I have friends who I dine with frequently who love Grace Garden, but don't get done with work early enough to make the long drive worthwhile.
Luckily, HowChowBlog recently posted a translation of the "secret" Chinese menu at Hunan Legend in one of the Town Centers in Columbia (Dorsey ?).
As is depressingly often the case, it turns out that they are perfectly capable of cranking out really good, authentic Chinese food. The trick is convincing them that you WANT the real deal. The house specialty is more toward the milder Cantonese style of Chinese cuisine, as opposed to the spcier Szechuan focus at Grace Garden, but after several visits, I'd say these folks are right up there as far as quality - if you can convince them to forgo the "Americanizing".
The main difference is that the chef at Grace Garden is on a mission to "convert" the masses to "real" chinese food, and he's willing ot take a chance that the customer is ready for it. The Hunan Legend folks seem very wary, perhaps due to too many returns of "real" dishes from those wanting the same old gloppy, overly sweet Americanized stuff. It seems that you really have to work to convince them to let you into the "can be given the good stuff" club.
I would suggest that you find and print out that translated menu, take it with you, and be very obvious about consulting it. Then indicate to your waiter (or preferably the owner, if she's there) that you've heard very good things about their "real" Chinese food, and that you want to try it. Then go back a couple of times to convince them that you're serious.
I'd not call them better than Grace Garden, and I'd probably rank them slightly below G.G., but mostly because I prefer G.G.'s spicier style of food. For those who are much closer to Hunan Legend than to Grace Garden, or who prefer the milder and more subtle end of the Chinese food spectrum, it's an option well worth exploring.
G.G. fans, please believe me - I'm not trying to syphon customers away from G.G.! Instead, I'm hoping that we can "grow" the market for both of them, and perhaps convince more Asian restaurants in the are that there is a viable customer base for the "real" versions of their respective cuisines, in addition to the dumbed down version. It doesn't have to be all one or the other.
It turns out that the owners at H.L. are actually Malaysian, so my friends and I are now working on coaxing some authentic Malaysian dishes out of them, now that they know that we really appreciate the authentic preparations. If we are successful, I'll pass on info about what dishes we find out about. There is one Malaysian stif-fried noodle dish on the "secret" menu, and the owner has promised to let us try a "not on any menu" seafood curry that is popular with their Malaysian customers. Who knows what other wonders may await us?
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