After taking Cathy2, Rene G, Josephine and a friend of theirs to what has become my very favorite spot in Baltimore this evening, I was reminded just how far behind I've fallen in keeping this thread up to date. So while I'm sure you'll hear more from them shortly, I thought I'd jump in and provide the background.
When I first moved to Baltimore, naturally one of the first things I did was to ping as many local food nerds as I could get my hands on -- what's great, what's not so great, what are the local specialties, what can't I miss, etc. We'd discuss crab cakes, pit beef, the strengths and weaknesses of various ethnic joints, but almost invariably our conversations would have the same coda.
"Don't bother with Chinese. It's terrible."
So universally shared was this opinion, and so dejected the tone in which it was delivered that it quickly became clear that great Chinese was the holy grail for the Baltimore food nerd: that thing they pined for, but had come to accept they'd never have.
And then we found it.
By "we", I mean me and my newly minted Baltimore food nerd friends. And "found" is perhaps giving us a little too much credit. A thread was started on the Baltimore/DC Chowhound board, asking if there was any
Chinese in the Baltimore area worth having. One halfhearted recommendation after another was quickly shot down by others who were not so afraid of being critical. We had consensus. It didn't exist. But then deep in the thread, one poster -- a first time poster, no less -- mentioned that he and his wife had been eating at a little strip mall joint out in Odenton, about 20 minutes from the heart of the city, for the past year and they thought it was really good. It was called Grace Garden, and it was run by a couple from Hong Kong, and was mostly staying alive making kung pao chicken and sweet sour pork carryout for those stationed at Fort Meade across the street, but in addition to the Westernized menu, it had an extensive menu of Cantonese and Sichuan specialties that were quite excellent. Some of the dishes this poster (Kit, as we'd come to know him upon meeting him later) mentioned were clearly not your typical Chinese takeout fare, and a handful of us figured we'd better go check it out.
Over the next month, we probably ate there seven or eight times. Here's but a sample of what we had. All photos are of the click to enlarge variety.Baby Bok Choy
The vegetables section of the menu lists but three dishes, all eggplant, because Chef Li prefers to offer whatever looks freshest when he does his shopping, or pull something seasonal out of their garden. It's to his credit that he puts the quality of his ingredients above the consistency of his menu. On our first 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.Fish Noodles
Here you see one of the smashing successes, the Fish Noodles. The thick, nubby noodles, made from ground fresh fish which is extruded into a simmering broth, 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.Golden Shrimp
Here you see the Golden shrimp, fried crispy with a salted egg yolk coating and a sprinkling of crispy fried garlic. Light and crispy shells lend 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.Sichuan Pork
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 that's thinly sliced and stir-fried with leeks, bell peppers and toban djan. 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. Sichuan Pork Belly with Rice PowderSichuan Fish with Crispy Fried Bones
I lump the next two photos together because they 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. 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. A bite of the crisp bones along with the fish is an absolutely addictive combination. Seafood with XO Sauce
Chef Li does his home proud with a very nice in-house XO sauce that's less fiery than some, but no slouch in the flavor department. 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. Sichuan Fish Fillets
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. 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.Duck Stuffed with Sticky Rice
I might get myself in trouble for mentioning this one. It's an off-menu item that is a ton
of work for the Lis to prepare. But I just can't keep it from you guys, because it's a total show-stopper. If you're reading, Mei, forgive me! They first debone a duck, leaving the meat and skin completely intact, and then stuff 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, not to mention one of the purest expressions of duck fat I've ever had anywhere. Shocking when you first sink into it, it's even more shocking if you stick any leftovers in the fridge and see what's congealed the next day. I cannot express my amazement at this dish, and I'm saddened that the short notice meant I wasn't able to share this one with the LTH crowd this weekend.Peacock Chicken
Here's another that, regrettably, couldn't be done on short notice. I'm always amazed by how a great Sichuan meal can take the same five or six central ingredients -- chiles, Sichuan pepper, garlic, sesame, vinegar, ginger -- and create such a wide variety of dishes with them. The Peacock Chicken highlights Sichuan's cool and sweet (though no less fiery) side. The chicken is steamed and served cold, topped with a typical ma la sauce that turns up the sugar, vinegar and ginger. Though it's almost pure meat, it's a cool dish made refreshing by the heavy dose of vinegar, and it still has a nice kick -- perfect for summer evenings.Three Treasures - Tongue, Tendon and Tripe
Here's one that will look familiar to devotees of Tony's version over at Lao Sze chuan. It's another cold dish and a perfect example of how altering the balance of the traditional ma la seasonings can completely change the character of a dish. This one, though vinegary, is pushed further back towards the chile end of the spectrum, and the sauce bathes thin slivers of tongue, tripe and tendon, which are in turn topped with chopped peanuts and scallions. In addition to its fiery intensity, the toothsome tendon, spongy tripe and crunchy peanuts exemplify the importance of textural contrast to so many Sichuan dishes. Though similar to Tony's in so many ways, this is less eartly and fiery and more sweet and vinegary. I couldn't say I prefer either. It's just wonderful to see two very different takes on what is essentially the same dish.Cantonese Wok-Fried Quail
There isn't much meat on 'em, but quail hold many rewards for those who aren't shy to pick them up and gnaw away. The Cantonese Wok-Fried Quail are seasoned just enough to accentuate the sweet meat, and they sit in a light jus (if such a term can be applied to Chinese cookery) that only adds to their succulence when spooned over the top. It's a simple, no-frills dish that's a nice respite from the more typically saucy creations.Tea Smoked Duck
Another dish that puts the focus on the fowl is the Smoke Tea Duck, which is similarly minimal but significantly more intense. An advance order nets you a whole duck with deep, lacquered skin that's completely infused with an intense, smoky flavor. Like the quail, it does just enough to accentuate the flavor of the bird without obscuring it. This is also near the top of my personal favorites list.Braised Pork Belly with Mui Choy
My Chinese dining in the States is pretty much an endless quest for the kind of intensely sweet melts-into-nothingness on your tongue pork belly like the kind I have in China. Chef Li's Braised Pork Belly with Mui-Choy isn't quite there. It's not his fault -- we just don't have the pigs for it. But it's as good as I've had stateside, and it makes me exceptionally happy. The pork belly is sliced and braised along with mui-choy, a Chinese mustard green that's been salted and lightly pickled to provide a little sourness to cut the soy-based sauce that's surprisingly thin and does a wonderful job of adding needed sweetness without being cloying. Though it doesn't liquefy on the tongue, it's meltingly tender and may be my favorite pork dish at Grace Garden. Taiwanese Style Fish
A dish that inspires some mixed emotions, but not enough to keep it off my list of favorites, is the Taiwanese Style Fish. There is nothing subtle about this dish. You have small chunks of fish, an abundance of ground pork, scallions, bell peppers and some kind of pickled cabbage that are stir-fried in a spicy, sweet sauce with plenty of dried chiles and cilantro stems. The reason I say I have mixed emotions is because while I like the texture of the little fried chunks of fish, the potency of everything surrounding them doesn't exactly put them in the spotlight. I find myself taking another bite and wondering if this is really a fish dish or a pork dish. Then I find myself taking another bite and just not caring. It's an explosively tasty dish and nitpicking in such a manner is probably missing the forest for the trees. I dig it, and that's all that matters.Curry Beef Stew, Hong Kong Style
Here's a dish that I probably never would have tried if it weren't for the fact that Chef Li insisted, and I'm glad he did. Both from the description and my first glance, it looked like a very typical beef, potato and onion curry based on your typical canned Madras curry powder. And it was. But three or four bites into it, what struck me was that it was an unusually delicious version thereof. Its strength wasn't in the flavor. The flavor was very nice -- a very mild, comforting and lightly sweet stew that even the most spicy-averse could handle. But that's not uncommon. What struck me, rather, was its wonderfully silky, collagen-laden texture that was achieved, no doubt, by the fatty cuts of connective tissue that comprised half of the meat in the dish. Let's be clear. This is beef you could sip through a straw, floating in an unctuous, curried beefy goo. A massive turnoff for the typical Americanized crowd, but folks here would love this dish.
There's more. I have to stop somewhere. At any rate, Grace Garden IS
the real deal. A tiny little hole in the wall with an incredible and extensive authentic menu, on the fringes of a city that had given up hope that they'd ever have such a place. And to make things even better, the folks who run the place -- Chun and Mei -- are just the sweetest people in the world. Take this place, plunk it down in the middle of Chicago, instant GNR. If we recognized restaurants outside of the Chicagoland area, I would have flown people out here to ensure it received the honor. But as it stood, we knew we needed to get the word out. So we did, working the local food boards, contacting some of the local press, making sure that this little diamond in the rough wasn't overlooked. About a month and a half later, the MSM finally caught on. The Washington Post was the first major publication to pick up on them, and they were followed by the Baltimore City Paper and finally the Baltimore Sun. Now, the place is busy all the time. Hardly anybody comes in to order kung pao chicken. The walls are filled with my photos of the food, and all of their sizable press clippings, not to mention a special commendation from the Maryland legislature. They've even added some nice tablecloths, and a church friend of theirs helps to wait tables and clean dishes. But it's still Mei and Chun holding down the fort. They're tired. They've been incredibly busy. But they're all smiles and excitement, thrilled that people are coming in not for the carryout Chinese standards, but for their food
. Really, it's a picture perfect food nerd success story and those of us who got the word out feel honored to have been a part of it. Baltimore has some wonderful local foodstuffs, but when I leave this summer, Grace Garden is the place I'll miss most of all.