Chinatown has been a fixture in Green Hills for more than 30 years, and for many Nashvillians, it has been the default place to go for Chinese food, mainly because it was the best of a mediocre slate of options for Chinese. Last year, under the new ownership team of Jack Ting and Gavin Weng, the restaurant underwent a makeover (including glass tanks for live lobsters and fish), and the changes weren't merely cosmetic. In addition to the standard Middle Tennessee Chinese offerings, there are now quite a few more authentic dishes on the menu — Taiwanese-style braised pork, spicy sliced pig ears, boiled beef in hot oil, and a variety of hot pot dishes, to name but a few. Furthermore, manager Joyce Kong says that when summer comes, diners can expect some new seasonal selections.
City Paper editor Steve Cavendish and the Scene's Jack Silverman made a few visits recently. In the discussion below, they grapple with a question that had previously been unthinkable: Does Nashville now have a legitimately good Chinese restaurant?
SC: Jack, I don't think we're breaking any new ground by saying the state of Chinese food in Nashville sucks. I mean, we've got enough of it, but if you truly want to depress yourself, go flip through Yelp and you'll find the top-rated places are Noodles & Co. (a chain with exactly one "Chinese" dish on the menu), Panda Express (kill me, please) and P.F. Chang's (not bad, but another national chain). You can get fantastic Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and other Asian specialties in Nashville, but the state of our Chinese is pretty abysmal.
JS: You won't get an argument from me. Chinese buffets still abound, but the only one worth a visit is the weekend buffet at Golden Coast. As far as traditional table-service Chinese, I've had a few good dishes at China Cottage in Madison (big props to the salt-and-pepper shrimp). But the revamped Chinatown has really raised the bar — at least at dinnertime. Were you as impressed with our dinner experience as I was?
SC: I was. I had a couple of dinners that I would consider very good. I got the Crazy Spicy Chicken one time, and when it arrived, I was a little puzzled. Here was a sauceless chicken dish that, frankly, looked a little too beige, but had a lot of flavor and even more heat. The garlic beef had really fresh vegetables, wasn't drowned in sauce and featured some good-looking meat. It could have used a little extra spice, but that didn't seem to keep me from scraping the plate clean. And we both liked the duck, even if the skin could have been crispier. Does a quality, sit-down Chinese place have to serve some passable version of Peking duck to get a good rating? To me, that shows there's some good cooking going on, not just re-versioning two different sauces in a wok.
JS: Your description of the garlic beef touched on a point that really set this meal apart for me: Unlike a lot of Chinese food around here, nothing was swimming in sauce. Not only were the sauces distinct from dish to dish — not to mention more complex than the ubiquitous sweet soy-based dreck that smothers many a Chinese dish around here — but they were all used sparingly. There was a nice coating on the garlic beef and accompanying vegetables, but no real sauce to speak of pooling in the plate. Same with the kung pao shrimp, a solid rendition of a Chinese staple. And I was really smitten by the eggplant with pork and basil in hot pot. That was unlike anything I've had at a local Chinese restaurant, and was strikingly similar (if a little less spicy) to a Szechuan eggplant dish I had at Chung King, which the Los Angeles Times' Jonathan Gold says serves the best Szechuan food in L.A. As for Chinatown's Peking duck, I liked it too — and when I ate it there on Christmas Eve, the skin was crispier.
SC: It's funny you mention Gold. I was just reading a list he did for Chinese New Year, which was best Chinese places in the San Gabriel Valley, by regional cuisine. THERE WERE SEVENTEEN DIFFERENT OPTIONS. When you open the menu at Chinatown, you feel like they're trying to give you all of China on a menu, like a lot of other Chinese places do. I can imagine the analogous American place in Beijing with a kitchen full of cooks pulling their hair out trying to do 50 different regional specialties every night: "Table 8 needs the low country boil, a Kentucky hot brown, roasted elk and a lobster roll." I wish the options weren't such an intimidating sprawl. It's OK to only offer me Szechuan and not every other style. Or Chengdu. Or Hunan. Or Shanghai. If the country has a billion people, it's probably unreasonable to try to encapsulate an entire cuisine in one restaurant. That's not to say there weren't a lot of good things — the Kung Pao was very tasty both as a chicken and as a shrimp dish — I just would have rather had 20 choices rather than 200. It might have made the execution a little better.
JS: Actually, that's a pet peeve of mine in restaurants in general. A menu that's several pages long drives me crazy. I don't want to have to spend 30 minutes reading the menu to figure out my options! Your point that it's hard to make 200 dishes well is true, but in Chinatown's defense, I will say this: The restaurant already had a fairly solid customer base before they expanded the menu to include more authentic regional dishes. There are probably still quite a few regulars who prefer the more pedestrian selections. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) They don't want to lose loyal clientele who may be less adventurous. Also, if memory serves me, the menu at Chung King in L.A. was just about as lengthy as Chinatown's. Of course, it was more regionally specific. But American Chinese restaurants in general seem to have long menus.
So what did you think about the appetizers? We tried only two, but I was quite pleased with both. The scallion pancake was really good, and the small steamed buns — essentially small pork dumplings — were great.SC: The crispy lobster was a very welcome addition. I love whole fried shellfish anyway, and if you're into working for your dinner, it's definitely worth ordering. As for the appetizers, I could have eaten about 20 more of those pancakes. The buns were good. I thought the steamed dumplings were even better. We need to talk about lunch, though, because as good as dinner could be, I got a couple of thoroughly mediocre lunches from Chinatown. The first was as a group, when they were completely understaffed, and only one of our four entrées was passable. The second time, I got takeout and found the garlic sauce, which I had really liked two nights before, to be a brown, bland mess. If you're doing lunch and dinner, seven days a week, consistency is going to be tough, I know. You tell me . . . should I expect the same food at different times?
JS: Well, if you mean, "Should a restaurant's quality be consistent at lunch and dinner," I'd say, yes, ideally it should. But realistically, will it be at Chinatown? Probably not. I'm guessing they are trying to attract the affordable-lunch-special crowd, so you are not going to get the same quality. Also it's worth noting that at dinner, the meat in the garlic beef dish was good, but at lunch, the meat in the Szechuan beef was definitely subpar (and the sauce had a weird chemical taste). The other lunch specials — General Tao's Chicken and a "crispy" flounder special of the day that was more mushy than crispy — were pretty average. (By the way, though service at lunch was bad, at dinner it was exemplary — a big shout-out to Jane, our server.)
For me, the upshot is this: In the past, Chinatown was a place I'd go in a pinch, when I had a craving for Chinese — the least bad option. But under the new management, dinner is genuinely good, and I'll likely be eating there more regularly — and not because I'm settling for the lesser of several evils. That's saying a lot.SC: I agree with this. I think Chinese food is one of the last areas where the standard we get is often "good enough for Nashville." But I'll be back at Chinatown soon. I need some more of those pancakes.
Chinatown is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.