Wednesday, January 26, 2011

All The Chinese Classics At China Gourmet

When I first stumbled back upon Vacarro's Trattoria after a ten year gap, I was amazed at the transformation from what I remembered in the past. On the other hand, when I revisited childhood staple Angelina's Pizza some twenty years later, the pizza didn't quite live up to the memory. Falling somewhere in the middle, China Gourmet in Akron, Ohio has managed to not only survive since I first started going there decades ago with my grandfather, but has since expanded to add a sushi bar and an underground banquet room.

China Garden was located at 1971 West Market Street, Akron, OH 44313 and can be reached at 330-867-8838. Parking was in the lot surrounding the building. If you are traveling eastbound down Market Street, your best bet for navigating the traffic is to make a left at Pershing and then a right into the lot.

Having lived in Akron for so many years, I pass by the restaurant frequently as it is located directly across the street from Ken Stewart's Grille. So what was the reason I hadn't stopped until now? Honestly, my memory of the food being served at the restaurant wasn't particularly memorable. It wasn't a bad memory, per se, just not a stand-out one. The shape of the building indicated that it had been converted from a Wendy's many decades ago. The interior was pleasantly decorated with linen tablecloths and napkins, a slender white vase on each table with a single flower sticking out of the top, and nary a chopstick visible in the entire dining room. Some things don't change.

Here was a shot of the roadside sign outside the restaurant:

China Gourmet Sign
As soon as I walked inside, I was greeted with EXACTLY the same interior that I remembered from fifteen years ago. While I can't attest to colors on the wall being a match to my memory, the feeling it invoked was exactly the same. This time, however, I looked around at the other clientèle and was unsurprised to discover that the only people of Asian origin in the entire restaurant were the owner and the staff. This did not bode well for getting authentic Chinese dishes. When I finally started to peruse the menu, my suspicions were confirmed:

China Gourmet's Menu Page 1
China Gourmet's Menu Page 2
China Gourmet's Menu Page 3
China Gourmet's Menu Page 4
China Gourmet's Menu Page 5
China Gourmet's Menu Page 6
China Gourmet's Menu Page 7
Having a wonderfully authentic Chinese restaurant in northeast Ohio like Wonton Gourmet has truly spoiled me. So much so that when I am firmly yanked back into Americanized Chinese food (which I, like so many other Americans, grew up on), I had to regroup to get my bearings. At six pages, the menu had a lot of the classics like General Tso's Chicken and Szechuan Beef, but since I at least wanted to attempt to find something a little more authentic, I had to scour the pages a little harder.

While I was looking at the menu, my server brought me the pot of green tea I had requested:

Green Tea Service
Sadly, only one tea bag had been used for the entire pot. This meant that the tea was quite weak until the very end of the meal when the tea bag had finally steeped long enough. Until that point, the liquid coming out of the pitcher's spout was nothing more than barely flavored hot water.

To get several tastes from tonight's menu, I decided to go with an appetizer, a bowl of soup, and one of the stir-fried dishes. For my soup, I skipped over the Wonton and Hot and Sour soups and decided to try the Vegetable and Bean Curd Soup:

Vegetable and Bean Curd Soup
The menu claimed that "all Chinese people eat this soup." The broth by itself was almost perfectly seasoned and had a slight vegetal taste to it. When I dug into the bottom of the bowl to retrieve the tofu and vegetables, I discovered that the "vegetable" portion of the title referred to fresh spinach and sliced green onions. It occurred to me that the vegetal taste of the broth was coming from the spinach itself. Sadly, when I got a spoon filled with not only broth, but also tofu, the barely underseasoned broth was now not salty enough to compensate for the unsalted tofu. Overall, this was a filling soup, but a little flat and two-dimensional. A drop or two of toasted sesame seed oil would've done wonders to the aroma and flavor.

While potstickers appear on almost every Americanized Chinese restaurant menu, only a few places do them well. Wonton Gourmet has set the bar high for me and I wanted to see how China Gourmet's version compared. Here were the potstickers with a soy and rice wine vinegar dipping sauce:

Potstickers and Dipping Sauce
As you can see, gentle reader, the kitchen clearly spent some time making sure the bottoms were crispy:

Crispy Potstickers
These particular potstickers were filled with ground pork and ginger:

Potsticker Filling
I only had two real criticisms on the potstickers. First, the casing was a bit doughy. Second, while I didn't expect the casing to be salted, I did expect the filling to be. It wasn't completely bland, but it was light on seasoning. I did enjoy how the ginger helped to cut through some of the fattiness of the pork, however. The dipping sauce served its purpose by adding some of the missing salt and acidity. These were definitely above average potstickers, but still a few levels below what you can get elsewhere.

After wading through page after page of non-authentic dishes, when I got to the "Pork" section of the menu, I was happy to discover an old friend, Ma Pa Tofu. Classically a spicy dish, when I asked my server about the spice level, she indicated it was already pretty spicy. I asked about my options for extra spicy. She indicated that she would not only turn the ticket in with "extra spicy" written on it, she would also bring out a dish of chili oil so that I could adjust it to my preference. Perfect!

After only a short time, she arrived with my entree:

Ma Po Tofu
Additionally, she brought me a medium-sized bowl of rice and the aforementioned dish of chili oil:

Steamed Rice and Chili Oil
After loading up my plate,

My Dinner Plate Tonight
I took my first bite. I held off on using the extra chili oil at first because I wanted to see how spicy the dish came out of the kitchen. "Extra spicy" at China Gourmet came out to about "medium" on my palate. This, as it turned out, was a nice level of heat as I could still taste the other components to the dish. While someone unfamiliar with a more traditional Ma Po Tofu might look at the picture of the entree above and say, "Where's the pork?", China Gourmet actually nailed the proportions correctly in that most of the protein on the plate was from the tofu, not the pork. China Gourmet's version also had water chestnuts in the mix, which I haven't had before. Overall, it was a decent rendition of Ma Po Tofu and even though I had eaten a bowl of soup and a plate of potstickers, I managed to get my way through about three-quarters of this plate.

While dessert was offered, I politely declined and asked for the check which, with tax, came to exactly $20. While tonight's meal was decent and would fit the expectations of 90% of Americans looking for "Chinese" food, to me the flavors just didn't pop like they did at more authentic restaurants. When I go out for any kind of cuisine, I want to be excited about the possibility of trying flavors that are foreign to me. The food tonight felt more comforting than exciting. In that sense, tonight's experience completely lined up with my last time dining here, some fifteen plus years ago. If this is the type of Chinese cuisine that you like, gentle reader, I think China Gourmet would make an excellent place for dinner.

For myself, however, I'd rather drive the forty-five minutes to Cleveland's Asiatown and experience some truly delicious and more exciting Chinese flavors.

China Gourmet on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

I stopped going to China Gourmet years ago when I realized that they charge for each refill of pop. The footed glass they serve the pop in is tiny and filled with ice. By the time my kids had two refills, it was about $4 each for their beverages. Greedy policy if you ask me. I have never experienced it anywhere else.

Tino said...

@makkjd: Ouch! A charge for each refill of soda? I do know some places where you get one refill free and thereafter you will get charged. You can be sure had I ordered soda during my visit and this had happened to me that it would've made it into the review. You're right, it's silly not to make sure that the customer knows. The policy should be made clear on the menu so that there aren't any surprises.

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