This campus suffers from an unexplained proliferation of bad Chinese food. I’ve gotten food poisoning at Dinersty. (General Tso declared war on my stomach.) I’ve had better Chinese food in the Upper Peninsula.
But there is an exception: China Gate, a tasty oasis in a dangerous desert of too-greasy egg rolls and fried rice that just shouldn’t be “that” color. The food there is so good one of my roommates is convinced it has the power to cure hangovers.
But don’t listen to me. Listen to an expert. It happened one was in town last weekend: Former Weekend Food and Drink critic Michael Grass. (I owe a considerable debt to Mike for creating the Food and Drink Critic position at the Daily.)
To say thanks, I took my esteemed colleague for lunch at China Gate, where he regaled me with the knowledge he gained during his three-year employment at a Chinese restaurant in Grand Rapids. Excerpts follow:
Mike Grass: I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad meal at China Gate. I’m not so sure why that is. Typically, having pictures of a restaurant’s food on the wall is a culinary faux pas. (One could, in theory, order by pointing.) So is advertising a chef’s cooking awards and prizes so prominently. But Chef Jan manages to overcome all of this with the quality of his dishes.
David Enders: I think our waitress is on speed.
(It should be noted China Gate has the best turnaround time of any restaurant in the area. Even when the place is full, I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes for a table.)
M: Americans typically think of Chinese food as one simple cuisine. People believe that if you add meat, vegetables, sauce and rice together, with a side of an egg roll or won ton soup, you’re eating the same thing as the people back in Fujian Province. Clearly, that mentality is myopic and wrong, but it isn’t necessarily the fault of the unknowing people on this side of the Pacific. Chinese cuisine is more like a family of regional tastes and food traditions. And most Chinese restaurants offer a wide variety of samplings from these different regions, creating an Americanized fusion Chinese cuisine and adding fancy imperial names like Princess Chicken to add authenticity. Chop suey is an American invention and if you go to Beijing, you’ll have trouble finding egg rolls.
E: Have you ever been to China?
M: (Eyeing me suspiciously and then reaching for the last of the crab cheese appetizers) The first thing to know about Chinese food is geography. The most prominent names in Chinese food are Mandarin (Beijing and Peking), Szechuan (Sichuan) and Hunan and Guondong (Cantonese). Mandarin cuisine is from the northern part of China and isn’t my particular favorite. Like in the U.S. and India, the food gets more flavorful the further south you go.
Szechuan is hot and sweet and Hunan is hot and spicy. Cantonese food offers the best of everything because Guondong (Canton) and its proximity to Hong Kong was an early outlet of Chinese culture and food to the West.
Early waves of immigrants from China came from this region, so Cantonese cuisine is a dominant force showing up in many American Chinese restaurants.
(At this point, the Michael Jackson song from “Free Willy” is played on the restaurant’s muzak station. People actually begin humming or even singing along. There is a slight pause before Mike continues:)
The new wave of immigrants from China is coming from the coastal province of Fujian, across the straits from Taiwan. So specialized seafood dishes have been slowly integrated into many Chinese restaurants in the U.S.
These new coastal dishes are most of the time a lot lighter than some dishes that hail from the interior, so if you have a chance to have a chef’s special, you may be pleasantly surprised. My old boss came from a Taiwanese culinary background, which is heavily influenced by seafood. He specialized in Sa-Tsa, a coastal barbeque sauce made from anchovies and garlic, which you don’t see too often in the Midwest. He would make it for me off the menu. Straying off the typical can yield the best food selections.
E: Yeah, straying off the typical can yield a lot of things. When’s our food gonna get here?
M: A typical Chinese dish should only take two to three minutes to make, so if you wait for a long time for a simple dish, something is awry in the kitchen.
The reason for the quick turnaround time in Chinese restaurants is tied to China’s traditional lack of energy resources. Fuel for cooking has always been in limited supply, so creating a large fire that consumed a lot of fuel wasn’t always an option. So the stir-fry process, which used an intense flame for a short period of time became the cooking technique of choice. Chopping everything into small bite sized portions in the cooking process required less fuel to cook, which is another reason why you rarely see a slow-cooked honey-baked ham on the menu of most Chinese menus.
E: So if you were writing this food review and not me, what would you write?
M: China Gate does a great job overall. The crab cheese is different, but is fantastic, and the hot and sour soup is perhaps the best I’ve had in Ann Arbor. They’re located at 1201 S. University Ave. Their hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. Kung Pao anything is superb, and the prices are reasonable (mostly under $10, with lunch specials under $7) and served with rice and soup.
They also do take-out.