Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Grace Garden

Tripe, Tendon and Tongue in spicy chili served cold. Stellar.

The quest for great Chinese in Baltimore has never really existed. I've just accepted the fact that the Chinese food here will always be relegated to the sugary sweet stuff that America thinks is "Chinese", dishes like General Tso's Chicken, or Orange Beef or Egg Foo Young - all of which can be enjoyable in their own right but are hardly classic Chinese dishes.

For great Chinese food, I would usually save my stomach for visits to the Chinatowns in New York or San Francisco, or for KJ Kitchen in Las Vegas, but Baltimore? Never.

So when Jeff called me to say that he's found an excellent Chinese joint across the street from Fort Meade in Odenton, I couldn't believe him. I had to check it out for myself.

Now, Odenton isn't close to my home. In fact, it's way the hell outta my way and the Chinese better be damn good to make sure a journey. And for weeks, it just wasn't possible for me to get over there.

Finally, on the way back from Dulles, after my trip to Europe, we decided to make a pit stop and give it a try. In fact, I've been there twice now - just to be sure.

Fish Noodles - fish and shrimp minced into noodles and sauteed with vegetables in Chef's special sauce.

Quite simply, Grace Garden, with it's low brow, typical Chinese carry out decor, puts out some of the best Chinese food I've had anywhere in the United States. It's hellaciously good. Walk in and it looks like any other crappy Chinese joint. The tables look wobbly, the walls are just cream colored and plain, the wainscoting looks haphazard - to be honest, the decor of the joint fits the area surrounding Fort Meade: crappy.

But take a closer look at the photos of the dishes on the wall and Grace Garden's secret starts to reveal itself. While familiar looking, you realize that these aren't photos of carry out classics like Kung Pao Chicken or wonton soup, there's something different and special about what you're seeing.

There are many Chinese restaurants in the United States that offers two menus: one for the American clients and the other for the Chinese clients - do you need to guess which menu is the interesting one? Grace Garden does the same but the difference is that the Chinese menu is in English, encouraging gaijin, like myself, to order from the real menu.

Sure, you could order from the regular menu and choose Hunan Beef, but why would you? Actually, there's a part of me that's now considering trying one of the old standbys here just to compare.

Szechwan Pork - sliced pork belly stir fried with leeks, bell peppers and Szechwan bean paste.

Quite simply, the food is stellar. We started out with the spicy tendon, tripe and tongue served cold. Amazing. The flavors were pronounced and bold. The heat builds on you but it's a good sweat. From there, we moved onto the Fish Noodles, a delicate concoction of fish and shrimp that actually makes the noodle with some cilantro stems and sliced Chinese sweet sausage. Delicate and delicious.

Next up was one of my favorites, Fried Pork Belly. Just delicious fatty pork goodness. It's not smoked but if you like bacon, you'll absolutely flip over this dish. With hot steamed rise, it's just too wonderful for words.

Which brings up another thought: the rice. When I was young, I thought all rices were relatively the same. And then I was introduced to Uncle Ben's. Then I knew something was wrong in the world. But it wasn't until I traveled the Philippines that I really discovered the myriad varieties of rice available on the open market. Some of great quality. Others of a rather low quality.

It's a double-edged experience for me to say that Grace Garden features rice on the lower end of the scale. Sad because the rice doesn't highlight the flavors in the same way a quality rice would, but nice because it reminds me of fond memories visiting the provincial towns of the Philippines and eating some of the most rustic but delicious foods imaginable. It's an affront to my senses and a throwback to my memories, all at the same time. Such is the power of food.

Szechwan Braised Fish - sliced fish braised in hot & spicy chili pepper broth.

Our final course was the fish braised in a spicy broth. Delicate with spice. I wish I hadn't eaten so much so that I could give this dish greater attention. It was good, but we had already reached our boiling point and I was not able to continue.

In the end, I will be going back to Grace Garden to explore more of their menu. The husband and wife team that owns and runs the place are very welcoming and very nice. It's fun to sit back and allow them to choose our courses for us, but I will make one recommendation: have the tripe, tendon and tongue as a later course. It's such a powerfully flavorful dish that it outshines everything that comes after. The fish noodles were great but I bet they would have been so much better had they not had to shine in the dark shadows cast by the tripe.

Order everything else first and then get the tripe. It will be well worth it.

Grace Garden Chinese Restaurant
1690 Annapolis Road
Odenton, MD 21113