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Triangle Chinese Update

s
Sinophile Feb 5, 2009 08:55 AM

I've been hearing things about #1 Panda House on Guess Rd. in Durham for a while and finally got around to giving it a try. My informants told me that it had been quite good until the chef departed some years ago, and that the original chef is now back.

Despite the goofy name, the restaurant serves reasonably authentic dim sum and Shanghai-style dishes. It's best known for "shengjian bao" (panfriend pork buns) and these were indeed terrific. Unfortunately, they are the only item on the menu not listed in English. I recommend pointing at the one thing you can't read and saying "I want that." We also had soup dumplings and chive and pork dumplings, both of which were good though not as stellar as the "shengjian bao."

We followed our dim sum appetizers with tofu and pork rolls and crispy duck. The rolls were nice without being special and the duck was crazily over-salted. We immediately sent it back. Having tasted the dish, the headwaiter was profusely apologetic and seemingly genuinely embarrassed. We substituted fish fillets in wine sauce, which were roughly on par with the tofu rolls. The fillets were tender,and the sauce had a subtle undertone of Chinese medicine.

We gleaned that there are two chefs in the kitchen. There's one chef for dim sum chef (this is the owner; this is presumably the chef who had left), and one chef for dishes. The dim sum chef is significantly better than the other chef, though both are well above the local Chinese standard.

The restaurant serves dim sum a la carte on Saturday and Sunday. I would recommend this with one reservation: the dim sum items are really expensive, perhaps twice as expensive as similar items served at nearby Hong Kong.

By far the best Chinese food in the Triangle these days is being served at Super Wok in Chatham Square, Cary, but there are significant difficulties in ordering it. Two entirely discrete restaurants are operating under the same roof. Two incompetent chefs produce feeble American-Chinese and Thai dishes for Americans, while Chef Chen produces really vibrant and authentic Szehuan dishes for Chinese. One issue is that the Chinese menu is entirely in Chinese; another issue is that Chef Chen is looking to set up his own restaurant. He looked at Jade Palace in Chapel Hill, but decided to pass. I will keep everybody informed as best I can. The thing to do, while the opportunity lasts, is to order whatever dishes Chef Chen cares to make you.

The problem with so much Chinese cuisine in America, if you will forgive some cultural theorizing, is that Chinese chefs simply refuse to believe that Americans will like their best cooking. This is for some reason culturally hard-wired into them. Hence the baleful phenomenon of the two menus.

Case in point: we asked Chef Chen to make us dishes of his own choosing the other night. We wound up with a sweet-and-sour fish and a sweet-and-sour beef. Both were excellent in their way, but not really authentic, and certainly not the kind of food we usually order. My wife said this was in token of my Western palette. I found the episode strange and telling, as we order the authentic Szichaun food on the menu all the time, and Chef Chen jolly well knows it. He must believe I am unhappily deferring to my wife.

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  1. s
    suse Feb 6, 2009 04:52 AM

    Thanks so much for the informative post, sinophile - can't wait to try these.
    Being referred to as a "waiguoren" (foreigner) at a Chinese grocery store in my very own town goes a long way toward explaining how the Chinese view us sometimes. It doesn't really surprise me that they think we can't handle the real deal. Whenever I make Chinese food for my friends they are amazed at the variety of the dishes and how nothing I make remotely resembles anything they've had in a Chinese restaurant. Do you have any advice for what to order at the cafe at Grand Asia Market? I've had the dou hua and buns but was wondering what you thought of their other offerings.

    2 Replies
    1. re: suse
      s
      Sinophile Feb 8, 2009 03:56 AM

      I'm not a fan of Grand Asia for dinner. We ate at the cafe somewhat regularly for about five years, simply because it was convenient, but the food swung unpredictably between "not bad" and "pretty bad." Finally we gave up. I recall liking the dou hua, but not the buns. The problems there were typical: numerous chefs with different skill levels, chefs coming and going. It may be that the cafe has rehabilitated itself since we stopped going about two years ago. If Chef Chen set himself up at Grand Asia (see above), everyone involved would do very well for themselves.

      1. re: Sinophile
        c
        cervisiam Apr 20, 2009 05:34 AM

        do any dishes have the actual sichuan peppercorn? we had twice cooked pork, ma po tofu, string beans, dan dan noodles yesterday, so i'm not sure if i ordered the right dishes. i was hoping to have my mouth go numb. =)

    2. romansperson Feb 6, 2009 05:05 AM

      I strongly suspect your theory is correct. I've always wondered if I would like Chinese food if I could only find some prepared as it would be there. Coworkers who have visited China always talk about how much they liked the food they had there, regardless of the region they visited.

      Perhaps I could bribe my Taiwanese colleague into ordering something for me from this place you mention ... it shouldn't have to be that hard, though, should it? Strange.

      1. s
        Sinophile Feb 16, 2009 03:50 PM

        UPDATE: Chef Chen has become a 50% owner at Super Wok. This is now the premier Chinese restaurant in the Triangle by quite a ways. At his best, Chef Chen is a genuinely superb cook, far better than any Chinese chef I've encountered in North Carolina. The good news is that -- unless I am mistaken -- Chef Chen will be doing all of the cooking. (If you wind up with a lousy dish, you can assume I am mistaken and there remains someone else in the kitchen). I intend to offer my services and translate the Chinese menu into English. You can expect this to be done within the next few weeks.

        28 Replies
        1. re: Sinophile
          b
          bbqme Feb 17, 2009 08:44 AM

          David, I really appreciate your doing this for us but you should also offer your translations to Chef Chen/Super Wok. If they have any business acumen whatsoever they would see the value of incorporating English tranlations into their Chinese menu.

          By the way, have you tried the Chinese menu at China Palace on the corner of University Dr. and Garrett Rd. in Durham? They have a Chinese menu that is translated into English. If you haven't seen it, go to the following URL and click on "Palace Magic." I'd be interested to have your take on it.

          http://www.mychinapalace.com/menu.html

          1. re: Sinophile
            LulusMom Feb 17, 2009 10:01 AM

            Where is Super Wok? I assume it is a full restaurant, with waiters, etc.?

            1. re: LulusMom
              s
              Sinophile Feb 17, 2009 01:23 PM

              Super Wok, at its best, is much better than China Palace -- no contest. It is located in Chatham Square, Cary.

              1. re: Sinophile
                b
                bbqme Feb 18, 2009 07:54 AM

                Thanks. I can kill two birds with one stone, since I can also do my Indian groceries and sweets shopping and get my Indian street snacks fix at Cool Breeze while at Chatham Square.

                1. re: Sinophile
                  LulusMom Feb 18, 2009 08:37 AM

                  Never been to China Palace so that doesn't really help me. Do they have waiters, full bar, etc.?

                  1. re: LulusMom
                    s
                    Sinophile Feb 21, 2009 05:34 AM

                    Here's the latest on Super Wok. Chef Chen is employing a sous chef, which is a bad sign, but hopefully he impose some quality control. He hired a sous chef from 35 Chinese Rest. down the road in Cary and fired him within two days, which I consider a good sign. As things stand, there will be three menus: a Chinese-language menu offering authentic Chinese dishes, a Chinese-American menu offering authentic Chinese dishes (I am working on this), and an English-language menu offering lame American-Chinese and Thai dishes. These will almost certainly wind up being cooked by the sous chef. Don't order the Thai dishes! I will probably finish the menu by next weekend. In two or three weeks Chef Chen's fine cuisine should be accessible to the American diner. Be prepared for some spice, however. Super Wok does have waiters, two very pleasant women, one the owner, the other the wife of Chef Chen. There is beer, but no bar.

                    1. re: Sinophile
                      LulusMom Feb 21, 2009 07:03 AM

                      Thanks Sinophile. I appreciate the info. Especially nice that you're doing the grunt work on the english language version of the Chinese menu. I just wish it was closer to Chapel Hill.

                      1. re: Sinophile
                        d
                        durhamcookie Feb 22, 2009 06:49 PM

                        Went to Super Wok for dinner tonight with my Chinese date. She had a bit of trouble with the Chinese menu because she's not familiar with Szechuan cuisine, so we went with a couple of dishes that the waitress recommended to her -- the 3 pepper chicken and stuffed fried eggplant. (I ignored the waitress's efforts to steer me to the American fusion menu.) Loved the 3 pepper chicken, though it was a little too spicy for my northern Chinese companion. The eggplants were stuffed with pork, battered, fried tempura-style, and served with dipping sauce. Wonderful. I'll definitely go back, though an English translation would have been a big help for both me and my Chinese friend. Thanks, Sinophile!

                        1. re: durhamcookie
                          c
                          chazzer Mar 19, 2009 12:39 PM

                          Had lunch today with some friends. The food was very good and the staff was nice and helpful. No one tried to to steer us to the American Chinese menu and a first draft of a translated menu was available. The waitress said that a friend was helping her translate it and a better version will soon be printed.

                          Wish it was a bit closer but will be back soon. The highlights were the dumplings in chili oil, and the lotus root with pork belly, the 3 pepper chicken and stuffed fried eggplant was also very good.

                          1. re: chazzer
                            s
                            Sinophile Mar 19, 2009 03:26 PM

                            I'm glad everybody is enjoying Super Wok. I myself partook of a 13-course banquet there last weekend. Highlights were the "Crispy Tofu in Tangy Sauce," the above-mentioned lotus root, the sesame spareribs, and the
                            various stir-fried greens. There's nothing like rendered pork fat to make vegetables sing! My favorite dish, though, is the fried fish cut squirrel-tail fashion. Yum. I also recommend the various cold appetizers. Chef Chen seems to specialize in this kind of thing.

                            I have given Super Wok my translated menu, by the way, but I'm not sure if they're circulating it yet.

                            There's yet more Chinese news. Superwork is owned by Chef Chen along with his niece (the younger woman who provides table service). The niece's brother, who formerly owned Super Wok, has purshased Jade Palace in downtown Chapel Hill. Jade Palace, in my opinion, has long been thoroughly wretched. The new chef-owner is no particular talent, but he has learned a few things from Chef Chen at Super Wok and he should effect at least some improvement.

                            1. re: Sinophile
                              b
                              bbqme Mar 20, 2009 07:39 AM

                              Jade Palace is in downtown Carrboro, not Chapel Hill. Not picking nits, just helping avoid confusion.

                              1. re: Sinophile
                                LulusMom Mar 20, 2009 11:16 AM

                                That is SO much closer to my house ... I'd love to have a halfway decent chinese place nearby. When does the new guy start there?

                                1. re: Sinophile
                                  t
                                  Tom from Raleigh Apr 14, 2009 07:54 AM

                                  I'm planning to order carry out from Super Wok tomorrow. Any suggestions on what to order that would survive the drive back to N. Raleigh?

                                  Is the English menu online anywhere?

                                  1. re: Tom from Raleigh
                                    t
                                    Tom from Raleigh Apr 15, 2009 03:59 PM

                                    I just finished my Super Wok carry out meal. It was quite tasty. I ordered Dan Dan noodles, 3 Pepper Chicken, Twice Cooked Pork, & Pea greens with garlic. This was a nice amount of food for two people. We had plenty of greens left. Of these dishes, the pork and dan dan noodles were outstanding. The chicken was pretty good. Next time, I'd only order the greens as part of a meal for a larger crowd.

                                    This was the best Sichuan food I've had in the Triangle. There are so many things I want to try on their menu. Like the Fish Head Hot Pot. With a name like that, I'm sure it's tasty. When I ordered over the phone, I told the staffer I wanted to start with Dan Dan noodles and she asked if I was Chinese. They treated me very nicely when I picked up my order and seemed really appreciative of my business and of the fact that I ordered the real stuff. It's a long drive from my house, but I'm eager to try Super Wok again.

                                    They faxed me a translation of their menu and I assume it's OK to share with the rest of the world. It's at this link:

                                    http://deliberateliving.org/super_wok...

                                    1. re: Tom from Raleigh
                                      m
                                      mikeh Apr 15, 2009 09:07 PM

                                      stir fried (snow) pea tips??? oh my oh my, I must venture down there ASAP

                                      1. re: Tom from Raleigh
                                        Plastic Apr 16, 2009 08:40 PM

                                        Just so you know, they shorted you one page! The full seafood page is missing, you should call and ask them to fax it because it's pretty impressive.

                                        We visited tonight - had dan dan noodles, pea tips (shoots) with garlic, shredded duck with snow peas and baby ginger, and beef with Sichuan spicy sauce. My best experience with Sichuan cuisine was at Sichuan Gourmet in Framingham, MA just outside of Boston. Super Wok was right up there, but I'd have to try more dishes to be sure. Beef looked just like the picture in Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty cookbook. I'm not sure they use facing heaven chiles since they seem to be impossible to find in this area, but that's a question for another visit.

                                        Our waitress was great, expressing more excitement about our ordering from the Sichuan menu than even us - she virtually ordered for us. I think they only had one copy with the translation, as she passed it around to other tables as they were seated. I think they are intrigued by how it seems to be catching on among the non-Asian patrons (us) as she suggested dishes from it to everyone. After the ordering flurry and a lesson in how to properly eat dan dan noodles, she was attentive and pointed out some other dishes people were ordering that we should try next time. We'll be back for sure.

                                        1. re: Plastic
                                          ncn8tive Apr 17, 2009 05:31 AM

                                          I think the same waitress took my order for takeout. When I saw the untranslated menu posted outside, I thought I'd made a mistake not printing off the menu posted here, and taking it with me, but she produced the translated copy. She was very excited about the food and even brought me a sample of sliced chicken in chile sauce while I was waiting. I had the pea shoots with garlic, spicy dumplings and vermicelli with chile sauce, and I have lots of yummy leftovers for the weekend.

                                          1. re: Plastic
                                            t
                                            Tom from Raleigh Apr 17, 2009 08:03 AM

                                            Plastic-

                                            My reference for Sichuan is Sichuan Gourmet in Billerica, MA and more recently LaoTseChaun in Chicago. I felt Super Wok compared favorably to both.

                                            Are Facing Heaven chiles available at Grand Asia Market? I used habaneros as a substitute recently.

                                            What's the proper way to eat Dan Dan noodles?

                                            1. re: Tom from Raleigh
                                              Plastic Apr 17, 2009 08:31 AM

                                              Sichuan Gourmet is amazing. I miss my Westborough business trips.

                                              They do not carry facing heaven chiles at Grand Asia, though they have a package that has the markings "facing heaven," they are not the short, stout chiles but some longer, skinny variety.

                                              I had a colleague with relatives in China obtain a pack of dried facing heaven chiles for me, and I've been propagating them successfully for a couple of years now from seed. Mmmmmm.

                                              The lesson in proper eating of dan dan was really no new information. Just cutting the noodles with the edge of the spoon and spooning the sauce into your serving.

                                              1. re: Plastic
                                                c
                                                cervisiam Apr 20, 2009 05:47 AM

                                                plastic, any change i could buy a plant off of you? i'd like to give it to my parents to grow... email me @netscape.net...

                                                1. re: Plastic
                                                  t
                                                  Tom from Raleigh Apr 20, 2009 07:00 AM

                                                  Plastic-

                                                  I'd love to get some seeds from you to grow those peppers. I grow tomatoes and peppers every summer. If you're interested, email me at t*_*viemont*at *hotmail.com without the asterisks.

                                              2. re: Plastic
                                                s
                                                Saddleoflamb Apr 20, 2009 04:12 PM

                                                Stopped by this afternoon to give it a try (take out)......ordered the Dan Dan noodles and the twice cooked pork......young waitress (I am assuming the niece?) was very pleased with the choices and quickly produced the chinese/english menu......they had a to-go menu at the check out that was titled Thai Fusion cuisine.
                                                Got home and dug in......enjoyed both dishes , although I found the noodles slightly oily.......pork dish appeared to be a slab bacon, or a belly type cut of smoked pork? I am in no way overly familiar with indiginous chinese cuisine, however the spicing and flavor layers was very appealing as oppossed to so many strip mall chinese food offerings........will definately go back and try more....I'd go back for the simple fact that no one stuffed some fortune cookies or fried wontons into the bag........Plastic, what is the proper way to eat Dan Dan noodles?
                                                Thanks

                                                1. re: Saddleoflamb
                                                  c
                                                  cervisiam Apr 20, 2009 05:12 PM

                                                  mix it all up! slurp too :)

                                                  1. re: Saddleoflamb
                                                    d
                                                    dinersaurus Apr 20, 2009 07:17 PM

                                                    I had the exact same experience here tonight. I must have come in about ten minutes after. Also tried the dan dan noodles (they were labeled dang dang on the menu), with greens in garlic sauce, shredded duck, and spicy dumplings. I really enjoyed everything. My wife was less keen on the dan dan noodles. She also found them too oily for her liking. The greens seemed so fresh, absolutely delicious.

                                                    Next time, I think we'll get a couple of small things and split an entree. Although I do look forward to the leftovers tomorrow.

                                                    1. re: Saddleoflamb
                                                      Plastic Apr 21, 2009 08:04 AM

                                                      It was more of a lesson in how to take a serving from the communal bowl than a lesson in proper eating. Not really a lesson I needed, but it added to the experience.

                                                      1. re: Plastic
                                                        t
                                                        Tom from Raleigh Apr 30, 2009 06:38 AM

                                                        I hear Super Wok will be reviewed in the N&O tomorrow.

                                                        1. re: Tom from Raleigh
                                                          v
                                                          veganhater May 3, 2009 12:49 PM

                                                          Thank you for those who got me to Super Wok. Stopped by yesterday for an early dinner and it was fantastic. Had pea shoots (superb), three pepper chicken (superb), and dan dan noodles (very good). First time I've had authentic Chinese food in a restaurant in NC. One comment on the noodles, they were a little overcooked for my taste. Wasn't sure if that's typical. Regardless, I haven't been this excited about a restaurant in quite some time. Maybe sinophile can convince them to open a restaurant about an hour east to save me the drive, which I will be making frequently.

                                                          1. re: Tom from Raleigh
                                                            Plastic May 7, 2009 09:22 PM

                                                            Review is here: http://www.newsobserver.com/lifestyle...

                                                            Spoiler: 4 stars!

                                2. air May 3, 2009 03:14 PM

                                  Super Wok sounds very promising and I'll definitely try and hit it for dinner!

                                  One more thing: gonna take some coworkers along and one is is a vegetarian who isn't into anything spicy, so can anyone offer up some advice on what she should get? Much appreciated.

                                  1. b
                                    bbqme May 12, 2009 01:36 PM

                                    We went to Super Wok fr our anniversary dinner last Saturday. I called ahead and ordered the lobster with ginger and scallion. Wendy was very friendly and touchy-feely, but in a good way-- very different from the treatment we get at other Chinese restaurants. For apps, we got the dan dan noodles and dumplings in chili sauce. The dan dan was nice, sorta like the Chinese version of spaghetti in meat sauce, but I liked the dumplings even better. The chili sauce wasn't spicy, rather sweet and garlicky. Besides the lobster, we also got the baby eggplants stuffed with pork and Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. I was expecting the eggplant to be in a sauce/gravy but it was battered and deep fried. A bit greasy but quite tasty with the sweet chili dipping sauce. The lobster dish was a real treat. The table next to us got the deep fried whole fish which came swimming in a brown gravy. That looked delicious and maybe we'll try that next time.

                                    What I didn't realize is that this restaurant is quite small and several of the tables are large, round tables ideal for large groups for banquet style eating. I would definitely make reservation, and even then, be prepared to wait a little on the busy evenings. Your patience will be rewarded.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: bbqme
                                      r
                                      rockycat May 12, 2009 07:30 PM

                                      I think you must be channeling the Spouse and self. Other than the lobster, which I'll have to try, it sounds like you ordered each of our favorite dishes. I lust after those dumplings.
                                      We did one of the whole fish dishes last time we were there. I forget exactly the name of it but there most certainly were Szechuan peppercorns in it. A bit too much for me, just right for the Spouse. I'm not normally a big fan of whole fish but I'd be willing to try it again, just with a different sauce perhaps.

                                      Happy anniversary.

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