It’s been a fairly common practice among local Asian restaurants, especially Chinese, to keep two separate menus, one for the general public (read: westerners) and one for Asians. The former would have the dishes that are well known to most who have ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant in America -- your moo goos and mu shus and sueys, chopped or not, and such -- and the latter would have dishes that are more authentically Chinese. The reason usually isn’t to deprive the general population of something special, or reserve it just for privileged guests but rather to protect unaccustomed taste buds from unfamiliar -- and potentially unpleasant -- experiences.
At least that is probably the thinking on the part of the restaurant owners.
And for many of the guests who think they’re accustomed to Chinese flavors they just might be doing them a favor. But how much better it would be if the restaurant owners would use the opportunity to educate and enlighten our palates.
When I first reviewed Ming’s Bistro in the Mills 50 district (before it was called the Mills 50 district) the owner tried her best to talk me out of a duck entree because it had a lot of duck fat in it that she thought I might find unappealing. I had to convince her that it really was what I wanted. (To be fair, this isn’t something that is unique to Asian restaurants. In Paris last month a server tried to talk me out of an entree of calf’s brain, asking two or three times if I really knew what it was.)
Now we have kind of a twist on this concept with Chuan Lu Garden, the first in the area to specialize in foods of the Sichuan province. To over simplify, that means hot and spicy to most people, but it is much more complex than that.
Chuan Lu is actually located inside Ginza Japanese Hibachi Steak & Sushi Bar, also in the Mills 50 neighborhood. To get to Chuan Lu, one enters through the steakhouse and passes through a small hallway to a room that is starkly smaller than the expansive dining area of Ginza.
If you get there at all. I’ve been hearing from some diners that staffers are discouraging western guests from leaving the Ginza area. The Chuan Lu menu is available in both dining areas, but -- and this is third-hand information -- the staff in the steakhouse apparently is less familiar with the Chinese menu than those in the Chuan Lu dining area.
And if you’re unfamiliar with Chinese, you may have trouble ordering from the Chuan Lu menu at all. Most of the items have little if any description, so unless you know what la ji rou, gan lao niu rou, zha jiang and da xia are you may be out of luck.
So what can you do?
Well, you could do what I did and get someone who speaks mandarin to go with you. That would be Ricky Ly of TastyChomps.com. Ricky is fluent in the language, and so he was able to ask our server for explanations and recommendations. We ordered a tableful of wonderful items.
What did we have? We had noodles and dumplings, which are musts because both are made from scratch at the restaurant. The dumplings with pork, shrimp and wood ear mushrooms were firmly packed pockets, not at all spicy, by the way. The noodles were enjoyed in a beef noodle soup that might make you think of a Vietnamese pho. The noodles are very long, which is an omen of a long life.
We also had the sliced roast beef, stomach and tendon with chili sauce; Szechuan spare ribs; and WuJiang dou hua beef. I especially liked the salt and peppery shrimp, sauteed in the shell and eaten whole (head, tail and all). Very crunchy.
Somewhere along the way you are likely to come into contact with a Sichuan peppercorn. You’ll know it right away. The heat from a Sichuan peppercorn is different from other spicy peppers. For example, the spiciness from, say, a Thai pepper will bloom in your mouth like a flame that grows more intense. Sichuan peppercorns have a spiciness that is more lateral. It takes over your tongue with an almost numbing effect, and the sensation is almost metallic. Some people might find it pleasant while others find it slightly terrifying. It’s a fine line.
This menu is definitely not for the unadventurous diner. If you prefer to stay safe, you’ll find the mu shoos and moo goos further down. But I would encourage you to step outside your comfort zone a little -- and insist on sitting inside the Chuan Lu Garden room, which is nothing special, just a boxy space with boxy furniture and red walls and with minimal decorations. Here the decor is all on the plate. Be sure to ask lots of questions about the food, and, if possible, take along a friend who can ask the questions in mandarin.
Chuan Lu Garden is at 1101 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Prices are quite reasonable with many items under $10. Here’s a link to chuanlugarden.com where you can see the menu, but, really, it won’t help you much if you don’t know the language. The phone number is 407-896-8966.