Authentic Chinese - Providence, RI
Here's a reply to a post I just recently placed on http://providence.urbanplanet.org that I thought would be appropriate for here too.
Now that Lemi's BBQ has closed in Cranston, here's what I think is the best of the RI authentic Chinese scene:
- Lucky Garden: On Smith Street in North Providence, it's my current favorite. Best dim sum in RI. Very authentic, especially the specials. Yup, it's far up in North Providence (for the West Enders/Smith Hillers, it's pretty close to them), but it's worth the trip.
- Red Ginger: In a strip plaza in Johnston, you could be forgiven for thinking it's yet another Americanized place. The location, decor, and menu all scream "Americanized." And they do Americanized cuisine very well in fact, as well as my current Americanized favorite China Inn in Pawtucket (now that Little Chopsticks in Smith Hill is gone ).
Ask for the Chinese menu and convince them that, yes, even though you may not be Chinese, you will enjoy that congee dish, and you'll have found some nicely authentic cuisine. Some Chinese students at Brown Med tipped me off to this place, and it's great. I think they may deliver to much of Providence as well (I believe the med students said that they order it delivered).
If you ask for their takeout menu, note that their authentic takeout menu is on a separate photocopied sheet you'll need to request separately.
- Iron Wok: Located in Seekonk in the strip plaza across from the Target/Best Buy/Kohl's/TJMaxx uber-big-box complex, this one was a surprise. I saw the add in a local newspaper with the tag line of something like "Not like your regular Chinese restaurant..." and decided to check it out. I had a brief conversation there with the owner chef about the Chinese food scene and he rapidly summarized it, "Now that Lemi's closed, the only authentic is really Lucky Garden and Red Ginger. My place is like Red Ginger." He showed me his Chinese menu, but basically put it down and said, "I'll make anything you want. I do all my own sauces and everything from scratch." I ordered cumin beef for myself and drunken chicken for my sister, and they both very good. My cumin beef, one of my favorite dishes, was a bit more hot than flavorful, but I ordered it on the hot side and they gave it to me 100%. Definitely worth supporting. They've been there for about a year now.
And that's about it. I know some like Phoenix Dragon on Broadway, but I've had two meals there now and haven't been blown away by either. Frankly, I think our best Chinese places hold up well against the Boston places, but we just don't have that many of them (three in an entire metro of 800,000 people!).
None of our places have any ambiance or style, though. I think there's got to be a market for stylish, authenic, funky Chinese in Providence. Downtown perhaps?
Thanks for the Golden Chopsticks recommendation in Westerly. It's a real chowhound find. A great, authentic menu with daily dim sum in Westerly, and only a quick jaunt off 95! Plus, that Ocean Plaza is like a little Chinatown, with a Chinese market, a Chinese hairdresser, and a Chinese tea shop with bubble tea. Great find...
My sister and I had dim sum with the following:
- Steamed rice in lotus leaf
Decent. I prefer the two Prov area dim sum's takes on this.
- Egg custard
- Beef intestines with turnips
A first for either of us. Fairly good!
- Beef noodle
Decent as well
- Fish meatballs
We both enjoyed this
- Scallion pancake
A bit high on the pancake, low on the scallion
- Steamed buns with red bean paste
- Steamed buns with chicken
Everything was brought quickly and steaming hot and service was great. Atmosphere is what you would expect for suburban Chinese.
I'm not sure we'd do it as a destination trip over the three Providence area dim sum locations (especially Lucky Garden), but we'll certainly hit it when going up and down 95.
Just got back from trying Iron Wok tonight, and Red Ginger last night. I call this "fieldwork". I was surprised the Iron Wok owner claimed (above) that his place is like Red Ginger - his menu claims it's Szechuan, and Red Ginger claimed (at least last night, as I was leaving) to be Hong Kong style...
Anyway, I was intrigued by the crockpot dishes at Red Ginger, and decided to check out the lamb one. I couldn't tell from the menu where the cooks were from, so it was a bit of a risk. Sort of a dark, rich, mildly-spiced lamb stew w/ bean curd, napa and carrots. Not the firey, red-brothed hotpots that lots of Szechuan places serve in L.A. (where I'm from), and nothing to actually drive there to order, but fine. I'd forgotten to look at their takeout menu, but the last page of their current "indoor" menu has lots of authentic, non-Americanized dishes.
Iron Wok looked promising in that the Chinese characters on the marquee were as large as the English ones, though I also couldn't get a bead on the region they specialized in. I don't know Chinese food that well, but when I see Szechuan, I think preserved vegetables, lots of little red peppers, lamb, etc., none of which I really saw. I spotted salt and pepper squid, and this reminded me of salt and pepper pork chop. They said they could easily make it, and I wasn't disappointed - it was not greasy, and plenty hot. They did use red pepper flakes, diced bell peppers and white onions rather than chili peppers and scallions which I'm more used to, and which made it a bit like the calamari in this area. Unfortunately, my other dish, cold sesame noodles, was totally inedible - I'd requested no msg, and this was basically spaghetti swimming in an orange puddle with a grayish pepper+msg paste caked on the noodles in gritty globs. Not delicious. Fortunately, they crossed it off the check before I could get the words out.
Nice places to know about, but...I miss Lemi's! There, I've said it.
[Ambiance-wise, they're similarly pretty casual, though Iron Wok was packed at around 7:30, with several parties waiting. I should also point out that Iron Wok's A/C was running at around 10% (but at least they were good about refilling water). They also appear to be short-staffed - the "hostess" forgot to offer me a menu or water, and admitted that it was her first day. I think she meant her first day visiting a restaurant.]
Thought I'd throw in my quick two cents on Iron Wok, which my wife and I tried a couple nights ago. Overall, I think the food is reasonably authentic, but the first offputting thing is that the authentic menu is only available in Chinese (with no English translation). I can speak Mandarin fluently enough, but my reading/writing is probably on a second grade level, so that was somewhat problematic. They need to get that menu translated.
We ended up just telling the owner what kinds of food we'd like to eat (a beef, a shrimp, a vegetable). The beef dish was the one he said was a must-try - thinly sliced pieces of tendon, intestine (?) and other "waste" portions of the cow (as he described to me) served as a cold dish. It was very flavorful - very spicy, actually, and eventually too spicy for me to eat very much of, but I'm a lightweight as far as that's concerned. That's what I would say about all the dishes I sampled, including the cold noodles - very spicy and pretty salty too. I had asked the owner to recommend a vegetable dish and instead he recommended the ma po tofu, which is a dish I like, but which is another spicy, hearty dish. Considering that we were at his mercy, I wish that he would have crafted a more balanced meal for us. I felt dehydrated and gross afterwards, despite drinking tons of water during my meal.
I should note that Szechuan cuisine is supposed to be very spicy (the owner said that they'd even toned things down a lot to appeal to Western tastes), and that I've never enjoyed that kind of Chinese food. So take this for whatever it's worth. I was a bit disappointed in the food at Iron Wok.
After reading all of the positive reports on MuMu, I had to go and see for myself. I stopped in last night. Everything was wonderful. We had the Sichuan Pan Fried Ravioli off the Dim Sum menu. It was offered steamed but they recommended we try it pan fried. It was very good. I ordered off of authentic menu and had the braised beef filet and vegetable with hot chili. I have never ordered off an authentic menu before so I don't have much to compare too, but this dish was wonderful. My husband and I really enjoyed it. It has me looking forward to trying more dishes off the authentic menu. My husband ordered the Beef Lo-Mein. He announced that it was the best Beef Lo-Mein he has ever had. I wanted to get the cold sesame noodles, but we had more than enough food between the two of us so the sesame noodles will have to wait to my next visit to MuMu.
Alas Lemmi's is no more. But the best Chinese food in Providence is the new restaurant Mu-Mu Cafe on Atwells. Principally Shanghainese, their xiaolong bao (steamed soup dumplings) and Szchuan raviolis with chili oil are world class as good as any I've had in HK, Shanghai or Vancouver. They have many menu items (on the page of "authentic Chinese" page that are not found anywhere else in RI. The fished stewed with mustard greens is wonderful. The tea smoked duck is also great.. Even the normally pedestrian and often tough fried Tofu with shitakes and bamboo shoots was exceptional. Its also a nice room with table cloths and wine glass. My new fav.
An overlooked but very good Chinese restaurant is King's Garden in Cranston. Their dim sum is pretty standard but always very fresh. (and served all day) Order off the "Chef's Menu" and the homestyle Cantonese fare is really very good. They do very good fish, steamed seabass with ginger and scallions or pan fried Flounder.
On a couple of topics:
King's Garden, Cranston:
I may have gone on a bad day. My sister still refers to the restaurant as "the place with the grease on every surface." The bathrooms were kind of disgusting and the food was very oily. I'll try it again... They're the only place in RI to do daily Dim Sum, as far as I know...
Cold Sesame Noodles:
I haven't found any here in the Providence area either... When I do, I'll let you know...
Bring your own chopsticks:
I haven't heard this either. If anyone has, let me know...
We're big Lucky Garden fans, and sometimes go to Phoenix Dragon or China Inn in Pawtucket, if only for the slightly better ambience and location. Very much looking forward to checking out MuMu, everyone we know agrees we are lacking a fun, great ambience, Chinese restaurant. And if a Providence Chowhound event emerges, please post the details, we would love to join you.
I haven't tried it, but my husband noticed a blurb in last week's Food Notes of the Projo. It's called MuMu Cuisine, and is apparently located at 220 Atwells. I've attached the link to the blurb (it's about half-way down the page). We're definitely intrigued and are hoping to check it out soon.
Thanks for all the MuMu reviews. I went myself a little over a week ago and posted my own review over at the very active food section of providence.urbanplanet.org. Here is my review:
In the increasingly proud and suicidal Providence marketing tradition, the restaurant is near invisible. I drove by it twice before I noticed it. It has a plain jane exterior with plain jane lettering with darkened windows, as Cotuit pointed out. Valet parking is available, although the person doing it seemed to be hanging out with 2-3 other people (friends? other employees?) in front of the door, which kind of gave it a forboding, loitering, Kennedy Plaza type of feel (and these people didn't move when we walked up to the door... We had to walk around them).
The absolutely stealth exterior is a shame since the interior is actually quite interesting in a David Lynch-ish sort of way. It's like a touch of French baroque meets Asian. The interior has a lot of red. I mean it's very red...
It's definitely a step more upscale than any other Chinese options in the area, a place I wouldn't be at all embarrassed to take people visiting me from Boston or NY.
The menu is very Americanized with a fusionish twist here or there. The section of the menu called "Dim Sum" is more like they renamed the Americanized "Appetizers" than any true Dim Sum delicacies.
Interestingly, they have an "Authentic" menu they pass out with the standard fare that is in both Chinese and English. This is much more encouraging, with the section labeled "Dim Sum" actually having some buns and options (like DanDan Noodles) befitting the Dim Sum name. Their entrees are also encouraging, with entries from several whole fish dishes, to Cumin Lamb, to Drunken Chicken.
My sister, on a quest to find the best Crispy Sesame Chicken on Earth, requested it and got it even though it wasn't on the menu.
Very courteous. Our waters were obsessively kept full and the servers were prompt and polite. Our (very, very young and very, very green) waitress was perhaps trying too hard, trying to be so cloying nice it actually came across tremendously disingenuous. My mother actually said at one point to us (not her, of course), "I wish she wouldn't come back so frequently. We get it already. You're nice and polite!" My father, though, disagreed and thought she was great.
All in all, pretty good.
We started with DanDan Noodles (from the "Authentic DimSum" menu, they are hot and spicy flour noodles, I think they're Sichuan) which were OK, done very differently than I'd had them elsewhere. I'd had cold, dry DanDan noodles before and loved them. These, by contrast, were warm flour noodles of spaghetti consistency served warm in an almost meat broth (they gave us spoons) topped with spicy scallions and, I think, pork. My family really loved it, but the pork regrettably made it a no-eat for me. I'm now confused about the preparation... Does anyone know about this dish?
We also ordered the vegetable dumplings from the mainstream DimSum menu, and they were excellent. 6 plump, non-oily dumplings filled with a fresh, tasty, vege filling with a great sesame oil/sugar/vingear dipping sauce. Very nice. We could have had another 3 plates...
Our entrees were very nice as well. Interestingly, my sister's made to order Americanized Crispy Sesame Chicken was probably the best dish on the table, and a serious contender for her "Best Crispy Sesame Chicken on Earth" award. Made in the Americanized fashion dripping with sweet, thick sauce, that sauce was nevertheless fantastic, not just sweet, but deep, satisfying, and almost smokey (I wonder if they used a touch of Hickory Smoke extract). The chicken pieces were perfectly crisp and light without being crunchy, and the chicken quality was excellent. Quantity was good and it was the hit of the table. If you go, ask for it even though it's not on the menu. It should be...
My mother ordered a shrimp with vegetables from the "regular" menu. She felt the shimp were good sized, but there were fewer of them than she's used to. She noted the veges were, like in the dumplings, crisp and extremely fresh.
My father got a ginger lobster dish from the "regular" menu which he enjoyed but again felt the quantity was perhaps a bit less than he was expecting.
I had the Spicy Cumin Lamb from the "authentic" menu, which I thought would be a great comparison with the near identical Spicy Cumin Beef which I asked be made at the more authentic Iron Wok in Seekonk. I was very pleased. The dish had a bit less cumin flavor here than Iron Wok's variety, but that flavor was much better balanced with the hot spices which overwhelmed the Iron Wok effort. The julianned snow peas (I think?) it was served on were, like all the veges, fresh and crisp.
They served white rice with the meal and admirably even refilled it when it ran low!!
You never go to Chinese restaurants for sweets, and despite my trying to tell my father this, he ordered a fried banana ice cream dish for 4 people (which looks to be their signature after dinner item) and it was the only clearly off note of the night. The banana pieces were wrapped in spring roll wrappers and fried (a great idea!) but were utterly tasteless (a bad idea!) despite being drizzled with chocolate. Perhaps they should drizzle some sugar on the bananas before wrapping them or use plantains. Also, for the soft banana and crispy wrapper contrast to work, the bananas need to be softer than they were. The mint ice cream and other flavor (which I had trouble identifying... red bean or a type of tea ice cream perhaps?) were great, but couldn't save it from the flavorless fried bananas.
My father insisted on paying for the meal (a good thing!) but I didn't get to see the final tab (a bad thing!). Overall, though, expect the average menu item to cost anywhere from 75 cents to 2-3 dollars more for the same thing than you'd get at the local slop pan-cuisine takeout dive...
Hard to say, since things still feel there like they're working out the kinks, but I'm ambivalent. On the good side, they're the only restaurant of their kind in the area. A stylish (at least the interior), medium scale sit-down Chinese restaurant of high quality. They've admirably chosen a "quality over quantity" approach and everything, especially the veges, was of the highest freshness and taste.
I'm disappointed, though, that the mainstream menu is so... Mainstream, and doesn't announce at all that they're different. I can see someone looking at their menu in the window, thinking this is like yet another Hunan Lucky Happy Dragon Garden and just moving on. I also fear that people, with a familiar menu, will expect familiar amounts of food and will miss the fact that the taste and quality is higher than usual.
I really wish that they'd gone "all the way" and really did a super authentic or, on the other extreme, super fusionish Chinese menu, because I fear their conservatism going with only what people know will just get them ignored, not get them more business.
They also really, really need to jazz up their all but invisible exterior. This is way beyond stolid. It's not inviting, doesn't say anything at all about what they are, doesn't reflect the interior, and doesn't reflect what they do. That, plus the 4 people just hangin' out with the valet guy right in front of their door who don't move and the smoky windows, doesn't pull people in and says "social club" more than anything else.
It's early. I encourage more people to go try it and see what you think and see how they evolve.
So, the updated current state of Providence Chinese according to Garris:
Best Americanized: Red Ginger, Johnston (Honorable Mention to MuMu and China Inn, Pawtucket)
Best Authentic: Lucky Garden, North Providence (Honorable Mention to MuMu; Iron Wok, Seekonk and Red Ginger, Johnston)
Best Dim Sum: Lucky Garden (Honorable Mention to Phoenix Dragon, Providence)
Best Sit Down Chinese Dining: MuMu (no honorable mentions, really...)
Highest Quality Chinese: MuMu (Honorable Mention to Red Ginger, Johnston)