|Baby Bok Choy||Dominic Armato|
For somebody like me, a food blogger with a special love for strip mall ethnic eateries, there's a magic formula for the perfect discovery. It starts by stumbling into some random, unassuming little ethnic restaurant bookended by mundane commercial establishments like liquor stores and laundromats. It has an Americanized menu, but it also has a separate menu of dishes that are not only jaw-droppingly good at times, but also fill a gaping hole in the area's offerings. This second menu is extensive, absolutely authentic, and prepared by a family that couldn't be more welcoming and enthusiastic about sharing the flavors of their home country. And for reasons unknown, perhaps because the bulk of their business has been serving Americanized dishes to the local carry out crowd, nobody knows this exceptional little ethnic gem exists. That place is Grace Garden
|Fish Noodles||Dominic Armato|
In fact, the only thing that keeps Grace Garden from being the best discovery I've ever made is that it isn't my discovery. Full credit goes to Chowhound member frequentcrasher who, for his first post (helluva way to introduce yourself, there), dropped a little mention of Grace Garden deep into the bowels
of an extended discussion of whether excellent Chinese exists in Baltimore. I've been here a year, but it only took a few weeks to learn of the running gag that is Chinese food in Baltimore. Even the suburban exceptions to the rule, by reputation, aspire to intermittent acceptability rather than regular excellence. An honest to goodness great Chinese restaurant in the Baltimore area has been, for quite some time, the holy grail of the Charm City food nerd. And it was finally unearthed this month. It's true, if you're going by geographical proximity, Annapolis or DC could just as easily lay claim to Odenton, but c'mon, guys... we need this one. 'Sides which, we saw it first. (Uh HUH
|Golden Shrimp||Dominic Armato|
Before I build Grace Garden up to impossible heights, allow me a quick reality check. It is not perfect, it is not the most beautiful girl at the dance, and not every dish is a transcendent experience. But I've tasted fifteen of them over the past two weeks, there hasn't been a single miss, and the hits are genuinely outstanding. From this humble little strip mall carryout joint across from an army base, I've had a number of dishes that would have been standouts even on a trip to Hong Kong or Shenzhen. Hong Kong is, in fact, the hometown of Chef Li and his wife, Mei. They're absolutely lovely people whose abilities in the kitchen are matched only by their warmth and zeal for sharing their food. The pair are the true soul of what could otherwise be mistaken for any other cheap carryout joint. It's as spartan as spartan can be, but the surroundings completely disappear when the food hits the table. Despite his Cantonese heritage, Chef Li covers quite a bit of ground on the menu. The southern specialties are, predictably, his strong point, but I've tried some formidable Sichuan offerings as well. I held off on posting for a week and a half because I wanted to try as much as possible to give a comprehensive sense of what's going on. But it's a huge menu and I can't wait forever. So of the fifteen I've tried so far, here are some favorites, in no particular order.
|Sichuan Pork||Dominic Armato|
The vegetables section lists but three dishes, all eggplant, because Chef Li prefers to offer whatever looks freshest when he does his shopping. It's to his credit that he puts the quality of his ingredients above the consistency of his menu. On one visit, we were treated to some beautiful baby bok choy, served simply in a traditional Cantonese style, with a lightly seasoned glaze and a bit of salted fish for punch. Below the bok choy, you see one of the smashing successes, the Fish Noodles. The thick, nubby noodles, made from ground fresh fish, have a lovely, delicate seafood flavor and a tender but firm and slightly spongy bite. However impressive the technique behind the noodles, however, their sauce was one of my first clues that Li really knows what he's doing, as its velvety, gingery warmth left this sucker for bold flavors completely engrossed in its subtlety. Accented with some Chinese greens, bits of fresh mushroom and slivers of Chinese sausage, this is quite simply one of my favorite Chinese dishes anywhere, and an absolute must have for a first visit. He also does an off-menu version that he calls Seven Treasure Fish Noodles, both in spicy and non-spicy varieties, but I think I prefer the thicker noodle and gentle richness of the regular menu version.
|Sichuan Steamed Pork with Rice Powder||Dominic Armato|
Moving down the page, you see the Golden shrimp, fried crispy with a salted egg yolk coating and a sprinkling of crispy fried garlic. Please don't peel them or remove the heads or tails. They're fried hot enough that the shells become light and crispy, a natural textural punch to the tender, sweet flesh inside. Be careful, the squirt from the head is volcanic. But don't wait, as this is one of those dishes that loses 50% of its awesomeness within three minutes of hitting the table. Sweet, salty, rich and garlicky all in one, this is an impressive shrimp preparation, expertly executed. The next dish down is one that makes me happy all over, as it's one of my regular eats in China. The Sichuan Pork is a belly cut (good for much more than bacon, believe you me) that's thinly sliced and stir-fried with leeks, bell peppers and toban djan, a spicy Sichuan fermented bean paste. It's an example of fat as art, the pork belly's rich flavor cut by the chiles' explosive heat and texturally accentuated by being singed to a crisp at the edges. Straightforward, bold and delicious.
|Crispy Sichuan Fish with Rice Powder||Dominic Armato|
The next two photos show the same flavor profile applied to two proteins, one excellent, one outstanding. The Sichuan Steamed Pork with Rice Powder is, predictably, a more tender take on the pork belly, and while drifting more towards the unctuous end of the spectrum, it has that all-encompassing Sichuan boldness. I have a weakness for pork belly, but this is a particularly beautiful specimen. It's one of those dishes where I can't even begin to name everything that goes into it, but it's spicy, gingery and intense, and infused with the scent of the leaf in which it's steamed. The mix on top is made with a coarse rice powder, which also makes it as much a textural as a flavor experience. It's another of my very favorites that's only outdone by the fish version, which is an off-menu item only available by special order. Chef Li will take that same intense topping and apply it to fish. But what makes this dish remarkable is that after stripping the flesh from the fish, he flash fries the fins and bones, leaving them impossibly crisp and seasoned with a hot chile oil. If this isn't a practice with which you're familiar, set any skepticism aside. A bite of the crisp bones along with the fish is an absolutely addictive combination.
|Seafood with XO Sauce||Dominic Armato|
XO sauce is an invention of 1980's Hong Kong, and Chef Li does his home proud with a very nice version that's less fiery than some, but no slouch in the flavor department. XO sauce is an oily chile sauce characterized by the introduction of dried seafood, most notably shrimp and scallops, and then frequently applied to fresh versions of the same seafood. The mix at Grace Garden includes shrimp, squid and scallops, and is further punched up with a bit of fresh green chile. Li's is less explosive and more subtle, which I appreciate. The sauce exhibits a mellow brand of spicy, if that makes any sense, and its sweetness draws out the natural sweetness of the accompanying fresh seafood. A considerably less subtle (though no less nuanced) take on spicy seafood is the Sichuan Fish Filets, which come swimming in an oily pool of the searing, numbing Sichuan combination of chiles and huajiao
, or Sichuan peppercorns. While Chef Li's ma la isn't quite as balanced as some other Sichuan places I've tried in the states, it's still extremely good and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for a moment. I'll certainly be going back for it.
|Sichuan Fish Filets||Dominic Armato|
What may be my favorite dish so far, however, is another off-menu item for which you need three days advance notice and a big crowd or a Herculean appetite. He first debones a duck, leaving the meat and skin completely intact, and then stuffs it with a seasoned sticky rice mixture before steaming it whole. As the bird gently steams, the fat renders and flavors the sticky rice inside, which sucks up the essence of the duck that surrounds it. It's very, very lightly spiced -- five spice, perhaps? -- with lotus seeds and bamboo for texture, and chunks of sweet Chinese sausage. It's subtlety and restraint and respect for the duck and the rice all rolled into one, and it's the kind of hearty, tender, comforting dish that you completely melt into.
|Stuffed Whole Duck||Dominic Armato|
What gives me chills is that I've only tasted a tiny fraction of the menu. Grace Garden should be packed. There should be people waiting for tables. And yet, 8:30 on a Wednesday night and we're the only ones there (though there are, admittedly, a cool dozen of us Charm City Hounds), with a couple of carryout orders staggering in. It's the answer to the prayers of the Baltimore food nerd. The trek down to Odenton will deter some. The bare bones interior will deter others. The traditional nature of the menu may deter some more. But this is the real deal, at its worst it's very good, at its best it's fricking fantastic, and you couldn't ask for more enthusiastic and accommodating hosts. Among those with whom I've been feasting for the past two weeks, nobody's quite sure what to expect once word gets out. Will the good folks of Baltimore, thrilled to have such an place in their backyard, make the short drive and overlook the humble setting for some truly exceptional Chinese? It's been two weeks since word broke on Chowhound. I'm busy telling everybody who has ears, and I'm willing to wager it's a matter of weeks before Baltimore's mainstream press catches on. What happens at Grace Garden over the next few months will speak volumes about Baltimore's food scene. This is a restaurant that deserves Baltimore's support, and Baltimore can only be enriched by lending it.
|1690 Annapolis Rd.|
|Odenton, MD 21113|
|Mon - Thu||11:00 AM - 10:00 PM|
|Fri - Sat||11:00 AM - 10:30 PM|