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China Garden
***
Out of a possible five
$

Fresh take on usual Chinese

It is the kind of place you likely never would visit unless it was in your neighborhood.

It is like so many Chinese restaurants with its drab looks, colorful photo-embossed menu board and tri-folded paper menu with well more than 100 offerings.

But when someone uses the words “best crab Rangoon I have ever had” when talking about China Garden on South Anthony Boulevard, I take note.

The crab Rangoon this friend raved about was purchased and then brought across town to her place of work. There was no way it could have been fresh and crisp from the fryer, which is the best way to have the cream-cheese stuffed won ton skins. The five I was served were piping hot, crisp and not at all oily, and they were artfully formed into crown shapes, not just folded over like the norm.

The cream cheese inside was plentiful and sweeter than what I am used to. I could see the tiny bits of imitation crab – often MIA in subpar versions – in the creamy filling, and they were simply scrumptious. I am not really a fan of crab Rangoon, but I am a fan of China Garden’s for sure.

I also quickly became a fan of pretty much everything there and was wowed by the freshness and attention to detail the folks there used when making each dish.

Take the chicken almond ding, for example. The white meat chicken pieces were big, meaty and tender. And the array of vegetables – carrot, celery, white onion, a little zucchini and button mushrooms – were cut into large pieces that looked and tasted fresh. They also still had some snap instead of being cooked away to mush, which is often the case. The dish also had whole almonds, which stayed crunchy, adding texture as well as a hearty, nutty burst of flavor.

But the best thing about the dish was the sauce, or lack thereof. The dark brown soy-based sauce had a nice, slightly sweet umami flavor, but it was deftly added so it just lightly clung to the meat and veggies. The sauce was used the way it was intended, as a seasoning for the fresh ingredients, and there was no big soupy puddle of it left to soak the decent but just slightly overcooked fried rice.

The same care was taken with the vegetables in the Kung Pao beef, and the slices of meat in it were also tender and surprisingly succulent. It had the customary dried princess peppers along with celery, mushrooms, water chestnuts, baby corn and plump peanuts, but derived most of its spicy flavor from bright green slices of fresh jalapenos. I had never seen jalapenos in Kung Pao before, and I would like to see more as they added a wonderful burst of freshness.

Keeping with the vegetable theme, the best soup I had at China Garden was not the rather basic egg drop or chunky, tofu-heavy hot and sour – both of which were fine – it was the basic vegetable.

Another thing I have not seen at a Chinese restaurant before, this soup contained about every vegetable in the house – zucchini, broccoli, celery, cabbage, carrot, snow peas, mushroom, baby corn and onion – along with big slices of bamboo shoot, and all of them were just as fresh and snappy, and just as tasty, as the ones in the main dishes.

The other main entrees I tried were decent.

•The sweet and sour chicken was lightly battered, which was nice, and was not at all oily.

•The shrimp egg foo young was a huge portion with three thick, fluffy omelets about 5 inches in diameter packed with plump, tender shrimp, bits of ham and white and green onions. The caramel-colored gravy had a unique sour flavor that was pleasant when used in moderation.

•The sesame chicken, which had fried pieces of dark and light chicken, had a sauce that tasted like it was made with ketchup and I did not care for it.

A lot of care was taken when it came to service at China Garden. In spite of being a mostly take-out place – people were waiting in chairs near the order counter for to-go orders throughout both visits – I received excellent tableside service.

The woman working at the counter offered my parties free soft drinks and bottled water with dinner purchases, checked up on us regularly and brought the traditional orange slices for dessert when she presented the bill.

And besides sincerely thanking us for our business, she brought a container of soup and – best of all – some of that fantastic crab Rangoon to take home on the house.

Restaurant: China Garden

Address: 5441 S. Anthony Blvd.

Phone: 447-6102

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: No

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Crab Rangoon ($3.50), vegetable soup ($3), chicken almond ding ($7.65), King Pao beef ($7.85), shrimp egg foo young ($6.95), sweet and sour chicken ($7.65), sesame chicken ($8.25)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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