Sometimes you self-advocate to an actuality which causes a questioning in your ability to tell good from great. There are far too few noodle shops in Central Florida. No debate there. Yet, there are fewer still who actually offer homemade versions of their namesake, and few do it at high levels of expertise. By few I mean one.
Chuan Lu Garden, a no frills, microscopic jewel, is perched directly at center stage of Orlando’s Asian food version of Main st. I had to ask myself, “Is it great on its own merits or is it great to me because there’s no other Northern Chinese noodle show in town?” Well, let’s look at the facts. They insist on making all of their hand pulled noodles in the back, just through the swinging doors leading to a furiously busy kitchen. This review may be short, but it doesn’t take long to highlight the value of a handmade product. I ordered just two things, hardly enough to form a complete picture of a restaurant in most cases. However, based on the high levels of craft found in each of these items, I feel confident enough to give it our stamp of approval. If you’re wondering how to tell if something is made by man or machine, I have an easy test. Look for imperfections. If you receive an order of six dumplings, and no two look the same, (except maybe at Din Tai Fung) you’re in good hands. If your siu mai are identical, you’ve got knockoff purses on your hands. Dumplings are like snowflakes. No two are alike.
As for the noodles, not only are they made in-house, they’re perfectly tender with just enough bounce, due to the reaction of sodium bicarbonate and flour. I ordered my noodles as one should in a place that specializes in Northern Chinese and Szechuan provincial delights; fermented black bean sauce mixed with minced pork, scallion, cilantro and cucumber. In most places you’ll find it called Zhajiangmian. It’s difficult for mt heart to praise a place so highly when I can literally look out the front window of Chuan Lu Garden and see the building that houses Ming’s Bistro, my favorite Chinese restaurant in Orlando. The good news is that these two don’t really compete head to head. Northern Chinese cuisine has very specific characteristics, stemming largely from the climate. This food was made to warm up your insides during the harsh winter. Luckily it has the added benefit of obliterating my debilitating pollen induced head congestion.
This proved to be the case in my second visit when I insisted we re-order the Zhajiangmian so my compadres could sample the springy noodles. We also asked our waitress for her favorite dish on the menu. After a little coaxing she graciously admitted her preference for cumin lamb, strips of tender lamb shoulder, wok seared with onions, leeks, lemongrass and a generous handful of chilies. The most powerful flavor was the potent Szechuan peppercorn. These berries aren’t used in many other cuisines that I’ve seen. They’re flavor is aggressive, asserting itself above all others the second it hits each of you 10 thousand or flavor rescepticles. The peppercorns cause a strange buzzing sensation in the mouth. They aren’t spicy hot per se. No, instead they enhanced the rest of the dish with the most welcome strangeness. The other dish that must be noted on the second visit was a different kind of dumpling called steamed juicy pork bun. They remind me of a cross between a soup dumpling and baked pork buns, with a layer of crispy crepe batter circulating on the bottom. Its the only place I’ve ever had them so they are a must!
Amidst the many quality restaurants in this area of Orlando, it can be a chore to stand out. I’ve seen so many good enough type restaurants in this corridor fold because they just weren’t good enough to cut the tight battle raging on Mills and Colonial. Chuan Lu Garden offers something truly special and easily warrants return visits. At the very least it should make it on your list for a multicultural Colonial Drive food crawl!