Wait wait wait. I know you are about to correct me here. Yes, I know there is a much loved authentic Chinese restaurant and supermarket on Valley Avenue called Red Pearl. This is not that. Read on.

Authentic Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese food are my absolute favorite types of food. I think this comes from living in the Vietnamese neighborhood in Philly, which was only a mile from Philly’s Chinatown. (If you are ever going to Philly, let me know and I can make some recommendations.) Then, a few years ago, right before moving here, Mr Foodie and I went to Vietnam. We vacationed together for a week which included a brief trip to Seoul South Korea, and I stayed on in Vietnam for 5 more weeks for work. Business people from Thailand and China created a fairly diverse pan-Asian food scene in Hanoi, and in Haiphong where I spent most of my time.  This solidified my interest in Asian food.

And then we moved to Birmingham. You know how much I love this town. You also know as well as I do that the choices for authentic, really good Asian food are limited. (Yes, I know about Mr Chen’s, which I have blogged about here.) So when a friend at work told me about ANOTHER authentic Chinese place that I had never heard of, I couldn’t believe it. I had to see for myself.  From doing some research on Urbanspoon, it looks like Black Pearl changed hands but not names relatively recently, which may account for it flying under the radar.

So this week, we drove out to the Colonnade, a shopping center in an area that is sort of between Mountainbrook and Vestavia. Basically, it’s a huge strip mall. But if I apply my first principles of eating in Birmingham, some of the best food in this town is in strip malls. So we proceeded. Here’s the outside; fairly nondescript:

photo (2)

 

We were greeted immediately and ushered to a table.  There were a few people in the restaurant, and English and ?Mandarin were both being spoken.  A good sign.  The menu looked like any other Chinese restaurant menu except for this first page:

Black Pearl menu

The excitement was building.  This looked pretty legit.  A nice woman took our beverage order.  The sign said they have bubble tea but she explained that right now, they only have “coconut jelly.”  I’m not sure we ever figured out what was in the beverage itself – was a mild, sweet ?coconut milk drink, and was soothing and delicious.  The coconut jellies at the bottom tasted a little like tamarind, and for those of you who are wary of typical tapioca bubbles, these had a much crunchier texture (not slimy at all).  A really nice complement to the drink itself:

coconut jelly

 

Here’s a close-up of the coconut jellies:

jellies close up

OK, on to the menu.  A very nice young waiter asked if he could help us with the menu, noticing that we were looking intently at the traditional menu.  He explained that the chef is trying some new dishes and that his favorite things aren’t even on the menu at all.  Our hearts skipped a beat – this is the often discussed but rarely attained holy grail of Chinese restaurants:  the secret menu.  Somehow, without speaking the language, we had cracked the code.

We let him order for us.  We chose two things from the secret menu and one thing from the traditional actual menu.  He brought us each our own little rice bowl to eat with our meals.  He explained that they use sushi rice which gives it a bit of a firmer, stickier texture.  It really absorbed the sauces better than the usual white rice:

rice

The first dish to arrive was secret menu item #1, tofu with chicken and vegetables.  The tofu was very soft, stir fried lightly, and served with the vegetables in a light white sauce.  A little bit of ginger gave the sauce a great kick.  The whole dish had a very light, fresh taste to it.  Including both tofu and small amounts of juicy, dark meat chicken gave the dish more flavor and a more complex texture.  This goes down as the best tofu dish I’ve had in Birmingham:

tofu with chicken

We were giddy as we anticipated what came next  The waiter was excited that his first recommendation was such a success that he waited expectantly as we tried secret menu item #2, the “Indian lettuce.”  I have been trying to determine exactly what vegetable this was – my typical online source (Wikipedia) doesn’t have much to say.  It was stir fried with garlic in a mild but flavorful light brown sauce.  The greens were very slightly bitter but had a lot of flavor besides that – really hard to explain.  Just trust me – try it.  The portion is huge and could be split as a side dish for a table of 4-6 people:indian lettuce

Then, the only dish from the traditional menu, the fish in hot oil.  This came out in a covered clay pot.  Our waiter removed the top and voila, this was on the inside, all bubbly and wonderful:fish in hot oil

This was a mixture of soft fish, chilies, bell peppers, and oil sauce.  I like but generally don’t love fish, and had just had fish for lunch the day before so really wasn’t in the mood.  That said, this was incredible.  The fish was really, really moist and literally melted in my mouth.  The spicy sauce drenched the rice and along with the peppers and the fish, was an incredible combination.  I couldn’t stop eating it.

By this point it was apparent that we were beside ourselves with how good this was.  The best part was how happy our excitement made our waiter.  He stopped to talk to us about the restaurant, which he said includes both traditional Chinese and Cantonese influences (he himself is Taiwanese).  Without us asking, he offered to write down what we ordered.  Here it is:

Black Pearl

He explained that while he isn’t always there to help with ordering (he has to take a day off once in awhile), any of the waitstaff should be able to guide us.

He asked how we heard about the place, and I told him about my friend from work who tipped us off.  He asked us to thank him, which I already have.  Mr Foodie and I told him we would also spread the word about Black Pearl, but didn’t explain exactly how we were going to do that…. surprise!

 
Black Pearl on Urbanspoon