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Feb 22, 2009 10:03 AM

Birmingham -- Mr. Chen's

Birmingham's Chinese food scene took a turn for the better with the recent opening of the restaurant, Mr. Chen's Authentic Chinese Cooking, in Hoover.

Mr. Chen and his wife have been in the Birmingham area for more than two decades. They ran the Red Pearl Restaurant in its heyday and more recently had a place in Center Point, according to The Birmingham News.

My wife and I went Saturday evening before the Loudon Wainwright III concert. The place was packed early. About two-thirds of tables were three-generation Asian families, while the rest were curious Westerners.

This is not your typical Chinese menu. No Moo Goo Gai Pan and electric-red sweet-and-sour dishes (although there are kung pao chicken and sesame chicken). Instead think Basil Squid, Ginger and Onion Crab, Spare ribs wrapped in Lotus Leaf, Braised Beef Belly in hot pot.

For starters, you have a choice of cold plates(braised beef shanks, pig ears, smoked duck -- each $6.95), steamed pork buns ($3.95), dumplings ($3.05), Za-jiang Bean Sauce noodles ($5.95) or Sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, $3.95 (A typical dim sum dish with meats and vegetables mixed with the rice, then steamed in the lotus leaf). They also have some soups.

For vegetarians (like my wife), entrees include a variety of tofu dishes as well as all-vegetable dishes like string bean, pea leaves and lilly flower and vegetable combination.

Prices for almost everything, including most seafood dishes, is under $10. It would be fun to go with a group, order half the menu and graze family style. Portions are generous. The three clay pot dishes are all under $15.00.

I had the smoked pork with garlic shoots. Delicious -- salty and not too smoky. It's very similar to tofu with baked bean curd and bamboo shoots. My wife had ma po tofu, which came in a small braisier and was delicious.

No alcohol, and it's unlikely they're in a hurry to get any. They serve a variety of teas and what they bill as "milk teas."

It's a storefront operation in "old" Hoover, but they have done a nice job of decorating all things considered. Limited number of tables.

Mr/ Chen's is in the plaza with Hoover Drugs, next to the new Publix on U.S. 31 in Hoover (not far from I-65 and the Vestavia Hills line) and behind the Region's bank. It's open six days for lunch and dinner (9 p.m. close). Closed Mondays.

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  1. I stopped in around 6 tonight to a mostly packed house that was standing room only by the time I left.

    The steamed mini buns are xiao long bao (soup dumplings), or their version of them anyway. While smaller with a little less soup content (aspic) than I am used to, I couldn't be happier to find them on a menu in town. They are supposedly made in house. More meat, less soup, thick(er) skins. 10 to an order and I ate 9 before one of the skins broke, spilling the soup out in the bamboo steamer. They did not serve them with the soup spoons, making them a little harder to pickup without tearing the skin, but not impossible (see 9 above).

    I also ordered the beef with bean curd and cilantro. This was good, although I had hoped it would be a little spicier and I think bean curd is lost on me.

    Very generous portions, so much so that the sweet older woman (perhaps Mrs. Chen?) shook her head like I was crazy when I ordered two entrees to go with my XLBs. Good Asian leftovers are about the only leftovers I eat, half the time never taking the time to reheat.

    So yeah, I also ordered the s&p ("crispy salted") oysters. Either the oil was a little off (although the actual batter/fry job was excellent), they were too oystery (?) or, maybe I just love raw oysters and only tolerate fried ones. Ehh.

    Service only suffered a little when it got packed. For example, I ordered a coke with my meal and when I had almost finished it, asked for water so the guy took my partially empty glass away and filled with water, resulting in a fairly gross lukewarm colawater mixture. I also had to wait a bit for the food and checks. I don't really fault them for this, just noting because like Red pearl they are not serving in any sort of Westernized manner. There were maybe about 4 parties of 3-4 Caucasians eating while I was there and they all seemed to order individually, which meant some had food at times while others didn't, not getting the concept or not caring.

    I want to go back and try lots more. Like big daddy said, family style calls for multiple diners so I will try to organize a group to return soon.

    The seafood hot pot looked delicious and I'll return to try that because a) I love seafood, b) I love soup too and c) hell yeah glass noodles.

    Thanks for the heads up Big Daddy!

    Oh yeah, some of the "ice flavored milk teas" at the next table looked like boba teas to me, so I can't wait to get back to try those too.

    I'll scan the menu tomorrow if I remember, drop me a line if you want a copy.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Dax

      Soup dumplings! Heck yeah. Can't wait to try them when the extended family goes on Sunday.
      I'm also looking forward to the seafood hot pot and the squid dishes. I'm game for some spicy pig ear.
      Sorry the tofu doesn't make it for you, Dax. I've always loved it (even before I met my vegetarian wife), especially in Chinese dishes.
      I'm up for a Chen Chowdown.

      1. re: Big Daddy

        I like tofu in things like ma pao because it's more silky and a little less bland or fried with sesame, or "blackened" like in the bottletree tacos, just not in slivers of curd

        1. re: Dax

          My wife had the ma po there (I also am a fan of the dish). Can't remember if they don't include pork (most ma po does) or if they made it vegegarian for her. But it was very good. They serve it in a little hot pot (with a heat source underneath).

    2. mouth is watering lol. Can't wait to try this place. I'm hoping it's not too far from where I'm at. Super excited that they have a few dim sum items. One thing i miss about living up north is getting my dim sum fix.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Msviolatordm

        I stopped in yesterday to sample the dumplings. I ordered both the fried dumplings and what they call "steamed buns," the soup dumplings.
        The pot stickers ($3.95) were above average, although there was some filler in the meat. Still, they get points for making them in-house.
        The dipping sauce for the dumplings, however, was sublime. Chinese black vinegar with a touch of soy, some minced garlic and slivers of green chili.
        The soup dumplings had me wiggling my "good food dance" in my seat. With the shot of hot broth as you bite in, followed by the meat, it's like a meatball-and-dumplings soup, with a Chinese twist.
        Be sure to ask for a spoon (the fried dumplings came with a tablespoon, which I pressed into service for the soup dumplings). The spoon helps ensure you don't lose too much broth.
        Don't delay too much in eating the soup dumplings. As they cool, they tend to stick to the lotus leaf in the steamer.
        I also had the passion fruit hot tea, which was intensely flavored. I got a generous serving for $2.25.

        1. re: Big Daddy

          OK now Im sold...I first saw the sign, and was interested...then it truly sounded a bit TOO authentic for my taste by your first post...with the posts since then, and now yourr new post., I think now I am ready... Ill take the plunge this week one day for lunch...I work pretty close to Mr Chens.

          The dim sum type dishes sound very tempting...the entrees a bit scarry, but Im down with some potstickers, dumplings, and steamed buns etc...MMMM!

          1. re: birminghamvisitor

            If you go at lunch, order off the dinner menu (most everything's under $10 anyway). Their lunch menu is pedestrian Chino-American.
            And don't worry, you'll find plenty there to like without going too hardcore.

            1. re: Big Daddy

              I sit enraptured, basking in the glow of the cold basil squid from Mr. Chen's. I got it as part of a to-go order last night, knowing that I had to work tonight.
              Perfectly cooked squid, sweet and only slightly chewy, in a sweet-hot sauce flavored with basil and cilantro and a touch of vinegar. It hits all the highlights of the Chinese five-flavor concept: sweet, hot, bitter, sour and salty.
              The menu offers a version on its cold plates, which it marks as spicy. It's also listed under the seafood entrees, with no indicator that it is spicy. Confusingly enough, mine came out of the kitchen hot (in temperature) and spicy. I'm eating it cold and it's unbelievable.
              People, if you like good, authentic Chinese food or if you want to break out of the same-ol same-ol for Chinese food around here, you need to go to Mr. Chen's. Support this place.

      2. My buddy from work went for lunch, and had Mongolian Beef, an it was not typical by any means, and most importantly delicious...he is tyicially pretty critical, and kind of picky IMO.

        They aslo had a few apps, spare ribs and what not...also very good.

        He called me from the table to ask if I like which I reply of course...and he says cool I am gonna bring you this drink. So he shows back up with this clear cup with a sealed lid, and a thick straw shoved in it...It was a strawberry slush with tapioca. Sweet and delicious...didn't love the tapioca, but they were interesting...tasted like a round unsweetened gummy bear, but balanced with the sweetness of the strawberry drink.

        Anyway I will eat lunch from there this week...probably after payday :-)

        Thanks for starting the thread BigDaddy...on a side note many of my friendly women at work call me big daddy or big pappa...due to both my size and demeanor! lol

        1 Reply
        1. re: birminghamvisitor

          The latest:
          Sticky rice in lotus leaf. Standard dim sum item. Filled with shrimp, ground pork and reconstituted dried mushroom in a brown salty-sweet sauce; the rice gets flavor from that and the lotus leaf as it steams. Sticky rice offers a great medium for novice chopstick users to hone their skills.

          Stir-fried anchovy and peanuts: Unbelievable. Fresh anchovy fry (baby ones), battered and deep fried, then stir fried with green onion, green chile and peanuts. The fish is crunchy and has a pleasant anchovy saltiness without being as overpowering like salt-cured anchovy. Some bites are hot from the chile, others salty or savory from the onion. It's great with steamed rice.

        2. My wife and I visited for lunch last week. Having had "real" Chinese only once, while in NY, I was excited to try something new. I think I've found my new favorite ethnic restaurant (sorry, Gordo's).

          We ordered the steamed buns to begin. Careful! The hot liquid burst into my mouth. The cold tapioca milk tea rescued my tongue from certain blisters. I ordered the shredded pork with bean curd and bamboo shoot, while my wife had the Taiwanese stir-fried rice noodles. Pretty tame choices. Both dishes were large, so much so that my wife and children had leftovers for dinner that night. The vegetables screamed of freshness. (So bamboo shoots aren't really perfectly rectangular? :)

          If conversation with the proprietor is what you wish, leave that desire at home. Mr. Chen (?) wants to take your order and anwer your questions, but won't banter. The woman helping with the refills (Mrs. Chen ?) on the other hand was very sweet and armed with a smile. She was impessed (whether mock or not) by the fact that my wife and I used choptsticks which, by the way, were the very cheap kind that splinter easily.

          My only warning would be for those who may be watching their sodium. I'm sure that the kitchen can accommodate.

          We returned with our young daughters on Monday to order the basil squid, per Bid Daddy's suggestion. Nooooooo! They are closed on Mondays, as are many Asian restaurants.

          I can't stop thinking of Mr. Chen's. I brought home a to go menu so that I can methodically mark off each item until I've tried everything. Spicy sliced pork ears, anyone?

          5 Replies
          1. re: G200

            I had to laugh reading how you've taken home a menu to plot future meals. That's what I've been doing, too.
            And yes, spicy pig ears are high on that list.
            The ladies there really like it when Westerners order the more authentic dishes. I've raved about the soup dumplings so much, they want to automatically bring some out for me now. When I ordered the anchovies with peanuts my last visit, they double-checked to make sure that's what I really wanted. Then they took turns coming by and watching me plow into the food.

            1. re: Big Daddy

              I need to get back for more xlbs and that seafood hot pot.

              1. re: Dax

                One word describes the spicy pork ear at Mr. Chen's: Bacon.

                The generous portion has the same kind of intense pork flavor as bacon. And both are crunchy. But the pork ear has a different kind of crunch and a softer texture than fried bacon. Oh man, it is good, especially with a leaf of the cilantro that comes with it.

                I got a to-go order of the pork in black bean sauce (one of the ladies who worked there recommended it). Although it's a dish commonly found on Chinese menus around town, this one is a cut above. The pork, I believe, was shaved off the leg (it reminds me of the thin-sliced pork I've bought at the butcher counter in El Mercado). The sauce had a nice balance of salt, sweet and heat, and it was not overpowering. I could have lived without the green bell peppers among the vegetables, but otherwise it was decent enough, especially if you're looking for a safe dish among the pork-intestine offerings.

                1. re: Big Daddy

                  Had the spicy pork ear and the basil squid last night. I had to laugh when Mrs. Chen (??) asked "Are you sure? You know this is pig ear, right?" Absolutely, I told her. She then told me that someone (I believe she meant someone non-Asian and perhaps not acccustomed to eating something other than sweet and sour chicken) ordered the same thing and that she had to also make sure with him that he knew what he was getting. Big Daddy perhaps?

                  I found the ears to be a good medium for the mildly spicy sauce, which was delicious. Lots of great sesame flavor. The ears themselves were sliced very thinly. In the center of each was a tendon-like material that gives each piece its snap. I foolishly ate over half until I remembered someones words of wisdom - eat a leaf of cilantro with each bite. My 7 yo daughter and I just finished the small box of leftovers. Her twin sister couldn't get past the fact that she was eating pig ears, but did try it twice.

                  The basil squid was also good, although it did have a sort of medicinal quality to the taste. I convinced my wife to order it, but I ended up eating the bulk of it. This is not rings of squid (calamari) we're talking about here. It is whole small squid, cut into a few pieces. Be prepared to pull out a quill or two. I'm glad I can put a check next to it on my takeout menu, but I won't order it again.

                  I can't wait to go back, though. I'm hoping to get another couple together to have the combination dinner for 4. Great place.

                  1. re: G200

                    Yes, that must have been me. She asked the same question about the pig ears. They were good.
                    After subsequent visits I also can recommend the squid and pork (slightly spicy, wonderful sauce) and the salt chicken (basically fried (cornstarch "breading"?) nuggets of chicken thigh with a salty seasoning.
                    One warning: If you order the ma po, make sure you specify whether you want meatless or with meat. It's listed under the vegetables portion of the menu. But if you don't specify vegetarian, they make it the traditional way with minced pork.
                    My kids went nuts for the mango slush and the strawberry slush.

          2. I'm so excited to try this place! Going right now - will post a report later tonight.

            1 Reply
            1. re: bryantuga

              Well, it was great. I had the steamed soup dumplings (mini buns), which were a little thicker than I'm used to but with an intensely flavored broth and large balls of meat. I also had the pork in black bean sauce, which was intensely flavored, although not as spicy as I would have liked. I can't wait to go back with a group and sample many more dishes. I've been waiting for this place since moving here 8 months ago and I'm so happy with the food, the service, and the prices.

              Now...if only the damned Senate would let me drink good beer!