Chuan Lu Garden – Orlando, FL

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.

Chuan Lu spread 1

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.

Chuan Lu spread 2

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!

Chuan Lu spread 3

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!

Click to add a blog post for Chuan Lu Garden on Zomato

Shanghai Dumpling King – San Francisco, CA

I once took a Sociology class in school. I always felt that you could teach an entire course on the sociology of food, specifically how it affects migration and settlement. The topic has come up between Logan and I many times, what causes certain cultures, and by extension, their cuisines to settle down in this city or that? The answer is probably more involved than I’d like to get in this piece, but the impetus behind that question is usually a complaint about the lack of some food stuff in our area.

Take dumplings for instance. In every major city, you’re likely to find a Chinatown or Koreatown where the choices of dim sum establishment, or mandoo bar are nearly endless. Here in Florida, you have to put forth a good amount of effort to find a place that serves house made dumplings, and even then the pickings are slim (albeit delicious).

San Francisco is one of those blessed cities that doesn’t have this problem. The town is so packed full of dumplings you could nickname it Po. Throw a dart at a map and you’re likely to land on something delicious. However if you’re aiming for the typical neighborhoods, you might miss out on a gem, Shanghai Dumpling King. Two blocks north of Golden Gate park on Balboa St., is a small satellite grouping of Asian cuisine, a pho shop here, a sushi bar there, a Chinese bakery across the street.

Shanghai Dumpling King exterior

I have to give all the credit to my good friend Matt Covall, who kindly took me and Logan by the hand, and guided us to this dream world of dumplings. Soup dumplings have been on my checklist of things to try for a while now, sadly, as far as I know, you can’t get them in Florida. Shanghai Dumpling King, I was told, is the place to go if you want soup dumplings. If you’re a seasoned food detective, you’ll know from one look at the storefront that this place is special. It’s not the sign, not the location, not the reviews, but the crowd that should guide you in your hunt.

Every table was full and there was a small group waiting for their turn. After a long day filled with eating, I was more than willing to wait for the Chinese cherry on our snacking sundae. Almost as soon as we were seated, our order began to take shape, however we were quickly schooled by our waiter who vetoed some choices and strongly suggested others. In reality he just told us what we were getting, assuring us with a brisk wave of his hand that he knew better, and who were we to argue! We began with an order of Lion Head meatballs braised in soy, so tender and packed with Chinese aromatics even Italian grannies would swoon with approval. Pea sprouts in garlic sauce brought a little green into our decidedly beige feast, and they were delicious. Slightly bitter but crisp and fresh with a pungent garlic gloss that won me over. The green onion pancakes were as you’d expect, savory and flavorful. A very simple dish executed well.

Shanghai Dumpling King starters

A pile of plump, pan-fried, pork potstickers were presented promptly. These were a treat, succulent pork with hints of ginger and garlic were wrapped in a flavorful skin that gently tinged the meat with sweetness. A vinegar spiked dipping sauce kept things from getting too salty on the palate.

Shanghai Dumpling King - Pan-fried Pork Dumpling

The next dish kept the pork theme running but this time with a spicy twist. This set of dumplings waded in a bagna calda of chili and sesame oils with soy. A very specific itch was scratched by juicy little morsels, that tangy and fiery aroma that gets pulled into your nose through your mouth is addicting.

Spicy chive & pork dumplings

Ah the thing we’ve all been waiting for, the magic that is the soup dumpling! Often times dishes long yearned for lose their luster when the reality doesn’t match the hype. Thankfully that wasn’t the case here. They had a gelatinous characteristic to them that allowed a gentle jiggle as our waiter laid them before us. Take note here as there’s a certain technique to eating these that will hopefully save you from any juicy mishaps. Use a spoon, not your chopsticks. Remember, you’re delivering about a tablespoon of scalding soup, just above your privates to your mouth with nothing but a fragile membrane to hold everything together, the slightest nick can spell disaster. As you bring it to your lips, give the outside a small nibble and sip a bit of that delicious broth, savor the flavor before you lay siege to your taste buds with pork fat and spices. The hype did nothing to diminish my virgin soup dumpling experience, they offer a truly unique sensation to even the most traveled food lover. Shanghai Dumpling King lived up to its name and then some, bestowing a second order of the porcine liquid bombs to our table.

Shanghai Steamed Dumpling

If Logan were here to write this, he’d probably be able to decode the spice mixture and process necessary to create these beauties (maybe I’ll see if he can take a stab at creating Eat a Duck’s own take on this masterpiece), however I’m just a lowly dumpling lover that can only share when I know I’ve found something special. If you’re in The City you’ll likely find yourself flush with spots to find a good dumpling, but trust me here, take a detour out to west Balboa St., visit Shanghai Dumpling King and be happy.

Shanghai Dumpling King on Urbanspoon

Pubbelly – Miami Beach, FL

With a name like Pubbelly, it must come as a surprise to many of our readers that this sanctuary of sumptuous snacks has taken so long to appear on this storied space. Well allow me remedy that. Pubbelly touts itself as “the first Asian inspired gastropub in Miami”. I’m not here to say who came first, I’m here to report on great food, which I found many times over at this little outpost on Miami Beach. The three young guys running this outfit are all chefs and hospitality pros in their own right, and have joined forces to create a truly food-centric eatery. That may sound strange, “aren’t all restaurants food-centric?” you may ask. Well yes and no. They may serve food, but the other half of the equation is the passion. Just like how you can hear the passion in a great song, when you are presented with a beautiful plate of quivering pork belly, with its golden crown and pearly outer garments, you can tell whoever created it is just as excited about cooking it as you are about eating it…well almost.

pubbelly

Luckily for me, the trio of Pubbelly and I have similar leanings when it comes to food. On the menu you’ll find, all manners of cured meats, various pork products (the words belly, bacon and short-rib occur many times throughout), a whole section devoted to dumplings, noodles, a raw bar, and everything in between. The atmosphere is casual and the staff are well versed in the menu, which will stay with you for the duration of the meal as you’ll likely be ordering in waves as certain items catch your eye.

I arrived a tad late to the gathering, just in time to catch a couple bites of the pastrami & sauerkraut dumplings. I’m usually not such a push over, but this dish gained my loyalty immediately. First of all, I would have probably never ordered it on my own as I’m known to hate sauerkraut and caraway. As I’ve stated countless times before though, everything is delicious when it’s done right, and these dumplings were no exception, tangy, salty, the perfect start. The duck and pumpkin option was another winner, with a very autumn sounding sauce of orange, almond, cinnamon and soy brown butter. The only issue I found was having to fight the temptation to order another plate instead of branching out. Happily though, cooler heads prevailed and we continued.

Duck & Pumpkin Dumplings, Orange, Almond, Cinnamon, Soy Brown Butter

A charcuterie plate was summoned, a long mound of Mangelitsa ham lay opposite slices of toast slathered with goat butter and truffles. Delicious, but not to be outdone by its brothers cooked a bit more vigorously. A pair of plates arrived featuring one of our favorites here at Eat a Duck, pork belly! The first was pork belly with kabocha (a type of Asian winter squash), butterscotch miso and corn powder. It was nearly solid fat (not a bad thing in my book) with a slim layer of flesh at the bottom. It came sliced like a loaf of bread and literally disintegrated in your mouth. The second was cochinillo with sour apple purée, roasted brussels sprouts, cinnamon and soy. This was a crisper more solid take, but no less tasty. A nuclear colored apple purée added a sour note and the subtle presence of soy brought your palate back to Asia.

Pork Belly, Kabocha, Butterscotch Miso, Corn Powder Cochinillo, Sour Apple Purée, Brussels, Cinnamon Soy Jus

Back on the raw side of things, was a short rib tartare with apples, quail egg, green mustard, tobanjan (a spicy paste made from fermented broad beans) and pine nuts. This was a truly beautiful dish. I requested more goat butter truffle toast as a vehicle, that was one of my better decisions. But it wasn’t all pork all the time, not that there’s anything wrong with that. We were on Miami Beach, so we ventured into the sea with bay scallops bourguignon in shiso garlic butter and sea salt with a crusty baguette on the side. I imagine the chefs creating this dish to appease a close friend or relative who was squeamish about snails and finding it was not bad on its own. Escargots are one of my favorite dishes, but the sweet, tender flesh of a scallop was a wonderful substitution on the classic recipe.

Shortrib Tartare, Apples, Quail Egg, Green Mustard, Tobanjan, Pinenuts Bay Scallops Bourguignon, Shiso Garlic Butter, Sea Salt, Baguette

Of course dessert followed. After all the dinner party included my dad and sister, two people who have been partners with me at some of my most memorable meals. After consulting our waitress, we arrived upon the chocolate brownie sundae and butterscotch crème brûlée. Both were gone in moments and were as luxurious as they look. For a chocolate fiend like myself, the brownie hit all the right buttons, though the crème brûlée had it beat in refinement and balance of flavor. It was by no means a blow out on either side.

Chocolate Brownie Sundae Butterscotch Creme Brulée

It proved to be another successful meal. The food at Pubbelly is impressive to say the least. As you know, we here at Eat a Duck strive to write only about those establishments doing something truly special, and I believe the trio at Pubbelly are doing just that. So if that’s not enough motivation to visit, just peruse the menu yourself.

Pubbelly on Urbanspoon

La Maison Kam Fung – Montreal, QC

Dim sum has been something of a mainstay topic here at Eat a Duck. We’ve discussed Ming’s Bistro countless times, but Logan and I are always in search of the next big thing, not content to believe that we’ve found the best. This persistent searching brought the discovery of a wonderful dim sum house nestled deep in the bowels of a nondescript shopping center in downtown Montreal. La Maison Kam Fung, located at 1111 Saint Urbain Street, Montreal, QC, has captured the look, feel and most importantly, taste, of some of the best dim sum houses in Hong Kong. At least as closely as you can get on the opposite side of the planet.

Welcome sign to La Maison Kam Fung

If you happen to find yourself anywhere inside a 60 mile radius of Montreal, I suggest you take the day and visit this place. As you cross the threshold of the indoor Chinatown mall, you’re immediately greeted by a Chinese pastry shop on one side and a roast pork and duck joint on the other, you’re on the right track. After a short trip up the escalator, you begin to hear the muffled roar of hungry dim sum patrons and the circus hawker like voice over the P.A. announcing a newly vacant table. The turnaround at this place is staggering. You weave your way through the crowd of people until you arrive at the maitre’d podium, over her shoulder you can see the steaming carts of succulent dumplings zipping in and out of the crowded dining room. No words are exchanged except a short “15 minutes!”. She hands you a small piece of paper with a number, you promptly find your place among the masses and wait. Sure enough, after 15 minutes your number is called and you’re whisked away to your table, already cleaned, dressed with new linen, glassware, napkins and chopsticks.

The fun begins immediately. Most likely a cart will already be passing your table, offering two or three choices of steamed or fried deliciousness. The food is on the table and the cart is gone before you’ve taken your jacket off. Why can’t all restaurants have this kind of service?! As with any respectable dim sum establishment, the best time to visit is around 11:30-1:00 on Sunday. This is when you can be certain to find all your favorites and more at the peak of freshness. The insanely quick turnover means that nothing is sitting on racks in the back getting soggy and stale, they steam and fry and send the food out at a such a frenzied pace that the time between cooking and eating is a matter of seconds. The staples are always available, Siu Mai, Ha Gao, Char Siu Bao, Taro, Bok Choy with hoisin. If you don’t see the cart carrying what you’re looking for, just ask and they’ll either run in the back or find the cart that has it and bring it back to you. My favorite, Cheong Fun, has a cart all to itself, with three variations, pork, BBQ beef and shrimp.

La Maison Kam Fung dim sum 

The best part about Kam Fung is the unexpected dishes, the things you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Shrimp balls wrapped in bacon with a mayo dipping sauce, shrimp and green onion patties tucked between two rice noodles with a side of hoisin, Szechuan peel n’ eat shrimp and more. There are literally so many items it would take many trips to sample them all.

Fried crab balls and Szechuan shrimp

Hong Kong, San Francisco, New York, London, all places with a fine track record of awesome dim sum. Well now we can add Montreal to the list, as La Maison Kam Fung is a must-visit eatery if you find yourself there. Just goes to show, when you think you’ve found “the best place ever”, make sure to keep searching, you’ll be glad you did.

Kam Fung on Urbanspoon