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Birmingham -- Mr. Chen's

Big Daddy Feb 22, 2009 10:03 AM

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. Dax RE: Big Daddy Feb 24, 2009 05:22 PM

    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
      Big Daddy RE: Dax Feb 25, 2009 02:39 PM

      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
        Dax RE: Big Daddy Feb 25, 2009 05:08 PM

        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
          Big Daddy RE: Dax Feb 26, 2009 09:45 AM

          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. m
      Msviolatordm RE: Big Daddy Feb 25, 2009 07:06 PM

      Mmm...my 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
        Big Daddy RE: Msviolatordm Mar 8, 2009 01:58 PM

        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
          birminghamvisitor RE: Big Daddy Mar 8, 2009 09:55 PM

          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
            Big Daddy RE: birminghamvisitor Mar 9, 2009 09:15 AM

            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
              Big Daddy RE: Big Daddy Mar 14, 2009 03:25 PM

              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. b
        birminghamvisitor RE: Big Daddy Mar 15, 2009 07:36 AM

        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 strawberries...to 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
          Big Daddy RE: birminghamvisitor Mar 15, 2009 01:37 PM

          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. g
          G200 RE: Big Daddy Mar 18, 2009 08:03 AM

          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
            Big Daddy RE: G200 Mar 18, 2009 11:17 AM

            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
              Dax RE: Big Daddy Mar 18, 2009 01:18 PM

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

              1. re: Dax
                Big Daddy RE: Dax Mar 18, 2009 06:05 PM

                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
                  G200 RE: Big Daddy Mar 21, 2009 01:03 PM

                  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
                    Big Daddy RE: G200 Mar 26, 2009 01:24 PM

                    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. b
            bryantuga RE: Big Daddy Mar 31, 2009 03:56 PM

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

            1 Reply
            1. re: bryantuga
              bryantuga RE: bryantuga Mar 31, 2009 06:27 PM

              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!

            2. b
              birminghamvisitor RE: Big Daddy Apr 23, 2009 04:56 PM

              So I finally got around to trying Mr Chen's...and I was not dissapointed by any means...I had the steamed pork buns (mmm, I think I can still taste the spices from the pork) and the Pork with black bean sauce, and both were delicious!

              Thanks again for the recomendation Big Daddy!

              7 Replies
              1. re: birminghamvisitor
                Big Daddy RE: birminghamvisitor Apr 27, 2009 09:13 AM

                We got a big ol' order on Friday at Mr. Chen's, with mixed results.
                The vegetarian ma po tofu remains one of my wife's favorites (and my 6-year-old boy digs it if it doesn't have too many red pepper flakes on it.
                The seafood and tofu hot pot was great: A very intense seafood broth, thickened, with shrimp, squid, crab sticks (not sure if it was surimi or actual frozen crab sticks, but I think it's the latter), a couple of kinds of sausages, oysters and other ingredients. Very rich. Very good. Makes me want to try to seafood clay pot, as well.
                We also ordered the spareribs wrapped in lotus leaf. Maybe it was too "authentic" for me. Maybe I was expecting something completely different. Not much meat on the rib. The coating didn't do too well after steaming in the lotus leaf; I couldn't tell if it was breading or a bit of sticky rice. Like I said, it wasn't bad. It just didn't appeal to me. (Their sticky rice in lotus leaf is a must-order, especially for dim sum fans).
                I also ordered the pork meatballs, hoping they would appeal to my young children. I liked them much better than the kids. Huge meatballs (3) with onions braised in a broth that also tasted good poured over rice. One thing I'm discovering is kids don't like big meatballs; if you have to cut the meatball it no longer appeals to the kiddies. This is another very Chinese dish, best approached with no preconceptions despite the familiar-sounding ingredients.
                Soup dumplings continue to please.
                Another thing I want to try soon: One of the whole fish dishes.

                1. re: Big Daddy
                  Dax RE: Big Daddy Apr 27, 2009 09:37 AM

                  Oooh are those Lion's head meatballs? Nice!

                  I stopped in Saturday for a late lunch. Since I don't have the menu, my order basically was the shredded pork with cabbage, fermented black beans and cilantro as well as an order of xlbs. Last time I was there the waitress looked at me like I had two heads when I requested xiao long bao; this time (another waitress) just nodded, said "xiao long bao" to the proprietress, then off they went. I order them as soon as I walk in because they take a while (at every place I have eaten them). The pork dish is on the regular rotation now. I also got take out ... something like meat & noodle soup/stew on the menu (cabbage, broth, chunk stewy-looking meat, separate container of white flat noodles) - well I ordered it with my meal and xlbs and they looked at me like I was crazy and ended up bringing it out at the end of the meal all packaged up to go. That's dinner tonight.

                  1. re: Dax
                    Big Daddy RE: Dax Apr 27, 2009 01:53 PM

                    Apparently they are Lion's head meatballs, Dax. I looked it up after your post, and those seem to be it.
                    They've gotten accustomed to my ordering the xiao long bao soup dumplings to enjoy while I wait for a to-go order.

                    1. re: Big Daddy
                      Big Daddy RE: Big Daddy May 4, 2009 07:54 AM

                      You know you're in a restaurant with a bunch of serious food freaks when the place is 3/4 full while a tornado is cruising through about a mile or so away.
                      That was the case Sunday at Mr. Chen's, when few of the customers even were tracking the storm on the television.
                      I was curious about the "crunchy bean" sauce, so I ordered squid with crunchy bean sauce. The squid was lightly battered and perfectly cooked -- they have a deft hand with squid at that place. The crunchy bean was descriptive: fried (black?) beans and cilantro stems. Nice dish, that I lingered over, waiting for the storm to pass and the tornado sirens to blow "all clear."

                      1. re: Big Daddy
                        Big Daddy RE: Big Daddy May 17, 2009 11:51 AM

                        Ginger crab: About 7-8 crab leg pieces, battered and deep fried, then stir-fried with julienned ginger and green onion. It was great. Generous portions of sweet crab, and much of the legs were edible, sell and all (with that same sort of crunch as deep-fried ama ebi heads and salt-and-pepper shrimp in shell).
                        The claws and adjoining joint gave up surprising little meat, just enough to scrape into my rice to eat with the onions and ginger.
                        At $8.95, the ginger crab also would make a great appetizer to be shared by 3-4 people, or a dish among many for a fuller table.

                        1. re: Big Daddy
                          Big Daddy RE: Big Daddy Jun 9, 2009 11:47 AM

                          Mr. Chen's has added a few dishes, mostly those you won't find on other menus around town.
                          The other day I had the crispy salted spare ribs and the spicy clams.
                          The former ($8.95) was tender and tasty, although lacking in that pronounced salt flavor I like in dishes like this. It made decent leftovers, which were spicier than when the dish was fresh.
                          The clams were unbelievably good. Generous portion ($8.95), with black bean sauce, some spice and cilantro. Every single one of those clammies were open, and they were wonderful.
                          The place, once again, was packed -- and it was 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon.
                          The new menu items are listed on a card in a holder on the table (and not in the regular menu).

                          1. re: Big Daddy
                            food fanatic RE: Big Daddy Jul 11, 2009 12:52 PM

                            thanks big daddy for the suggestions you posted, i took your opinions and decided to try the place out myself. incredible! the best chinese ive had since moving back from LA. the beef noodle soup whichwas pretty good compared to other places i have dined in, but the basil clams was the dish i had for the night and MAN....... was it GOOD! just right with steamed rice. will definitely return and try new items on the menu.......

              2. bhamdining RE: Big Daddy Jul 13, 2009 12:33 PM

                Finally went with hubby and daughter and was very impressed. We're not quite as adventurous as some of our fellow hounds here (sorry, couldn't quite handle the texture of the spicy pig ears), but found plenty to love. Definitely had the steam buns after reading the comments here, and they were delicious as promised. The pan-fried dumplings/pot stickers were great, too -- really homemade taste. The Kung Pao Chicken was a very good rendition, and I liked the eggplant with pork and basil hot pot, although that's a LOT of eggplant! I took about half of it home.

                Read our review at http://www.bhamdining.com/mr-chens/.

                6 Replies
                1. re: bhamdining
                  Dax RE: bhamdining Jul 13, 2009 01:00 PM

                  With the exception of Mr. Chen's, every place I have had xlbs served them with a soup spoon which makes them a lot easier to eat. There is a short window of time for when they are best eaten. When popping a whole XLB in my mouth, I want them hot enough that the melted aspic does not scald but not room temp as the aspic starts congealing again.

                  1. re: Dax
                    Big Daddy RE: Dax Jul 14, 2009 11:16 AM

                    Ever since my first trip (when I had to ask), a soup spoon has been included every time I order the xao long bun.
                    Bhamdining: I read your review. Glad you did it. Best way to eat the soup dumplings is to get the spoon, dip some of the vinegar sauce in it, use your chopsticks to gently turn a dumpling over onto the spoon and eat it whole, bracing yourself for steaming hot soup if the order has just arrived. Dax is right: eat 'em quick, before they cool.
                    Glad you tried to pig's ear (even if it didn't work). But next time, go for something adventurous. To me, the whole point of Mr. Chen's is being able to eat food you can't get anywhere else in town. At least try what foodfanatic did: the basil clams. If you like squid, they do it consistently well there -- stir fried or deep fried.

                    1. re: Big Daddy
                      Jannae RE: Big Daddy Sep 4, 2009 08:23 PM

                      My husband and I finally got over to try out Mr. Chen's tonight. It was everything the folks here have raved about and then some! The hostess was very nice and sweet, food absolutely fantastic, and the drinks (I had the black tea, my husband had the passion fruit slush) were outstanding.

                      We went for the soup dumplings, sticky rice in lotus leaf, pork meatballs, and pork and squid. The soup dumplings were heavenly. Next time, we're getting two orders of the soup dumplings.

                      The sticky rice in lotus leaf was flavorful and rustic tasting. I enjoyed the texture and the hearty flavors.

                      The meatballs were really good, and nicely seasoned. The sauce they were served in was fantastic on the rice.

                      The pork and squid was good. The squid was not overdone, and is a nice complement to the pork and spices.

                      It seems the menu has expanded a bit since some of the earlier postings for Mr. Chen's. I didn't see the pig's ears on the menu, a disappointment, as I did want to give that a go.

                      The waitress brought our attention to the drinks toward the back of the menu, and then pointed out some of the more typical dishes that Western tastes may like such as sesame chicken. She asked us if we were sure on the sticky rice, and the pork and squid selections. And when we nodded our heads, she gave a broad smile and went off to pur our order in.

                      I can't wait to go back. There's so many interesting things on the menu I want to try. Like the others said above, it'd be great to get a group up to go and sample some of the dishes. Since it's all served family style, that would be a great way to try some of the more exotic sounding dishes.

                      1. re: Jannae
                        Big Daddy RE: Jannae Sep 6, 2009 07:12 PM

                        There's so many interesting things on the menu I want to try. Like the others said above, it'd be great to get a group up to go and sample some of the dishes.

                        Check out this google group for this purpose:


                        1. re: Big Daddy
                          Dax RE: Big Daddy Sep 7, 2009 07:57 AM

                          For some reason that link didn't work for me. This one works for me:


                          1. re: Dax
                            Big Daddy RE: Dax Sep 7, 2009 08:42 AM

                            Thanks for posting the announcement, too.

                2. Dax RE: Big Daddy Sep 20, 2009 01:53 PM

                  Stopped into Chen's today for a late lunch around 2:30. XLBs good as usual as was the pork with black beans (ordered extra spicy, but still not spicy, but then again my experience has been that Taiwanese is not especially hot), plus the sticky rice in lotus leaf (ehhh) and the chilled beef tendons. The tendons were more of the usual thicker prep and they were fine, but not half as good as the dish at Red Pearl.

                  I noticed, after I had already ordered, the new (to me) side/specials menu. I definitely wants to go back and try a few of those items which include (their translations), among others, fried taro cake, garlic spiced bacon meat, boiled beef in hot oil. shredded pork in garlic sauce. ginger and onion squid, basil clam, & taiwanese-style braised pork. My order was fine, but I wish I noticed that little menu before I ordered. Sounds like an excuse for another Hound group outing.

                  77 Replies
                  1. re: Dax
                    Big Daddy RE: Dax Sep 21, 2009 07:50 AM

                    Yes it does sound like a good excuse; we'll address that on our Google group. (If others are curious: http://groups.google.com/group/birmin...
                    I've tried several of the items on the new Chen's menu. The garlic spiced bacon meat is a cold dish, not bad, but I was expecting more. Another good family-style dish.
                    Ginger and onion squid is sublime (in fact I like all of their ginger and onion dishes, although the crab is a lot of work). They really do a great job with squid there, both stir-fried and deep fried. Basil clams is one of my new favorite dishes there (I try to limit myself to a half-dozen or so "favorites" at Chen's) The braised pork is on my to-eat list because I am a big pig fan.
                    I was in on Saturday and had the "spicy" beef with tofu and cilantro. An incredible dish (OK, I know some of you aren't fond of tofu; this is the baked kind which has a more firm texture), but as you noted Dax, not at all spicy. Taiwanese also like their food salty. I was forced to drink plenty of beer that afternoon and evening while eating the to-go dishes I ordered, both cold plates: the abovementioned beef tendon (Dax, I agree 100%) and the spicy basil squid. My goodness the latter was so good -- drowning in what reminded me of a Southern-style sweet-pickle relish only with lots of chili sauce.
                    The point you made at Red Pearl about the difference in how the two restaurants prepare tendonous meats (beef, pig ear) is right on, and demonstrated in the two restaurants' beef tendon dishes.

                    1. re: Big Daddy
                      Dax RE: Big Daddy Sep 21, 2009 07:55 AM

                      I just wanted to note I liked the tendon from Chen's a lot more after I let the leftovers sit out to come to room temperature at home. Much better and less chewy.

                      1. re: Dax
                        Big Daddy RE: Dax Sep 21, 2009 12:37 PM

                        I'll try that with my leftovers. I ate 'em right out of the 'fridge Saturday.
                        I like the gelatinous chewiness in the Red Pearl version of tendons (as well as in pho in Vietnamese places).

                        1. re: Big Daddy
                          Big Daddy RE: Big Daddy Sep 25, 2009 01:05 PM

                          I tried a new dish today that rocketed into my Mr. Chen's Top 5: Taiwanese Braised Pork.
                          I was more intrigued than scared when Mrs. Chen laughed after I ordered it. She was tentative when she delivered the dish, but smiled broadly when I said "Pork belly. I love it. Cook it at home."
                          This was an incredible dish. The sweetness and richness of the pork belly was beautifully balanced by the picked cabbage that was cooked with it, and both combined to make a wonderful broth that was great with the rice. It was topped off with some cilantro, which also went well with the pork belly.
                          This is a dish for sharing -- or, as I did, taking home to serve over rice for lunch tomorrow.
                          This is an item from the new addition to the menu, which is on the placard on the tabletop, not in the menu they bring when you sit down.

                          1. re: Big Daddy
                            Dax RE: Big Daddy Sep 27, 2009 02:46 PM

                            Very rich dish. I liked it but the soy was a little overpowering. Similarly, the garlic pork from the specials menu had so much garlic in it (chunks!) that it was too garlicy to eat. I like garlic, but apparently I have a limit and that dish exceeded it.

                            1. re: Dax
                              Big Daddy RE: Dax Oct 30, 2009 07:55 AM

                              Did anyone see the review of Mr. Chen's in The Birmingham News today?
                              The reviewer,frankly one of the better ones and the person most familiar with Asian food, properly gave it four stars out of five. He noted it was not your father's Chinese restaurant, but don't let that scare you. And he tried some interesting soups (Bitter melon and the seafood hot pot). For all that I give credit.
                              But what I find disappointing about reviews like this one is when the reviewer recognizes the restaurant is different (and more authentic) than most in the same genre, then samples only or mostly the most pedestrian and common (and often inauthentic) dishes on the menu.
                              That's definitely the case in this review: Kung Pao, Sesame Chicken, and the like can be found everywhere. Can't they just try one of those for the less-adventurous, then discuss the merits and flavors of some of the more exotic dishes that aren't found everywhere? It doesn't have to be out there, like pig ear or intestine. But there's plenty on that menu that is different and worth checking out.
                              He strayed at one point into one of those special items, but apparently didn't recognize what he had in front of him: the steamed "bun," xao long bao or soup dumplings. Surely he noticed something was different when he bit in and got a mouthful of hot soup to go with the more traditional dumpling filling. Too bad that didn't spur him to ask some questions of the Chen's folks.
                              BTW: Chen's has beer now. Chowdown?

                              Four Star Cafe
                              299 Jonestown Rd, Winston Salem, NC 27104

                              Asian Food Restaurant
                              6935 Telegraph Rd, Alexandria, VA 22310

                              Restaurant I
                              1524 East Blvd, Charlotte, NC 28203

                              Hot Pots Cafe
                              1911 N Main St, Higginsville, MO 64037

                              1. re: Big Daddy
                                curej RE: Big Daddy Oct 31, 2009 05:37 PM

                                Guess the BN review explains the MOB SCENE there at lunch today. Food was great as usual. Tsingtao was a welcome addition to the menu/my meal. The staff were coping pretty well, although obviously stressed. I'd hate to see success kill Mr. Chen's (like it did Mr. P's Oriental Gourmet a few years back). I freakin love xao long bao, by the way, thanks to you all. I might not have ever tried them if I hadn't read about them here. My wife is ambivalent about them, as she can't/won't pop them in her mouth for the burst of flavor. Cuts them first. What a waste! Oh well, one big mouth in the family is enough. Great place. I'm so happy they're here. I gotta tell you, though, I'm still not sure about pork intestines or tendon....You all sure about that?

                                1. re: curej
                                  Big Daddy RE: curej Nov 1, 2009 08:33 AM

                                  For my taste, I like the tendon at Red Pearl, although Dax prefers it at Chen's. But, no, I have't had the guts to eat the intestines (sorry about the pun), although I do like tripe tacos (and had one at Taqueria Mi Casita Fridaynight).
                                  I suspect that the paper's reviewer treated the XLB the same way as your wife, and therefore the reviewer didn't even realize they were soup-filled ("Man, these sure are juicy dumplings! Look at all that juice in my plate!").
                                  I have mourned the loss of Mr. P's ever since it closed. Yes, it was in a lousy location. And I'm sure Birmingham simply wasn't ready for real dim sum. If only I'd known of Chowhound back then, because I talked up that place as best I could to anyone who would sit still long enough to listen. They did all kinds of great Hong Kong-style dishes, and their seafood was XO sauce was unbelievable.

                                  Taqueria Mi Casita
                                  360 Palisades Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35209

                                  1. re: Big Daddy
                                    Dax RE: Big Daddy Nov 1, 2009 08:39 AM

                                    No, I prefer the shaved tendon prep at Red Pearl, with the crab or shrimp paste. I do like the prep at Chen's but they're a little too chewy when served so chilled. Once they come to room them, they are much more manageable. Tendon isn't for everyone by any means/

                                2. re: Big Daddy
                                  G200 RE: Big Daddy Nov 1, 2009 04:56 PM

                                  Hey BD, I did notice the reviewer sampled some of the more American dishes and was disappointed in that regard. I hoped also that he would point out the availability of the separate "American Chinese" menu. I'm glad to hear though that the place is packed. I'm celebrating a birthday Tuesday night there. I may try the bitter melon soup. Any other suggestions? I have my favorite 6 or 7 items, but want to try something new. I'm feeling bold.

                                  A CD sounds great.

                                  1. re: G200
                                    Big Daddy RE: G200 Nov 2, 2009 08:08 AM

                                    If you like clams, try the basil clams. If you like pork belly, try either of the Taiwanese braised pork dishes. I've been wanting to try the steamed whole fish, and if we do CD, that will be one of my recommendations.

                                    1. re: Big Daddy
                                      G200 RE: Big Daddy Nov 2, 2009 09:49 AM

                                      Ahhh. Pork belly it will be. One can never have enough. Matter of fact I have a 5 lb piece curing in my warm fridge. Hoping to have pancetta in another 2 weeks.

                                    2. re: G200
                                      curej RE: G200 Nov 4, 2009 04:50 AM

                                      I know you can't have everything, but I wish Mr. Chen's or someone in Bham would do some Sichuan dishes. My internalized concepts of these dishes may be inauthentic, but are based on a restaurant we went to in our past in Massachusetts. The way I remember them seems much like the recipes in my copy of Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan cookbook. I'm just too busy to make 'em myself!. Does anyone know of an excellent Sichuan restaurant within a reasonable driving distance (like Huntsville or Atlanta)?

                                      1. re: curej
                                        Dax RE: curej Nov 4, 2009 07:53 AM

                                        There sure is nothing like Sichuan Gourmet here, unfortunately. That twice cooked bacon was awesome.

                                        I miss Sichuan too, which is why I recently bought a wok and have been reading through land of plenty looking for fun (and easy recipes). If look through the home cooking board, is was a cookbook of the month at one time so there are some suggestions there. I plan to try dan dan noodles soon. Luckily you can get most of the ingredients at Red Pearl's Oriental Mkt or at that place on the corner of 7th and ... 23?

                                        For some reason I thought I saw tea smoked duck on a menu here recently.

                                        1. re: Dax
                                          Big Daddy RE: Dax Nov 4, 2009 10:05 AM

                                          Also, Penzy's in downtown Homewood is selling Sichuan pepper corns.
                                          I also wish we had a good Sichuan restaurant (and a good Hong Kong style one, too). Frankly, given the other options that seem to satisfy the masses here, I'm thrilled that Chen's and Red Pearl continue to survive and thrive.
                                          Chai's is at the corner of 7th and 22nd., the one-way headed out of Birmingham's downtown.

                                          1. re: Big Daddy
                                            Dax RE: Big Daddy Nov 4, 2009 11:43 AM

                                            Penzey's moved from way out 280? Joy! I love Penzey's but hated going way out to Valleydale. Chai's has Sichuan peppercorns too, but those cheap bags are none too fresh and are 1/2 husks. I hear the ones at Penzey's are great and will be checking it out soon.

                                            1. re: Dax
                                              Big Daddy RE: Dax Nov 5, 2009 09:55 AM

                                              Yes, they are fresh. I have some at home. They're in towntown Homeood in the shops closest to Oxmoor Road, on the right as you're heading away from Oxmoor and toward B'ham.

                                              1. re: Dax
                                                curej RE: Dax Nov 7, 2009 07:48 AM

                                                The peppercorns I bought at Red Pearl were very fresh, at the time. It's been awhile ago, though, and I had to buy a head-sized bag.

                                                1. re: curej
                                                  Big Daddy RE: curej Nov 9, 2009 07:04 AM

                                                  When it comes to naming (and therefore describing) dishes at ethnic restaurants, translations can be a problem. Although Mr. Chen's is better than most, I came across an example on Saturday when I ordered the Basil Pig Leg, expecting meat carved off the part of the leg that, when cured, we know as ham. It's not what you think, warned the Chen's order-taker: It's pig's feet.
                                                  The trotters were good, more gelatinous than meaty. But I don't expect to add them to my usual repertoire there.

                                                  1. re: Big Daddy
                                                    Dax RE: Big Daddy Nov 9, 2009 07:36 AM

                                                    I was there yesterday. Went with the XLBs as usual, along with the pork meatball soup, the ginger & scallion, salt and pepper squid and beef with fried taiwanese noodles. The squid was pretty good, thickly cut. The beef was actually beef, pork (?), and shrimp over somewhat crispy fried noodles that got a little less crunchy as they soaked up the sauces/juices. I'd order it again. The soup - it was a mostly clear broth with rather grey looking but otherwise non-descript and somewhat bland meatballs. Eh. Those meatballs remind me of the fish balls in the seafood hot pot and just are not my thing.

                                                    1. re: Dax
                                                      Big Daddy RE: Dax Nov 9, 2009 09:03 AM

                                                      Yeah I got XLB to go with my pork "leg" and spicy basil squid to accompany football watching at home. I don't think the XLB even made it as far as the Hoover city limit.
                                                      On the squid front, I thought I was ordering the cold dish, which is one of my favorites and has in the past been made with squid bodies, sliced and scored before cooking. Instead, I wound up with a warm dish of whole squid bodies and separated tentacle ends, without the sweet/hot/pickle sauce that I've come to expect with the cold dish.
                                                      It was good (I finished it Sunday by making squid fried rice out of it). But I don't like it when the bodies aren't completely cleaned out and they get that gunk inside that makes me think of toe jam.

                                          2. re: curej
                                            uptown jimmy RE: curej Nov 8, 2009 07:36 AM

                                            Tasty China, just off 285 and 75 in Marietta, GA. Absolutely authentic, we understand, and mind-blowing good.

                                            1. re: uptown jimmy
                                              curej RE: uptown jimmy Nov 12, 2009 06:29 AM

                                              Making a trip to Atlanta this weekend just to go to Tasty China and with a side trip to Wild Wing Cafe, our most favorite chicken wing joint in the world. (We're previously from Charleston, SC, which is where the latter came from....Hilton Head, technically). Any other suggestions...maybe for lunch spots in SE Atlanta on Saturday?

                                              1. re: curej
                                                curej RE: curej Nov 15, 2009 07:18 PM

                                                We went to Tasty China in Atlanta twice this past weekend. Wish I could say I loved it, but I didn't. I realize that my experience of "Sichuan" Chinese food in the past may be inauthentic, but I just didn't love the dishes we had at Tasty China. We tried the Dan Dan Noodles, Potstickers, Orange Beef, Fish Filets with Black Bean Sauce, Chicken and Cashews, Kung Pao Chicken, and Chicken with Three Kind of mushrooms". I'd say that the Fish with Black Beans was the winner. The other dishes just didn't do it for me. They didn't have Ma Po with pork, only meatless, or pork with deep fried tofu. I've had it many times with silky unfried tofu and shredded or ground pork, and that's what I was hoping for. Ah well. Don't think it would be worth the trip to try more dishes. Mr Chen's right here in Bham satisfies my need for Chinese until we get a really good Sichuan Restaurant here.

                                                1. re: curej
                                                  Big Daddy RE: curej Nov 16, 2009 07:16 AM

                                                  Chen's fans, check this out:

                                                  1. re: curej
                                                    uptown jimmy RE: curej Nov 18, 2009 08:11 AM

                                                    Tasty China is widely considered one of the best Chinese restaurants in the country. Our experiences there have been nothing short of revelatory, the food so good as to completely blow our minds.

                                                    Having said that, authentic Chinese restaurants in this country seem to go through chefs faster than most other sorts of restaurants, for whatever reason, and they may be on to new chefs and inferior food these days, I don't know. But if the folks in charge are still the same as earlier this year, it is certainly worth a very long drive for a visit. A VERY long drive....

                                                    1. re: uptown jimmy
                                                      curej RE: uptown jimmy Nov 19, 2009 06:04 PM

                                                      I've heard that the renowned chef who "made" Tasty China so great is now in Knoxville....How far is that? ;)

                                                      1. re: curej
                                                        uptown jimmy RE: curej Nov 19, 2009 07:08 PM

                                                        That guy left years ago, and the food has been just as good ever since, FYI.

                                                        1. re: uptown jimmy
                                                          curej RE: uptown jimmy Nov 20, 2009 06:36 AM

                                                          Well we'll have to try to lure him to Birmingham! UJ, I honestly wish I could agree with your sentiments about Tasty China. We made the trip, staying overnight in a hotel in Marietta, just so we could enjoy two meals there. We returned to Bham with pretty mixed feelings. Maybe you could recommend some specific dishes there so that if/when we return we won't be as disappointed as we were this time.

                                                          I talked to the folks at Chen's about my craving for Sichuan dishes, the post-review collapse of Mr. P's, and about all of their fans on Chowhound. Surprisingly, they (specifically, the 30-ish bespectacled guy that usually mans the cash register) were unaware of their Chowhound fans. They had plenty of wait staff on hand (last night, 11/19/09) so I think they are doing their best in the dining room to meet the challenge of their burgeoning popularity. I'm not sure if they've made similar staffing adjustments in the kitchen. Last night's food was good. We had Kung Pao fish (filets of fish with Kung Pao Sauce) which I would have liked a little less sweet and a little more hot, and the eggplant/basil/pork dish, which was delicious, but a little light on pork for my (American fat guy) taste. They were out of soup dumplings. We went for the potstickers (fried pork dumplings). Minor complaints. I'm ready to go back already.

                                                          1. re: curej
                                                            uptown jimmy RE: curej Nov 21, 2009 07:57 PM

                                                            Lordy, you certainly made the effort. No doubt. Maybe the place ain't what it used to be, but it was amazing not so long ago.

                                                            You're a true chowhound, though, to travel so far and stay for the chance to try it. I wish you'd had a better time. But I'll say it again, these Chinese restaurant chefs enter and exit at a frightening pace, it's just amazing. I don't know what to think of it.

                                                            1. re: uptown jimmy
                                                              Big Daddy RE: uptown jimmy Nov 29, 2009 08:01 PM

                                                              Another great Chen's meal in advance of the Chowdown. Took the family, so I discovered that even the routine dishes stand head and shoulders above the mainstream found elsewhere in town.
                                                              We started with XLB (OK, just me), egg rolls for the children and tofu with crispy bean sauce. The tofu was soft on the inside, crisp on the outside, with that killer crispy-fried black bean sauce that goes so wonderfully with so many seafood fried dishes (squid, crab, fish).
                                                              My 4 YO loved her sesame chicken. I marveled at the fact that it stayed crispy in a sauce that was neither neon red nor cloyingly red. My 6YO and vegetarian wife split the meatless version of ma po tofu. Sure, it wasn't as spicy as most would expect, but that was fine by them. I've learned Chen's just doesn't do overwhelmingly spicy, even if the menu indicates a bite.
                                                              For me, it was eggplant with pork basil in hot pot. Unbelievable flavor and so flavorful due to the interplay of eggplant and basil. First try but it won't be my last.
                                                              We also enjoyed the sauteed sweet pea leaves. This is where the craft shone through: Blanched greens that were shocked to maintain the bright green color before stir-fried and braised in a slightly garlickly sauce. As good as Red Pearl's version is, this one tops it. Worth every dime.
                                                              Chowdown at Chen's is Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. See you there.

                                                              1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                Jannae RE: Big Daddy Nov 30, 2009 02:38 AM

                                                                I've been told the pea leaves are out of this world. I can't wait to try some of their fish dishes, and some of the more unusual selections.

                                                                1. re: Jannae
                                                                  Big Daddy RE: Jannae Nov 30, 2009 06:33 AM

                                                                  We definitely need to get the whole fish. I also tried the anchovies with peanuts, which is itty bitty baby fish, stir-fried with the peanuts, green onions, etc. Very good, but definitely one to be shared (it's a school or two of fish).
                                                                  I noticed last night that Chen's had consolidated its two menus. Gone, however, are the pig ears.

                                                                  1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                    Jannae RE: Big Daddy Nov 30, 2009 02:15 PM

                                                                    I picked up a "to go" menu from their supply at the door and the pigs ears were listed under the cold plate heading. Guess they didn't update their outside menu supply.

                                                                    Is it Chen's that has snails on the menu, or is that only Red Pearl?

                                                                    What other unusual offerings can you suggest?

                                                                    1. re: Jannae
                                                                      Big Daddy RE: Jannae Dec 1, 2009 07:43 AM

                                                                      No, you're right. On closer inspection I saw the pig ears on the menu. It's the reorganization that threw me. Good thing, because I think that would be an interesting component on a three-delicacy cold platter on Dec. 8.
                                                                      As for other unusual items, I don't have a menu in front of me, so I'm going on memory:
                                                                      If you like pork belly, that's the basis of the dishes they call Taiwanese braised pork . Mighty yummy.
                                                                      Mrs. Chen has recommended the boiled beef with hot oil. Another good cold dish is the cold bacon with garlic (I think that's what it's called; the "bacon" is not smoked).
                                                                      The seafood hot pot has some unusual fish balls, as Dax has noted. Not for everyone's taste. One thing that's fairly normal, but unavailable elsewhere, are the Lion's Head meatballs (listed on the menu as pork meatballs, or something like that).
                                                                      I have not seen snails at Chen's, although the clams are not to be missed. I think Red Pearl has them because that's one of the mollusks they sell in the market.

                                                                      1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                        Jannae RE: Big Daddy Dec 3, 2009 03:05 AM

                                                                        The first time we visited Mr. Chen's my husband had the Lion's Head meatballs and thought they were fantastic.

                                                                        Can't wait to try the pig's ears. Also, I've never had intestines before. I'm thinking of the crispy intestines. And got to go for at least one of the fish dishes. And the boiled beef sounds good.

                                                                        And, clams are always good.

                                                                        1. re: Jannae
                                                                          Big Daddy RE: Jannae Dec 3, 2009 10:58 AM

                                                                          If intestines are ordered, I'll try them (crispy also preferred). I've never been tempted to order some (maybe too many chitlin stories growing up down South), which I consider odd given that I'll enthusiastically try some pretty gnarly taco fillings.

                                                                          1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                            curej RE: Big Daddy Dec 4, 2009 06:40 PM

                                                                            What if we don't really want to try pig ears or intestines? Are we excluded from the Chowdown?

                                                                            1. re: curej
                                                                              Jannae RE: curej Dec 5, 2009 01:21 AM

                                                                              I wouldn't think you'd be excluded at all. Everyone has something different they want to try, and heck, I may chicken out on the intestines and pigs ears and order something like fish.

                                                                              Big Daddy, am I right on this?

                                                                              1. re: Jannae
                                                                                Dax RE: Jannae Dec 5, 2009 10:53 AM

                                                                                of course. We will order a variety of dishes and you eat what you want. That''s the great part about eating as a group. You may try something you might not have ordinarily tried but you don't have to eat anything. Although I will put my foot down on ordering sweet and sour chicken or anything dayglo orange. Well, at least I won't order it or eat it anyway.

                                                                                The pig ear is a novelty and it was fine but doubt I would order them again just for myself.

                                                                              2. re: curej
                                                                                Big Daddy RE: curej Dec 5, 2009 05:53 PM

                                                                                The more people who show up, the more dishes we can try. Everyone has a say, nobody will be forced to eat what they don't want to try. It's about fun, comaraderie and good food . If it works, most of us will discover something new, even if it isn't some nasty bits.

                                                                                1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                                  Jannae RE: Big Daddy Dec 8, 2009 02:51 AM

                                                                                  Finally- tonight! Going to Mr. Chen's at 7 pm. Rain can't keep us away.

                                                                                  1. re: Jannae
                                                                                    Jannae RE: Jannae Dec 8, 2009 02:35 PM

                                                                                    Normal rain won't keep us away, but the developing prospect of severe storms may. I'll wait till the hubby is home, and it;'s closer to time to decide if we're going. I love great food, but hate bad weather.

                                                                                    1. re: Jannae
                                                                                      curej RE: Jannae Dec 8, 2009 06:18 PM

                                                                                      We had a great time with all of you hounds who came to Chen's tonight. Hope we can do it again sometime soon. Cheers.

                                                                                      1. re: curej
                                                                                        Jannae RE: curej Dec 9, 2009 02:45 AM

                                                                                        Fantastic dinner last night folks. Next time we dine at Mr. Chen's I know I'll have a tough time selecting just two or three entrees.

                                                                                        1. re: Jannae
                                                                                          Big Daddy RE: Jannae Dec 10, 2009 06:25 AM

                                                                                          Order ONLY two or three entrees? Heck, that's a routine visit when I go solo (with great leftovers).
                                                                                          Seriously, though, it was a great Chowdown. Thanks everyone for coming. Afterward, I jotted down some notes in my handy notebook. I'll post them on the Google group.

                                                                                          1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                                            brentk RE: Big Daddy Dec 10, 2009 08:11 AM

                                                                                            I am coming to Birmingham next week on business and this thread has convinced me that Mr. Chen's will be one of my two dinners in town. What must I order? I am intrigued by the pig's ears and am always adventurous but I am not sure that is the best thing in the house if you can only go one time.

                                                                                            1. re: brentk
                                                                                              Dax RE: brentk Dec 10, 2009 09:58 AM

                                                                                              They are good but not the best thing in the house. I mean I like them but I've had enough after 4-5 bites or so.

                                                                                              1. re: brentk
                                                                                                Big Daddy RE: brentk Dec 10, 2009 10:17 AM

                                                                                                I agree with Dax on the pig ears. Got a big group and want to try something different, order it. But for a few people, it may be a bit much. Some of our favorites from the Chowdown were the Taiwanese braised pork (pork belly, mmmmmm), squid with crispy garlic, fried fish with kung po sauce.

                                                                                                1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                                                  brentk RE: Big Daddy Dec 10, 2009 11:25 AM

                                                                                                  I love pork belly (and the Asians prepare it like no other) so I'll probably go with that. Wasn't there a vegetable dish mentioned that was really good as well?

                                                                                                  1. re: brentk
                                                                                                    Jannae RE: brentk Dec 10, 2009 01:59 PM

                                                                                                    At the Chowdown we had the pea leaves and the green beans. For me, the better of the two had to be the pea leaves.

                                                                                                    Also, the we had an appetizer.. I could have sworn everyone was calling it taro cake (I saw turnip cake on the menu, and it was a bit noisy, so that may have been it - can one of the local hounds back me up on this?) that everyone thought was the surprise dish of the evening. The sauce they make to go with it was very tasty. And if you want a really good soup, the winter melon and clam soup is quite good.

                                                                                                    1. re: Jannae
                                                                                                      Dax RE: Jannae Dec 10, 2009 02:26 PM

                                                                                                      Turnip cake is made with daikon, a type of radish. Taro is a similar root vegetable. Both cakes are prepared much the same way. I would have to do a side by side testing probably to notice any difference (which I would like to do). Who knows which one is served at Chen, although my experience with taro cakes are mostly from dim sum and they;re definitely smaller and a little crispier there. Next time I order it, I will ask Su to fry them up a little crunchier. It's almost like a dessert to me.

                                                                                                    2. re: brentk
                                                                                                      brentk RE: brentk Dec 23, 2009 05:32 AM

                                                                                                      Thanks for the recommendations. I had the pork belly and the pea leaves. The pea leaves, hands down, was the best Chinese vegetable dish I have ever tasted - incredibly sweet, but not in a sugary way, the tasted of freshness and springtime. I enjoyed the pork belly as well and the fresh cilantro was a nice touch, though the fatty part wasn't as "melt in your mouth" as I have had at some other places.

                                                                                                      You are lucky to have a Chinese restaurant of this calibre in Birmingham. It's a pretty rare thing to find a place like this in almost any city outside of the west coast.

                                                                                                      1. re: brentk
                                                                                                        Dax RE: brentk Dec 23, 2009 08:42 AM

                                                                                                        I agree we are lucky to have Mr. Chen's but the west coast comment is a little much. NYC and the boroughs and to a lesser degree Boston, not to mention Atlanta, and a few other locales are blessed with top notch Taiwanese, Sichuan, etc. restaurants. It's not just San Fran that has the great ones. Glad you enjoyed your meal

                                                                                                    3. re: Big Daddy
                                                                                                      Dax RE: Big Daddy Dec 10, 2009 12:04 PM

                                                                                                      the squid dish is squid with ginger and scallions I think. It's basically salt and pepper squid chunks (sliced body, batter whole rather than ringlets) tossed with ginger and scallions. I think. It's good.

                                                                                                      1. re: Dax
                                                                                                        Jannae RE: Dax Dec 23, 2009 02:48 AM

                                                                                                        I wonder if Mr. Chen's will be open Christmas? Anyone know for sure yet?

                                                                                                        I blame the movie "A Christmas Story" for wanting to have Chinese on Christmas day. (And the fact that my family doesn't cook on Christmas.)

                                                                                                        1. re: Jannae
                                                                                                          curej RE: Jannae Dec 23, 2009 07:06 AM

                                                                                                          Sign on the door says they'll be open Christmas. Deck the harrs with boughs of horry fa rah rah rah rah, rah rah rah rah. Have fun. May see you there. It'd be awesome if we could get a whole roast duck!

                                                                                                          Before anyone accuses me of being racis', the song quote is from the movie!

                                                                                                          1. re: curej
                                                                                                            Dalrymple RE: curej Jan 12, 2010 06:57 PM

                                                                                                            Just went and I am so grateful to be turned on to this place. Seafood Clay Pot was excellent. Next time I must have the salted duck, pigs ear, and quid appetizers. I kind of wish those now believing this to be the best Chinese in the Bham Metro could convince them to become even more adventurous.

                                                                                                            1. re: Dalrymple
                                                                                                              Big Daddy RE: Dalrymple Jan 13, 2010 06:35 AM

                                                                                                              Interestingly enough, as they add dishes to their menu, they're following both avenues. Some of the dishes -- salted duck, bacon with garlic, clams with basil etc. fall into the more adventurous/authentic category. But they're also adding more mainstream Chinese/American dishes to appeal to those unwilling to try something different.
                                                                                                              I'd love them to add some Hong King style noodle soups with rosted duck or pork with an option for shrimp won tons. But most of all, I'd like to have real dim sum return to this area.
                                                                                                              What would you like to see added?

                                                                                                              1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                                                                Jannae RE: Big Daddy Jan 13, 2010 08:11 AM

                                                                                                                When I read Dalrymple's request, I thought to myself, "This sounds like a task for Big Daddy." You're there I think more often that the rest of us around here.

                                                                                                                I'm sure whatever Mr. Chen's cooks up, more than likely, it'll be wonderful. (So long as it's not wine chicken.)

                                                                                                                1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                                                                  Dax RE: Big Daddy Jan 13, 2010 03:59 PM

                                                                                                                  It seems the majority of the more "authentic" dishes are from Shanghai with some Taiwanese thrown in, right? I would assume they would add more types of similar regional dishes before expanding to other regional dishes. But I agree that it would be nice to have at least one (each) Cantonese dim sum, Szechuan, and Hong Kong style eateries.

                                                                                                                  1. re: BerkeleySQ
                                                                                                                    Big Daddy RE: BerkeleySQ Jan 14, 2010 06:43 AM

                                                                                                                    Dax -- Yeah, I agree my wish was somewhat of a mixed metaphor. Frankly, my entire exposure to Taiwanese-style cooking has been at Chen's. Some dishes, like the clams with basil, seem to be more ubiquitous -- crossing regions (at least those with access to the sea). And Chen's doesn't seem to be into the kind of spicy food you expect from Szechuan and Hunan. I'm fine with what they serve, and with many of the additions. I probably could eat there every day for two weeks and try a different dish that I would consider satisfying.

                                                                                                                    BerkeleySQ: Do you want a new thread on a different subject or one not quite as long?

                                                                2. re: uptown jimmy
                                                                  NYJewboy RE: uptown jimmy Feb 8, 2010 06:12 PM

                                                                  Hang on to that chef!

                                                            2. re: uptown jimmy
                                                              Big Daddy RE: uptown jimmy Mar 27, 2010 04:42 PM

                                                              Uptown Jimmy, don't know if you've seen this yet, but cult-Chinese-chef Peter Chag is back cooking at Tasty China. Apparently there are plans for a new restaurant in town.

                                                              Tasty China
                                                              4607 Dollarway Road, Pine Bluff, AR 71602

                                            2. re: Dax
                                              Dax RE: Dax Feb 5, 2010 11:24 AM

                                              Had the boiled beef and XLBs for lunch. Stuffed. That boiled beef puts the chocolate in my peanut butter a total new favorite. I asked for it extra hot and it had a little heat but could have used more. Speaking with one of the waitresses as I was leaving, she said keep insisting hotter if I want and they can bring the heat. I could just eat the rice soaked in the the hot oil together with the juices from the beef and vegetables. Mmm, The waitress I spoke to said a new menu comes out within the next week or so with a few more items. Yahtzee!

                                              1. re: Dax
                                                BarbDwyer RE: Dax Feb 10, 2010 05:58 PM

                                                Dax, I've got the menu right in front of me but I'm not seeing "boiled beef". Do you mean Braised Beef Belly in Hot Pot?

                                                1. re: BarbDwyer
                                                  Dax RE: BarbDwyer Feb 10, 2010 08:17 PM

                                                  On the menu I have it's E11, Boiled Beef in Hot Oil.

                                                  Also just noticed that they crossed out the "closed Monday" and now the menu says open 7 days a week.

                                                  1. re: Dax
                                                    Big Daddy RE: Dax Feb 11, 2010 08:46 AM

                                                    They had a sign up saying they'd be open on Mondays in February. Don't know if that's an experiment to see if it's worthwhile doing that permanently. I'd be all for that, if it doesn't burn them out.

                                                2. re: Dax
                                                  G200 RE: Dax Feb 25, 2010 01:53 PM

                                                  Based on your recommendation of the boiled beef in hot oil, I gave it a try this weekend. Outstanding! We asked for ours to be made spicy and got a good bit of heat. Great suggestion.

                                                  1. re: G200
                                                    Big Daddy RE: G200 Feb 26, 2010 06:43 AM

                                                    I've noticed a trend lately in which the dishes they advertise as spicy actually are spicy, which is great. I actually had to ask them to tone down the ma po I ordered for my 7YO.

                                                    1. re: Big Daddy
                                                      Jannae RE: Big Daddy Jul 24, 2010 04:38 AM

                                                      A friend at work told me Mr. Chen's changed ownership a couple months ago. We haven't been in a while. Have any of the regulars noticed any difference? My friend said the food was still pretty good, but I'm wondering if the menu has changed since the new owners? Are the XLB still available and as good as ever?

                                                      1. re: Jannae
                                                        curej RE: Jannae Jul 24, 2010 06:51 PM

                                                        Hmm! Will Sue still be there? The youngish guy with large glasses was there when we went for dinner three days ago. I sure hope it doesn't change. That would be a real let down. Mr. Chen's is one of my faves in Bham. The XLB were great as ever. We had hot fish and house bean curd, both very good.

                                                        1. re: curej
                                                          G200 RE: curej Jul 24, 2010 07:46 PM

                                                          We were told by someone that ownership had changed as well. We asked the young girl that works the register and were told that ownership has NOT changed hands.

                                                          1. re: G200
                                                            Jannae RE: G200 Jul 25, 2010 06:35 AM

                                                            So long as the quality of the food remains and the staff is as friendly as ever, that's where my concen would be. But if it's as good three days ago as it has been all along, then if any change was made, it must not have affected much.

                                                            1. re: Jannae
                                                              Big Daddy RE: Jannae Jul 25, 2010 08:11 AM

                                                              Slight changes in management but not ownership. It seems to be more of a passing of the torch to the next generation.
                                                              I've not seen Sue in several recent visits, nor the other really friendly woman who seemed to wait tables all the time in the beginning. But the son is still there all the time and another woman named Chen (his wife, perhaps, maybe sister?) also is running the front of the house.
                                                              We went last night and Mr. Chen himself was working in the kitchen.
                                                              Food is as great as ever, and inventive as well. Folks who attended the Chen's Chowdown may remember our futile attempt to order salted duck (they were out and we instead got the dreadful wine chicken that now is off the menu.)
                                                              I finally got the duck last night, a cold plate of what seems to be a half-duck, steamed, with the breast cut into slices and the rest chopped into pieces to pick up and gnaw on. It was seasoned with salt and sesame oil. Unbelievably good, with the richness of the duck meat cooked on the bone, enhanced by the salt and the special flavor that comes from sesame oil. Another great appetizer to share (although I had it all to myself and look forward to the leftovers for lunch).
                                                              Last night they also had two dinner specials. One was shrimp balls, what sounded like a dim-sum type of preparation of chopped shrimp and flavorings, battered and formed into balls then deep fried. ($12.99)
                                                              I went with the loofa clams ($9.99) It's a hot-pot preparation with white sauce, steamed clams and a bright green vegetable that is slightly bitter -- all enhanced by black pepper.
                                                              Health-food store fanatics among us might recognize the vegetable -- it's the same plant that matures into the fiborous tan-colored tube that is used for bathing as a washrag/defoliant. But when the loofa is young, it's a tender and very tasty vegetable.
                                                              It was the kind of dish that makes Mr. Chen's great and continues to show why it remains in rare company among top-tier Chinese restaurants in Birmingham.

                                                              1. re: Big Daddy
                                                                curej RE: Big Daddy Jul 25, 2010 09:58 AM

                                                                Man I could use a loofa right now.

                                                                1. re: curej
                                                                  Jannae RE: curej Jul 25, 2010 03:49 PM

                                                                  Big Daddy, thanks for the update. The meal sounds incredible. Glad to hear things are well with the place.

                                              2. j
                                                johnnystiletto RE: Big Daddy Jul 25, 2010 06:25 PM

                                                Took my parents to Mr Chen's today for her birthday; Mom has been only once and Dad has never been. Living about a mile away, Mr Chen's is a weekly visit for me.

                                                As always, a great meal; didn't notice any change in staff/service/quality to signify any owner/management change.

                                                Got a few strange looks from the post-church lunch crowd since we had steam buns, egg rolls, pea shoot leaves, squid w/ crispy bean sauce, boiled beef in hot oil, mapo tofu and the kung pao combination, all on one little table.

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: johnnystiletto
                                                  Big Daddy RE: johnnystiletto Jul 26, 2010 10:44 AM

                                                  Yum. That sounds great. I always overorder when my wife and children go, especially since we tend to make an appetizer out of the tofu with crispy bean sauce. Love those leftovers.

                                                  1. re: Big Daddy
                                                    johnnystiletto RE: Big Daddy Jul 26, 2010 07:22 PM

                                                    Big Daddy, I LOVE the tofu w/ crispy bean sauce. A good friend of mine and Chen's fanatic is vegetarian, and she introduced me to that dish.

                                                    1. re: johnnystiletto
                                                      Big Daddy RE: johnnystiletto Jul 27, 2010 07:54 AM

                                                      It's that perfect balance of crisp outside and soft inside, and the fried beans add great flavor.
                                                      My wife, also a vegetarian, loves the ma po tofu, but be sure to ask for meatless so you don't get the traditional minced pork. My son, who is a fussy eater, also loves the ma po.
                                                      There are so many great things at Chen's for a vegetarian.

                                                2. m
                                                  mahalan RE: Big Daddy Jul 30, 2010 05:44 AM

                                                  Went to Mr. Chen's last night.

                                                  Unfortunately, I've got to share a similar experience as another Chinese-American friend of mine. Disappointment.

                                                  I ordered the soup dumplings, pea shoots, and squid with crunchy bean sauce. After about half an hour, my two entrees arrived and I was told the soup dumplings would soon be out. What? If the cooks can't time the food, the servers should know this and handle the orders accordingly. One of the two should save the diner from eating their appetizers last. But the food's more important so let's move on.

                                                  The soup dumplings were good and by far the highlight of the meal. I'd prefer more flavor from both the filling and the broth but the dumpling skin was very good and I had no problem getting them out without tearing.

                                                  The pea shoots were bright green (thanks to being soaked in a cold water/cornstarch bath before cooking) and still retained a bit of crispness. Unfortunately the sauce was too oily and they could have benefitted from a drizzling of oyster sauce before serving.

                                                  The squid with the cruncy bean sauce were well cooked. The squid was tender and the breading wasn't overpowering. Unfortunately, being deep fried without anything to cut their oil and combined with the pea shoots which were also in a very oil laden sauce created a meal that needed something to cut the grease.

                                                  I'll be back to give them another shot and to try other menu items. At this point, though, I can't say it lives up to its raves here.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: mahalan
                                                    Dax RE: mahalan Jul 30, 2010 07:05 AM

                                                    The "raves" for Chen are more ... qualified raves being that Chen's and Red Pearl are the best bham has to offer as far as authenticity. With that said, Chen's menu is all over the place for regional cuisines although a number of the dishes seem to be reasonably fair representations of Shanghainese cuisine.

                                                    My experience with more authentic Chinese dinners in Boston and NYC's Chinatowns, plus some others in Atlanta, has been that dishes are served as they are cooked which is fine because most dinners are eaten family-style with all diners sharing each dish. As for as the XLBs, they almost always tell you they will take 20 minutes to prepare, which is very standard for the dish. Unless you have constant turnover (ie Joe's in NYC), you would not be guaranteed a freshly steamed batch each time (untimately I would like prepared from scratch to order, but I don't expect that here). I was watching Bourdain the other day while he was in Shanghai and it was fun to point out him eating XLBs to my girlfriend that ate with me at Chen's last week and had them for the first time.

                                                    We did get their bok choy and mushroom dish last week and the sauce made it almost inedible. Lemony and ... old sock-y?

                                                    1. re: Dax
                                                      Dax RE: Dax Aug 4, 2010 10:45 AM

                                                      For some reason (and this does not happen much), I felt the old sock description unfair and probably inaccurate. How about lemony and weird? Maybe it just didn't suit my tastes.

                                                  2. c
                                                    csweet RE: Big Daddy Aug 1, 2010 09:10 PM

                                                    Loved this place. Turned onto it thanks to this thread. Asked them what is good. I said, "Ooh, spicy intestines sounds good." Waitress said, "Are you sure? You know what those are, yes?" I said, "I think so, but, well, what is good." She said, "Americans like sesame chicken." So I said, "What do non-Americans like?" "Crispy intestines." I said, "Well, yeah, then that is what I want. You eat them?" "Yes," she said, "I eat them." Long story short, really interesting & yummy though a bit salty. Would have been good to have gone with a bigger group to order multiple entrees & share. Glad I could even get one of my sons to try them too. Nice they're looking out for us Americans to make sure we don't accidentally get adventurous & expand our horizons though. Dumplings were excellent too. Had to fight the kids for those. They got lo mein, which didn't impress me especially. It wasn't as oily as you get in Chinese fast food joints, but the noodles were overcooked & squishy.

                                                    7 Replies
                                                    1. re: csweet
                                                      Dax RE: csweet Aug 2, 2010 08:02 AM

                                                      I have been the last two Sundays, seems like it might be the start of a regular rotation. The beef with been curd and cilantro is still just ok. I did like the Taiwanese stir fried noodles. The dish was most very thin rice noodles are clear Asian vermicelli (?) noodles with chicken, a few shrimp, a couple slivers of beef and some stir-fried cabbage. I wanted the beef in hot oil but was trying to try some new dishes. Hot and sour seafood soup was pretty good but not outstanding, maybe a little weak on the vinegar.

                                                      1. re: Dax
                                                        Mediumgoof RE: Dax Aug 7, 2010 08:09 PM

                                                        Just got back from trip No. 3 to Mr. Chen's and, well, yum. Soup buns seemed yummier than last time, though perhaps just hotter and fresher. Tried the sauteed pea leaves for the first time and they were unbelievably good. Granted, I've never had them anywhere, so they may not be the best, but they are so crisp and fresh and sweet and green. Watched my husband put away a plate of the crispy salted oysters. I, like Dax, found them too "oyster-y;" just a little too pungent and thick in the middle, though I'm pretty finicky about oysters. The batter, though, is astonishingly good -- salty, spicy and so light. Might have to try something else crispy-salty on the menu. Almost tried the house tofu -- anyone tried that one? The only bad news was there was about a 20 minute wait at 7:15 on Saturday night! Hope the place doesn't become a victim of its own success.

                                                        1. re: Mediumgoof
                                                          Dax RE: Mediumgoof Aug 8, 2010 05:00 AM

                                                          The squid with ginger and scallions is salt and pepper squid with some scallions thrown in. Awesome but definitely squidy, not just like some calamari.

                                                          1. re: Dax
                                                            Big Daddy RE: Dax Aug 9, 2010 10:37 AM

                                                            The last two posts made reference to an oyster dish being too oystery and a squid dish being definintely squiddy. What exactly do you mean? It seems like Dax's reference is a relative comparison (perhaps it was the result of a flavor enhancer?)
                                                            Are those traits a bad thing? Just curious. I like things to taste of what they are. Maybe that's why I'm so crazy about the Taiwanese braised pork like what I ordered Saturday evening. It is concentrated pork flavor, especially because of all that tasty pork fat (I hope my doctor is not reading this). I like it because it is so ... porky. But I may be thinking of it a different way than the above references.
                                                            Mediumgoof, I don't think Chen's will become a victim of its success. A 20 minute wait is not too awful on a Saturday night in a place with such limited seating. In fact, I'm glad to see it doing so well in this economy. The place seems to draw a good crowd at any time. And the quality of the food makes the wait worthwhile for many.
                                                            Now, I wonder how long people will put up with 2 and 3 hour waits at Chuy's at all times. At least at Chen's when I went in about 6:30 Saturday evening and saw the wait, I got a to-go order and still enjoyed their food. Because it's so darned difficult to even get a parking spot in the same area code as the restaurant, I've learned to call first to check the wait at Chuy's, and that same parking problem prevents me from placing a go order to eat at home three blocks away.

                                                            1. re: Big Daddy
                                                              Dax RE: Big Daddy Aug 9, 2010 11:48 AM

                                                              You don't think that meat and/or seafood has different tastes? For example, apalachicola oysters taste much different (more bland) to me than say Wellfleets or something more drastic like Kumamotos. Similarly, calamari has a less squid-like taste to me than say grilled octopus or even the squid dish at Chen's. I realize some of this is because they are different animals and taste is somewhat subjective but I still associate some things together. Canned oysters, regardless of the region (maybe most are from the same region) have a stronger taste of oyster to me too.

                                                              FYI, the little lot behind 32 degrees at the Summit is a good option for parking.

                                                              1. re: Dax
                                                                Big Daddy RE: Dax Aug 9, 2010 05:36 PM

                                                                Ok, so you're referring to a relative intensity or lack of flavor from different breeds of the same animal also affected by -- I guess this is the best way to put it -- terroir (the effects of its environment on flavor). Not necessarily a bad or good thing, but a way of placing that item on a continium of flavor?
                                                                Like I said, I was curious. It help me assess what different evaluations mean for my own tastes. It's like when a person complains a fish is too fishy, are they saying they don't like the intensity of flavor that comes from the more oily/fatty fish (mackeral/sardines) or are they reacting to the off-flavors of a fish they had that was served too old?

                                                                1. re: Dax
                                                                  curej RE: Dax Aug 25, 2010 11:35 AM

                                                                  Perhaps the surfeit of salt in Chen's squid and oysters (and for that matter, all of the sodium that is typical in canned ANYTHING) might be a reason that the intrinsic flavor of the food is enhanced. Possible? Not trying to insult your palate here....don't misundertake me (it's from Cheech and Chong...not a typo).

                                                      2. Dax RE: Big Daddy Aug 2, 2010 02:05 PM

                                                        This thread is linked on their website


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