Mastering Chinese

Two authentic, adjacent restaurants will put your taste buds (and spice tolerance) to the test

Photo by Anthony MairThe stir-fried lamb at Yunnan Garden.

If sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce and oil—the distinguishing ingredients at Chinese emporiums such as Panda Express—are Chinese Food 101, the fiery Hunan and Szechuan fare at two local counterparts, Dong Ting Spring and Yunnan Garden, are graduate-level courses.

Appropriately, English is minimal at these places, which are sequestered in a backstreet behind Kung Fu Plaza Mall, near the corner of West Spring Mountain Road and South Valley View Boulevard. But the local Chinese certainly know they’re here, because business at both restaurants is usually brisk.

Dong Ting Spring (3950 Schiff Dr.) is the more modest. Hunan is Mao’s home province, north of Canton in central China. It’s cold there, so the natives rely on Fagara pepper and mountain chili to warm things up. So, be warned: When the server asks if you want your food mild, medium or hot, medium is the new hot for these people.

Chairman Mao’s Pork with bamboo chunks is mild enough, but Dong Ting-style twice-cooked pork is positively incendiary. The thinly sliced pork bellies have been steamed and then sautéed in a pool of hot chili, garlic and oil.

Green garlic (the shoots, actually) comes with more chilies (the green ones), lots of black beans and a rich sauce. One spoonful will take care of an entire bowl of rice. Two, and you may have to call the fire department.

The menu is filled with exotica such as stir-fried frog and crunchy stir-fried pig’s ear, but there are less intimidating choices, too, such as sautéed ong choy, dry fried string beans and acceptable meat-filled dumplings.

For me, though, the raison d’etre is the steamed fish-head casserole, which is a halved fish, head on, perched on a blanket of chopped red chilies. The fish is moist, with enough flesh away from the head that a shy type can avoid it altogether. I’d ask the kitchen to go easy on the oil. One man’s luxury is another man’s excess.

The heat is even higher, if you can believe it, at Yunnan Garden (3934 Schiff Dr.), named for the province of southwest China that abuts Myanmar and the Indochinese hill country. Only a few traditional dishes from that region are served here, such as herbed chicken soup in a clay pot, or the strange but delicious beef with balsam pear.

Actually, this is a Szechuan restaurant, so when a dish is marked with a chili symbol (most things on this menu are), run for cover.

The cold buffet is incredible. You get three choices for $4.50, and one plate is a full meal by itself. Since English is minimal, just point at the menu. My favorite choices from it are cold spicy beef, cucumber salad and chicken with peanuts. All three have a mule’s kick.

Most of the patrons will be eating beef stir-fried with dry and green peppers. This is an amazing concept. In Chinese, the name translates as “shingle beef.” Picture a shingle that tastes like beef jerky and has a wicked crunch. Then imagine that it has been dipped in habanero juice.

Just a few of my favorite dishes here are lamb with cumin, oil dipped tofu, the non-spicy dishes spareribs in fried garlic and filet of fish in brown sauce with garlic, and the positively tame smoked duck.

If you like them, too, congratulations—you now have a master’s degree in Chinese food.

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