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May 30, 2008

Grace Garden

Baby Bok ChoyDominic 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 NoodlesDominic 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 ShrimpDominic 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 PorkDominic 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 PowderDominic 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 PowderDominic 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 SauceDominic 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 FiletsDominic 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 DuckDominic 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.

Grace Garden
www.gracegardenchinese.com
1690 Annapolis Rd.
Odenton, MD 21113
410-672-3581
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 10:30 PM
SunClosed

Comments

Just curious, how does one go about learning about hidden menus? There are a bunch of crappy chinese food restaurants in my area, and I would love to learn how to get them to make me more authentic dishes that they don't serve to the average American.

Thanks!

@Ken:

Not all places have chefs who can cook great Chinese food. A lot of small shops are run by folks who are just making do. I know one guy who was a literature professor back in China, and runs a mediocre restaurant for a living.

So while you could ask them for what they would make at home, it might not be fantastic either. But if you're bold, go ahead and ask them. No harm.

It's a tough thing, Ken. In the case of Grace Garden, it's easy. There' no secret. The menu is out there for anybody who wants it and the owners are thrilled to share. It's often less so with other places, even if they ARE capable chefs when it comes to the authentic stuff. I think a lot of times they've been burned by people who expect Ameri-Cantonese and get upset -- too spicy, too much fat, "low quality" dark meat, shrimp with the shells on -- so I think a lot of places have dishes returned and they give up trying. They expect, correctly for the most part, that we don't want the real stuff. And convincing them otherwise often involves a leap of faith on their part.

But again, that's one of the things that's so refreshing about Grace Garden. If you go in anxious to learn, they're twice as anxious to teach.

Sadly enough our first visit was on a Saturday night at 8 p.m. There was one caucasian family finishing up when we got there, a couple of carryout orders and Mr. and Mrs frequentcrasher as the only other patrons.

I'm sympathetic with those who don't want the character to change, but I also would love to see them get the recognition they deserve. I'd also like to see them relocate to the city, but it's well worth the drive even with gas at $4.

Great post. Great restaurant.

"I'm sympathetic with those who don't want the character to change, but I also would love to see them get the recognition they deserve."

I know exactly what you mean, Jon. There's that part of you that wants to keep the secret little joint all to yourself. But it isn't about us. It's about them, it's about the food, and it's about creating the kind of environment where places like this can thrive. And if it isn't, then why are we doing this?

If you don't mind the drive and you love good dumplings:
China Bistro
755 Hungerford Drive (off Rockville Pike, immediately north of the Giant and the Post Office)
Rockville, MD 20850
(301) 294-0808
M-F 11:00am-9:30pm
S-S 11:30am-9:30pm

They have the normal chinese carry-out menu, but mostly, you come here for the dumplings.

This isn't a dim-sum place, and all the dumplings have the same home-made pot-sticker wrapper, but they have around 12 different varieties, all delicious. Also of note are their cold vegetable plates and homemade noodles.

Thanks for the great write-up Dom. I'm probably one of the few who hopes they stay close to where they are. :) It's worth noting that they have commodious round tables (with lazy susans) that seat up to 12 - a great way to share a lot of different dishes with friends. And they have no liquor license, so it's perfectly acceptable to bring your own, if that's your thing.

My sense after eating their about half a dozen times now, is that the only reason certain dishes are not on the Chinese menu is because there simply wasn't enough room to put everything, so they scratched the rarely ordered ones. The steamed duck stuffed with sticky rice, for instance. A true gem, but with a three-day advance order. I'm thinking of asking if they'll teach me or a group of us how to make that.

I wish them great success - even if it means they do move...I will follow.

A couple of quick updates, the second of which I'll cross post to CH but thought it deserved mention here.

I showed up a bit early for lunch today, having allowed ample time for the horrible weather I was driving through, so I got to talk to Chef Li for a little bit. One question I asked him was why he chose the location. He said that he'd tried for another one in Towson but it had fallen through, and he wanted the business from the Army base.

The next part is a bit unclear thanks to language barriers. He either had tried or was thinking of trying a steam table buffet of Americanized dishes. He looked sort of disgusted at the thought, which I can well imagine. I again urged him to relocate to Baltimore, where his cooking would hopefully receive a more welcome reception.

The next update is more food related. If I have any criticism of the place it's that he doesn't believe deep down that we non-Chinese really do want the authentic stuff. He still likes to remind us that pork belly is very fatty, like he's afraid we will complain. Fortunately we had someone with us who speaks Chinese well enough to communicate with him.

When we ordered the mixed seafood in XO sauce he offered us somewhat different seafood than was in the version you had. Ours contained conch, I think shark fin and something that our translator could only describe roughly as "fish throat." He kept stroking his fingers on his throat while speaking, but I couldn't get a better description. I also couldn't figure out what fish it was from, but it was small pieces of crispy fish that were quite flavorful. If you get this dish again, ask for that version.

I tried the golden shrimp today for the first time. Delicious. Soon my list of must-orders is going to be 30 dishes long. I will walk in and become paralyzed with indecision.

I'm not from Baltimore, but reading this, I wish I were! I've lived in two foodie capitals (New York and Paris), but I can't believe the sorts of gems that can be found with just a little bit of persistence in towns that are not as well-known for their food. Kudos to you, and keep posting please! I'm drooling over here.

You may have seen it already, but if not you might be interested in this:

My colleague Tyler Cowen is a widely-read economics blogger who also takes a keen interest in ethnic foods. If you ever make it closer to the Beltway, do check his reccs. on his Ethnic Dining Guide (http://www.tylercowensethnicdiningguide.com/).

Also, in the intro remarks to this version, he mentions his fidelity to strip mall ethnic restaurants: http://www.gmu.edu/jbc/Tyler/tyler_cowen.htm

Such a heartfelt writeup-- I sent it to my sis in London to get her drooling.

Thanks for this great writeup- I went here this past weekend with the folks and they loved it. Chef Li and his family are incredibly nice and their food- wow. I posted this up on my blog as well (gave your post props).

hello SD,

While we've talked about GG tons in person, just wanted to say great blog, great write up, and great comments.

From my conversations with chef & wife, it seems pretty certain that they will have to move since the county or the DoD will be widening the road that they're on. But it won't be until the end of the year, and I imagine that they'll need a fairly lowish rent 'hood. The group I was with last Friday said that we would help them find a place *grin* somewhere in a SAFE, modestly priced Baltimore City location.

Just a note on their customers or lack thereof from my observation: Almost every time I've been there, there have been at least one table of people eating from the "authentic" side of the menu. They also don't, at this point, want to hire employees, but they also want to grow, so they're going to have to decide what they can handle and what works best for them. I just keep thinking about how utterly exhausted chef seemed after our dinner on Wednesday......Running a very tiny business myself, I can only imagine what would happen if I got slammed based on a great write up all of a sudden. (Not that I wouldn't welcome it, mind you!)

Anyway, like everyone else, I'm glad that a small, hidden post on CH brought this little gem to our attention I know they are grateful, if not a bit overwhelmed, by this newfound attention.

Even though I always claimed that I need a little GG hiatus from the place, I know that I can't wait to try even more from the menu!

Great review. Seeing as I work close by, I think I'll stop by for lunch. :-)

Hi I'm just so glad that fellow foodies are discovering the wonders of GG. We've been loyal patrons since 2005 when GG first opened shop.

I'm going to let Chef Li know there have been so many great blog posts, including your wonderful article, on the web. Thanks for your review!

-Min
p.s. If you call ahead, Chef Li and his wife Mei could make you some very yummy desserts too (Li used to be a western cuisine chef back in HongKong)! My favorite is the 9" flan, but we'd get mango puddings at summer time as well. I've seen a friend to have a birthday cake made
too!

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