Taste of Chengdu

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Chengdu sign

If you hear people call Taste of Chengdu the hottest restaurant in town, you should probably know that they may not be referring to its popularity, though popular it certainly is.

It’s also serving some of the hottest, as in spiciest, food you’re likely to find in Central Florida.

Geography geeks will recognize Chengdu as the capital of China’s Sichuan province. Culinary nerds will know that Sichuan cuisine (also sometimes spelled Szechuan or Szechwan) is known for its liberal use of fiery hot peppers, particularly the Sichuan pepper, which has an initial taste that is slightly metallic but then spreads like a wildfire through tinder. It does not make your tongue tingle, it makes it throb.

And that leads, I suppose, to its popularity. Yes, there is a certain sector of the dining public with a masochistic tendency to sear their tastebuds. They’d probably lick a branding iron just out of a campfire if it was sprinkled with Sriracha. But we’re also seeing a new appreciation for authentic Asian cuisine in general and Chinese food in particular. The west side of town has become the de facto home to many of the restaurants offering more than Americanized versions of Chinese dishes.

Hong Kong Alley's Kitchen

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Hong Kong Alley exterior

I'm sure the staff at Hong Kong Alley's Kitchen were just trying to be nice. They were effusive in their greeting when I walked into the strip mall storefront restaurant on East Colonial Drive. And the young man who took my order had a smile on his face at all times.

But no one could quite believe me when I told them, multiple times, I didn't need the fork they kept trying to place on my table. The chopsticks were fine, I said. Not showing off, I just think Chinese food tastes better when the proper utensils are utilized. And I eat less.

I had stopped in on a whim, noticing as I drove by the banner out front announcing Dim Sum, Roast Duck and Crispy Pork.

Chef Wang's Kitchen

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Chef Wang array

The young man who was waiting to take my order at Chef Wang's Kitchen pointed helpfully (if not a little impatiently) at one of the pictured menu items. "Foreigners seem to like that one," he offered.

To understand the level of authenticity, or at least a level that rises above many westernized Chinese restaurants, you need to know that when he said foreigners he was referring to Americans.

Chef Wang interior

Chef Wang's Kitchen is located in the repurposed yet still worn looking shopping mall now known as Chinatown. The West Colonial Drive restaurant occupies a modest storefront tastefully appointed with stone-look tables and substantial dark wood chairs (sturdy enough for any foreigners who come in).

Peter's Kitchen Chinese Bistro

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Peters Chinese sign

The Lunar New Year celebration begins Friday when the Year of the Dog is ushered in. Dog years are my favorites, even though they seem longer than the others.

Sometimes called Chinese New Year, the event is celebrated by several Asian countries. It's never on the same day but rather is tied to the occurrence of the first new moon between January 1 and February 20. The moon will be newest on Feb. 16 this year.

So you might see some celebrations around town, especially in the area of Mills 50 where there is a high concentration of Asian businesses and restaurants. Look for lanterns, red ribbons and firecrackers. There might be dragons.

Chuan Lu Gardens East

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Chuan Lu exterior

Remember the Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”? Besides having music and lyrics by U2’s Bono and The Edge, it’s most known for the trouble it had opening. It was technically complex with special effects that included actors flying on harnesses over the heads of the audience.

It is also known for having the longest preview period in the history of Broadway, 182 performances. One of the reasons the previews went on for so long was to deal with the technical problems. But the producers also knew that as long as the show was in previews, the critics would consider it off limits. But after six months, the critics decided enough was enough and one by one started attending and reviewing.

Soft opening is the restaurant equivalent of a Broadway preview. Chuan Lu Gardens is having a soft opening almost as epic as Spider-Man.

I first visited the new eastside location for Chuan Lu Gardens, whose original restaurant is in downtown Orlando’s Mills 50 district, in mid March. Even then the restaurant had been open for about three weeks. But a handwritten note taped to the door said “Soft Opening.” I went in anyway, knowing that I wouldn’t be writing a review from that visit. Indeed, the restaurant was in need of more rehearsal time, and it didn’t even involve servers flying overhead.

I checked back after two weeks and the sign was still taped to the door. It was still there two weeks after that. And still there when I stopped by this week.

Enough, I thought, time for this show to open.

China Palace Restaurant

Written by Scott Joseph on .

China Palace streetGoogle Maps

This place has scared the hell out of me for nearly 29 years.

That’s how long I’ve been driving past it, usually as I turn left onto South Orange Blossom Trail from Michigan Street heading for the on-ramp to Interstate-4. It’s a route I’ve taken probably thousands of times. And most of those times I’ve been conscious of glancing at the freestanding boxy building with the yellow plastic sign across the top, just over the windows clad with metal bars, with the name China Palace Restaurant and a couple of Chinese characters.

Who goes there? I wondered. What must it look like inside? Do people really eat there? And then I’d turn my attention to the traffic ahead and gird myself for the only thing scarier, a drive on the moving hell that is I-4.

But like I said, I’ve been passing China Palace for almost 29 years, ever since I moved to Central Florida to begin reviewing restaurants. Nearly three decades in a town of fickle diners. A new question began to needle me: How has it lasted so long?

We’re in the midst of the Lunar New Year festival, which began on Saturday. And since this is designated the Year of the Rooster, I decided to stop being so chicken.

So this time I made the left hand turn from Michigan Street onto Orange Blossom Trail and then veered right into one of the parking spaces directly in front of China Palace.

Yummy House

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Yummy House beef with teapot

I miss Eastern Pearl. The Chinese restaurant in Altamonte Springs, in my estimation, did some of the best Asian dishes in the area. At least back in 2000 when it first opened. The success of the Altamonte restaurant prompted the owners to open another, in 2009, near Orlando International Airport. But that one was merely OK, and perhaps the vagaries of operating two restaurants eventually brought down both.

Now in the place of the original Eastern Pearl is another Chinese restaurant, Yummy House, a small chain out of Tampa with six locations, all within Florida. According to its website, YH has won awards for its cuisine at its Tampa and Gainesville locations. But I don’t see any accolades coming to the Altamonte Springs restaurant any time soon.

Perhaps my visit was destined to be troublesome when I was greeted — a word that doesn’t quite describe the unsmiling acknowledgement from the person who came from around the bar when I came in — and was directed to sit at the table next to the front door. When I said I didn’t care to sit there, he gestured to any of the other dozen or so empty tables and told me, grudgingly, to sit wherever I wanted.

Chan's Chinese Cuisine

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Chans duck 

With Christmas just a few days away, I know that a lot of people have images of one thing dancing in their heads. That’s right, Chinese food.

It’s a thing, especially in big cities. That’s because while most restaurants are closed on December 25, Chinese restaurants are more likely to be open. So people looking for a place to dine on that day just naturally gravitate to Chinese restaurants. I know many people who consider it their Christmas tradition.

You’ll find several Chinese restaurants in Orlando that will be open on Christmas Day, including Chan’s Chinese Cuisine on Colonial Drive in Orlando, which I had the pleasure of revisiting recently.

I was in a party of seven, so we were seated at one of the large round table with a lazy susan in the center. The turntable was soon filled with myriad dishes and we kept it whirling as we sampled a little bit of everything and returned for a lot more of our favorites.

Pershing Chinese Restaurant

Written by Scott Joseph on .

 Pershing duck

Pershing isn't exactly the name you'd expect for a Chinese restaurant, but that was one of the things I liked about it. No, make that the only thing I liked about it. Unfortunately, this newcomer in the plaza at the corner of Semoran Boulevard and, making sense of the name, Pershing Avenue is a little too much like most of the other Chinese restaurants in Central Florida: mediocre.

The steamed dumplings were flavorless, and so was the watery dipping sauce. My entree of roast duck looked impressive, and it might have tasted better, too, if it had been heated through. It was stone cold. I suppose I should be happy it wasn't sitting out at room temperature, but it would have been nice to have it heated up. And it was all quite dry, the duck meat, the broccoli and the rice. All perfect for a bland diet.

But what made the experience even less pleasant was that I felt as though I had walked into the owners' living room when I entered the storefront space. And I don't mean that in a good and welcoming way. All the workers were in the dining room staring at a sporting event on the large television. One got up to wait on me while most of the others kept watching. And when my food was delivered everyone went into the kitchen and returned with their owb bowls of food, which they sat eating while continuing to watch the tv. I felt more like an intruder than a guest.

I wish this was unusual, but when we're talking about Chinese restaurants this sort of thing seems to be the norm. Why is that? We've seen such great improvements in the quality of ethnic restaurants over the years. The big exception is the category of Chinese cuisine. I suppose we put up with it because they offer plentiful food for modest prices. But they won't get better until we start demanding that they do.

Pershing Chinese Restaurant is at 4542 S. Semoran Blvd., Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-282-1882.

 

Tasty Wok BBQ & Noodle House

Written by Scott Joseph on .

tasty wok interior

Happy Lunar New Year, everybody! Say goodbye to the Year of the Snake and say hello to the Year of the Horse. You’ll probably see depictions of an anaconda with a long white beard giving way to a pony in diapers.

By the way, the correct term is Lunar New Year, not Chinese New Year. Not even the Chinese refer to it as Chinese New Year. If they don’t call it Lunar New Year, they call it Spring Festival. The reason is that the occasion is marked by other countries as well, including Korea, Vietnam and, though to a lesser extent, Japan (most of Japan has move to the Gregorian calendar).

What’s great about knowing that is that your celebratory cuisine choices increase exponentially. If you want to join in, at least by dining out, you are not limited to Chinese restaurants (good thing that), you can also choose from our vast inventory of Vietnamese restaurants and growing number of Korean eateries.