Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dish on Dining: Great China

Feasting with Family in Berkeley
2115 Kittredge St. (between Shattuck and Fulton), Berkeley
Downtown Berkeley
PH: 510.843.7996
Lunch daily (except Sunday) from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner daily from 5 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted, reservations for large groups only

My nephew Chris was in town last week for spring break, so that gave me an excuse to go out for Chinese food. Typically, I find it hard to get Chinese food as a solo diner, especially for dinner, because you can’t get to try as many dishes. So I met Chris and his girlfriend, Mary, and the three of us feasted at the Great China restaurant not too far from the University of California-Berkeley campus.

Great China is a tiny restaurant just a few steps from the California Theater. From the outside, it looks like a small, family-owned Chinese restaurant—the kind you’d see on the road to Modesto or somewhere outside the city. But inside it’s pretty spiffy with upscale dining sets and a banquet-hall décor.

The place is still tiny, though, with only a few tables in the front and more in the back in what seems like a mezzanine? (It didn’t seem like enough stairs to make it a “second floor.”) We got there early on Friday night because the word has been out for awhile that Great China is one of the best Chinese restaurants in Berkeley, if not the entire East Bay.

The restaurant even has several house specialties that have added to its reputation. Some of them I heard from friends, such as the classic Peking duck—a whole roasted duck that needs to be ordered at least a day in advance. Also a starter called “Double Skin,” which is primarily a cold salad made up of mung bean noodles tossed with various vegetables, seafood and pork.

I didn’t order either.

That’s because the Peking duck is the dish where the crispy roasted duck skin is carved off and served with a bun, hoisin sauce and green onions. Then you eat the meat separately. It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten duck skin, and I felt a whole duck with accompanying buns would be too much for three people.

As for the “Double Skin,” it sounded interesting but I wasn’t in the mood for a cold starter.

So enough about what I didn’t order. This is what we ended up eating.

We started with the Sizzling Rice Soup ($6.25 for a small order), which is a clear broth soup with chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, water chestnuts and peas. It’s a clean, refreshing soup, and it gets its name from the puffed rice (just think of Rice Crispies) that’s added to the soup at the last minute. When the rice hits the soup, it creates a crackling sensation, or sizzle. Thus the name, Sizzling Rice Soup.

Chris said he didn’t remember eating this soup growing up, but I’ve had it a few times and enjoyed it as a child for the sizzling action. The soup didn’t disappoint when the waitress poured the plate of puffed rice into the soup at our table. It sizzled and let off some steam, too.

The soup tasted just as I remembered—clean and simple. But it’s accentuated at Great China by the fresh ingredients in large portions. My only gripe is that they put too much rice in the soup, crowding our bowls with the toasted starch.

Even though we skipped the Peking duck, Chris had a hankering for duck, so we got the Tea-Smoked Duck ($11.95), which is more manageable at half a portion instead of a whole duck. The duck arrived with a nice color to it and when I bit into the pieces, there was a nice smoky flavor.

But because it’s a smoked duck, the meat was more like preserved meats so it was tougher to chew into. This isn’t the kind of dish one would describe as “fall off the bone” because it didn’t. A lot of the duck fat also wasn’t rendered off, so you could see the fatty goo in every piece just right under the skin. I found this course really difficult and unhealthy to eat, but naturally Chris loved it because he’s still young enough where he doesn’t worry about his cholesterol.

The duck also came with steamed buns, which I thought was unusual because it didn’t have a slit to allow you to stuff it with some duck meat. I guess the bland buns are the chef’s way of helping your body absorb all the duck fat.

Another house specialty is the Walnut Prawns ($13.95), which is sometimes listed at other Chinese restaurants as Shrimp with Honey-roasted Walnuts. This is another one of my favorite dish growing up, despite the fact that in making the shrimp the chef has to quickly deep-fry the shrimp to make it crispy and then coat it in a sauce that contains mayonnaise. Yes, you read right.

Great China’s version was presented nicely, and Mary and I both really enjoyed the prawns, which were quite huge. The walnuts, on the other hand, seemed small in comparison and tasted a bit stale. It lacked a real crunch.

Next up was the Wok-braised Lamb ($10.50), which is a dish made up of pieces of leg of lamb that are marinated, steamed and then braised before they’re fired up in the wok for some color. The dish is served with a light soy-based dipping sauce.

I really enjoyed the lamb because it had a nice flavor that was not super gamey (which turns some people off) but still had enough of its distinct lamb flavor to make it intense and hearty compared to generically raised cattle. And it was super tender, the kind of dish one would describe as “fall off the bone” if it actually were served with the bone still in. The accompanying dipping sauce, however, was a throwaway. I didn’t feel it added to the flavor when I dipped my piece of lamb in it.

A big gripe I have with Chinese menus are that they’re heavy on the meats, so I try to off-set that by at least ordering a side of greens. For our dinner we got a simple order of stir-fried Black Mushrooms and Chinese Vegetables ($7.95). Great China typically serves bok choy in this dish, but I asked the waitress to substitute it with baby Chinese broccoli or choy sum, which is a greener vegetable. The dish was simple and nicely prepared—nothing fancy—but served the purposes of bringing some balance to our meal.

I don’t think Great China has any specialty desserts because near the end of our meal the server brought our check with some slices of oranges and fortune cookies without us even asking for it. So a moment about the service: It’s kind of what you would expect at a Chinese restaurant—efficient but gruff at times. Most of the servers speak English but seem more comfortable with Mandarin. They get their job done, but don’t expect a lot of friendly suggestions or help.

I wasn’t too concerned about dessert because we did have a big feast and there are a couple of frozen yogurt and gelato shops nearby.

It was nice having a family dinner, and Great China offers an interesting menu to help create a nice assortment of dishes. The quality of the ingredients and cooking style is nicer than most Chinese restaurants, but I wouldn’t say it’s the best. Maybe in Berkeley, but not the entire East Bay.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Better than average but not the best)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Great China on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Chef Ben, I've been wanting to try the peking duck after reading about it on, and I'm sad too that you guys didn't get to try it. The other dishes look pretty good, and yes I'm surprised to hear that you like the honey walnut prawns! I'm so-so about it, the candied walnuts are actually my favorite part of that dish...

Passionate Eater said...

Great China is definitely a "must try" if you are a Cal student. I lived in Berkeley for a few years before I moved to SF, and I did frequent this place when I had a hankering for Chinese food and couldn't make it out to the City. I like Hong Kong East Ocean in Emeryville too.

Carolyn Jung said...

As a kid, I thought sizzling rice soup was one of the greatest things in the world. I loved it when the waitress poured the plate of crispy rice into the boiling hot soup, and it all went "sssssssss!'' It was like eating and getting a magic show all in one.