I have written extensively about my visits to Wonton Gourmet near downtown Cleveland, Ohio. To date, they have some of the tastiest and most authentic Chinese food I've ever had in the entire northeast Ohio area. Their specialty, however, is Hong Kong style cuisine and as such, lacks some of the authentic flavors from other regional Chinese cuisines, specifically Szechuan cuisine. While they have added a few spicy and delicious items to their menu over time, for a true spicehead like myself, the last time I had true Szechuan food was during a trip to Chicago in 2007 at a restaurant called Lao Sze Chuan.
In a fortuitous twist, however, a restaurant named Beijing Garden located in Twinsburg, Ohio, had some spicy Szechuan dishes on their menu and it didn't take long before fellow blogger Nancy from Fun Playing With Food had set up a time and date for our decently-sized party to meet up and experience this food for ourselves. Beijing Garden was located at the end of a small number of stores at 7995 Darrow Road, Twinsburg, OH 44087 and can be reached at 330-425-9795. Parking was in the lot directly in front of the stores.
Here was a shot of the front of the restaurant:
Once inside, I was warmly greeted by Chef Shawn Chen and since I was the first to arrive, he invited me to sit in a chair in the lobby until the other five guests showed up. Several minutes later, all but one of the other guests arrived and we were shown to a circular table in the main dining room. Waiting for the final guest gave me time to photograph the menu:
While almost any Chinese restaurant has to cater to the American palate with dishes like General Tso's chicken and Wonton soup, by examining the menu closely, it was pretty easy to spot the more authentic Szechuan dishes, too. We started our meal out by ordering tea. Our server brought us two pots, one filled with jasmine and the other filled with green tea:
I opted to poor myself some of the green tea:
To begin our meal, we decided to order three of the appetizers: Dan Dan Noodles, Salt and Pepper Calamari, and the House Special Fried Dumpling. Since most authentic Chinese meals are eaten as the dishes come out of the kitchen, that was how we chose to eat our meal today, too. Of course, the large Lazy Susan at the center of the table helped making sharing very easy.
First out of the kitchen were the Dan Dan Noodles:
This was our first and certainly not our last taste of the fiery Szechuan peppercorns used to make this dish sing with flavor. Szechuan peppercorns are known for two qualities, ma and la. The dish not only has to have a spicy quality to it, but the peppercorn actually numbs your lips as well. Comprised of cooked noodles, chicken, scallions, sprouts, and peanuts, this was a very tasty way to start off our meal. The spicy and numbing quality of the peppercorns was present, but not overpowering. Had I not been sharing this with five others, I could've happily made an entire meal out of this dish.
The second appetizer to arrive was the Salt and Pepper Calamari:
The squid rings were lightly battered and fried and were toothsome without being chewy. The coating was a mixture of salt, black pepper, and as was first noted by my friend Diane, MSG. MSG is often used in Asian cuisine to develop a depth of savoriness but some, like Diane, are particularly sensitive to its presence in food and actually have physical reactions to consuming it. There are many who claim that MSG sensitivities are largely overblown, but I'm not about to start debating that point. I noticed the flavor as well, but it didn't bother me nearly as much since I don't have a sensitivity to it. While I'd prefer the dish without it, at the same time, I realized that Chef Chen was indeed giving us authentic dishes.
Our final appetizer was the House Special Fried Dumplings with a Soy-based Dipping Sauce:
These were expertly fried without a touch of greasiness to them. They were filled with ground pork and shrimp and the sweetness from the shrimp matched the saltiness from the dipping sauce well. I could have also ordered a plate of these for myself, too.
Collectively we also decided to do a soup course before the entrees. When the chef told us about another house specialty soup that mostly appealed to his Chinese customers, we immediately perked up and expressed our desire to try it. After a few more minutes, this arrived at our table:
This was a steamed shrimp and tofu soup with bok choi and cooked noodles in a light soup broth. Our server also brought out six soup spoons as well as individual bowls for each guest. As soup was ladled into each bowl, it was passed around so that everyone except one of the guests had one (she ordered an individual serving of their Hot and Sour soup instead). To my taste, everything harmonized well in the bowl. The noodles were soft without being mushy, the bok choi still had a bit of crunch to it, the shrimp were cooked without being rubbery and the tofu was still silken without disintegrating. This was a nice transition from appetizer to entree.
For our last course of the evening, we decided to order four different entrees and share them among us. First to arrive at the table was Ma La Chicken:
Studded with green peppers, onions, and zucchini, the dish had been loaded with more of the Szechuan peppercorns and then "dry" fried in the wok. This meant that there wasn't a sauce, per se. While the Dan Dan Noodles did have a touch of spicy and numbing quality to it, the Ma La Chicken really delivered in that department. Three or four bites in and I was happily "feeling the burn."
The second entree to arrive at our table was a long-time favorite of mine, Ma Po Tofu (or Dofu):
We had asked Chef Chen to serve it in the more authentic way with a bit of ground pork (most Chinese restaurants list it on their vegetarian menu) and he definitely delivered. Adorned with even more of the Szechuan Peppercorns, this dish picked up where the Ma La Chicken left off. The tofu was creamy, the pork a bit chewy (not in a bad way), and the tasty sauce was a wonderful topper to the bowl of steamed rice I had portioned for myself. Was this the best tasting Ma Po Tofu I've ever had? No, but it was darned close.
Our third entree was the Ziran Lamb:
Containing a combination of sliced lamb, onions, scallions, and the principle ingredient that defines this dish as Ziran Lamb instead of just a straight-up stir-fried lamb dish, cumin. LOTS of cumin. Normally the use of this much cumin would be off-putting, but Chef Chen managed to combine sweet, spicy, savory, and earthy in such a way that this dish was absolutely delicious. For those gentle readers out there who might by put off by the gaminess of lamb, I can assure you that the flavor was mild and tasted more like beef than lamb.
The final entree in our amazing culinary journey today was straight off the vegetarian menu and was a combination of Potato, Eggplant, and Green Pepper:
This was a simple, yet effective dish. After all of the complex flavors of the other entrees we had tonight, this one offered straight-forward flavors that helped to mitigate some of the spiciness that had consumed most of our mouths. What surprised me the most about this dish were the potatoes. To an American palate, the potatoes would've tasted a bit undercooked due to the ever-so-slight crispness of it. However, after trying a bite or two myself, while I could understand this perception, the potato also didn't taste "raw." The chef had walked a very fine line between under and overcooked and done a marvelous job.
As a special treat, Chef Chen surprised the entire table with a plate of Fried Bananas to end our rather large meal:
The bananas had been dredged in granulated sugar after being fried and had been served up with a sweet red swirl on the plate. This was the perfect way to get a little something sweet at the end without feeling like you had to go overboard. While the obligatory fortune cookies were still brought with the check, I opted to have a second piece of banana rather than my cookie.
With tax and tip for all of the food we had eaten tonight, the total came to an amazing $16.20 per person. Clearly it helped to share a meal with five others, but given how utterly full each of us was and the amount of leftovers we got to divvy up between us, this was one heck of a bargain and definitely on par with the value at Wonton Gourmet. Today's meal at Beijing Garden had been a true standout and I was elated by the knowledge that I now have a place to go when I want to experience the true burn of Szechuan Peppercorns. I highly recommend you give Chef Chen's restaurant a try whether you want some of the more typical Americanized Chinese food or need to take the plunge and go for something a little more authentic.