Greensboro finally has a real, and really good, Chinese restaurant
While Greensboro offers excellent Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean cuisine, it’s been a long time since we had a decent sit-down home-style authentic Chinese restaurant. It makes no sense that, despite our large pan-Asian community, our choices of food from that continent’s (and the world’s) largest country are limited to rubbery offerings from buffet steam tables and the same generic takeout a suburban family of Poughkeepsie Presbyterians might have dined on when watching Leave it to Beaver in 1957.
This is why I was chagrinned to discover that my prayers to Zao Jun the Kitchen God were answered over a year ago, when Captain Chen’s Gourmet China opened in the old Mister Wonton space at Brassfield Shopping Center on Battleground and New Garden Road? Why didn’t anybody tell me?
Co-owner and hostess Yoyo Lv (pronounced “Loo”), who opened the restaurant with her husband Lan Chen in June of 2015, had noticed the crater in Greensboro’s culinary landscape in 2009, when the couple were students at UNCG. “We couldn’t find anything like what we loved to eat at home. With Greensboro’s large Chinese population, this made no sense.”
Neither the Beijing-born Yoyo nor her husband considered themselves experienced cooks, but Lan came from a family of restaurateurs in Chongqing, the sprawling Southwestern municipality formerly known in English as Chungking, that was part of Sichuan (Szechwan) until it became its own province in 1997. “We kind of learned by ourselves, just so we could enjoy the food we grew up with. And Lan was the one who really learned, and he did it so fast! Despite his family, he didn’t know how to cook anything when I married him. But before long, he was cooking for small groups of friends, and then for parties, and they all loved it.”
Unlike some local Asian restaurants, the menu is neither large nor confusing, just three well-organized pages. The food is spicy and flavorful (the style is basically Sechuan), with very fresh ingredients and homemade sauces. Chicken and duck are served bone-in, so that the marrow adds to the flavor, and several shrimp dishes include the heads. These practices wouldn’t be unusual in New York or Atlanta, but are here. “In China, we believe the meat around the bones is the best part, the most juicy and flavorful. The intensity is so different from a bland tasteless chicken breast.” I tell her that old-time Southerners know this too, and the farmers and fishermen in my family always preferred pork chops with a center bone and catfish with a spine.
The restaurant looks unprepossessing from outside, where the building is still adorned with signs for Captain Chen’s defunct predecessors Mr. Wonton and Go China. But the interior is comfortable, elegant and inviting, with dark hardwood floors; burgundy walls lined with historic black and white photographs of Chongqing and rectangular lighting in the style of Chinese lanterns. There are three comfortable booths, four smaller four-top tables, and three larger round six-seaters, perfect for shared plates and family dining.
Most entrees range from $8 to $15, and many are generous enough to serve two people. Both of the appetizers I’ve tried, the pork bellies with mashed garlic and crushed peanuts and the radish salad with mashed garlic, were large enough to be meals in themselves. The later was a bargain at $5.95, and despite being a devout carnivore, I found this vegetarian dish to be particularly delicious.
The first time I ate there, I had the double-cooked pork bellies. They were excellent, but my most recent meal was even better. For $14.50, the beer-braised duck contained a very generous amount of duck, chopped up with onions and potatoes and served in a large bowl with a hot and savory sauce freshly made from dried chili peppers and Yuengling. I intend to go back soon and sample the fish stew with pickled mustard greens ($12.95), which Yoyo says is one of her favorites, the shredded pork in sweet bean sauce, and the chicken gizzards.
Vegetarian dishes include stir-fried eggs with tomatoes ($7.50), shredded potatoes in green peppers, stir-fried lotus root, and stir-fried water spinach.
Yoyo is really glad that her husband Lan taught himself to cook.
“I haven’t had to cook anything in years. I’m so lucky!” And now the rest of us can share in that xìngyùn (good luck). The restaurant’s reputation has been growing beyond the local Chinese community. The last time I ate lunch there, there was a party of excitedly talking Japanese women at a nearby table and a trio of young Japanese men at another. Yoyo says a group of Chinese customers recently Ubered here from Raleigh. “The driver almost took them to Summerfield, as there’s a Battleground Avenue there, too, but they finally found us, and said we were worth the trip.”
Wanna go? Captain Chen’s Gourmet China is in the Brassfield Shopping Center at the intersection of Battleground and New Garden Roads (3709 Battleground Avenue, Suite E). The phone number is (336) 340-9475 and the website is http://captainchengso.com. They are open 11-3 and 5-9 six days a week, and are closed on Tuesdays.