, when you think of the texture of squid, it is not very absorbent. And what makes it authentic Chinese is what made our waiter wonder if it would be acceptable to Bunny not just because he knows high maintenance when he see it by now, but because the squids are whole, from their squiggly little tentacles to their pointy ink-pen bonnets. Bunny was OK with it, but I am sure the country girl would be too chicken and squeamish. She misses many a delight by being way too frightful, fretting, neurotic, and uptight.
I could tell by the covetous look on her face that the Pork in Black Bean Sauce would have been Bunny’s favorite if she would swallow her pride and try it.
greens. The Taiwan noodle dish was pretty typical of what you will get in a noodle shop, with a combination of beef, shrimp and chicken. The most unusual dish was the Taiwan Braised Pork. It is more like a big pile of slabs of thick crinkly-cut bacon. Bunny just laughed at the resemblance to crinkle-cut fries, but that left more for me since she doesn’t eat meat or, as she puts it, anything with a face. (So don’t ever call her fish face, because she won’t acknowledge it). At Mr. Chen’s you can get dishes where they cook the whole fish, fins and all, with its eyes looking at you.
Maybe in private. This dish had a nice light black bean sauce that would never pass for gravy. It also had her favorite cabbage and a nice complement of stirfried red pepper.
One of my favorite dishes was the Salt Oysters. You can tell they are prepared the Chinese way at about a hundred thousand degrees in the shade. There was a thick salty crispy breading all around and the oysters hot, plump and bursting with juices inside.
I also managed to talk Bunny into trying some Taiwan style dishes. This is where it could have really gotten funky, with the indigenous cuisine. Taiwan is one of the few places I ever remember being made queasy by the food. Of course that was in Snake Alley back in the good old days where the bars served snake and turtle blood and I had to wrestle my favorite Taipei girl from the grip of a chained up orangutan. And the whole place had a reek to it you are not likely to find in Hoover.
At Mr. Chen’s we started with the Taiwan style Wonton soup, which I liked, and I got it all to myself as Bunny eschewed the dumplings’ pork filling, even though it was mixed with healthy For authentic Chinese, it could be a lot more extreme, as you know if you watch those outlandish food travel shows with all the slug sushi and fried cockroaches. It may not be another Snake Alley (thank goodness), but Mr. Chen’s is certainly respectable when it comes to authenticity. And it is not just authentic, it is good food. But it is not too exotic for most people, except maybe the country girl.
The service is also true Chinese style, as you don’t have a single waiter dedicated to your table. Instead, you will get a tag team attack. Of course Bunny looked at me cross-eyed when I wondered aloud if the matter of fact waiter would finish out the meal or if the pretty, smiling Chinese girl were ever coming back.
And if you stay till late, when the staff all sits down together for a communal meal, you will get treated to plenty of Chinese language to go with the food.
These are no Asian-Americans who rode home from the hospital to Riverchase in a SUV. This is Mr. Chen’s authentic Chinese. If any restaurant out there is more authentic I’d like to try it.
Mr. Chen’s Chinese, 1917 Hoover Court, off Highway 31, 205 824-8283