I have a theory that Birmingham is full of amazing, authentic ethnic restaurants flying under the radar. For authentic Chinese food, most people know about Red Pearl and Mr Chen’s (I think). Earlier this week we blogged about Black Pearl, a Chinese place that’s been around for awhile, but now has a new chef who has introduced more authentic Cantonese dishes. This got me to thinking… Maybe there are other places around with similar stories. All it takes is one chef… And so I started poking around Yelp and Urbanspoon. Great Wall, a Chinese restaurant in Homewood, seemed like exactly this kind of place.
Having just barely finished the leftovers from Black Pearl, we headed over to Great Wall for dinner. The outside looks like the typical Chinese restaurant of my childhood:
We were greeted warmly and taken to our booth. On the inside, the place really, really reminded me of the places I had eaten as a kid-lots of red 1980s decor (in a good way), very casual and inviting, and fairly busy. We anxiously opened the menu to find an enormous selection of food. We immediately explained to our waiter what we were looking for: authentic Chinese food. Based on the Yelp reviews, I knew the steam buns were actually the elusive soup dumpling, which I have eaten and blogged about at Mr Chen’s. These are a favorite Dim Sum, or bite size small plate, item. So we automatically ordered those. The waiter recommended the chicken and eggplant hot pot and the pork meatballs. He assured us both were non-Americanized. We were sold.
We were forewarned that the soup dumplings take 20 minutes because they are homemade. They were completely worth the wait. Doughy exterior with a nickel size piece of minced pork and vegetables bursting with flavor on the inside, filled with hot broth. If you don’t know about the broth you’ll burn your face off.
So, let’s review. Steamed buns aka soup dumplings, which arrive to your table like so in a double decker container:
Each level contains three amazing buns:
Which then you are best off eating by dunking into the dumpling sauce, placing into a giant spoon, biting a tiny hole out of the side, slurping the liquid from the spoon, then eating the dumpling. I was missing the spoon and was in too much of a hurry to ask for one, so I took a bite out and slurped off the plate. It was just me and my dumpling. No one judged. Here’s a photo of the deflated little dumpling after the soup was slurped just before it was eaten:
Next came the entrees. Chicken with eggplant in hot pot. Came to the table in the clay pot with the lid on and the server opened it to reveal a bubbling dish. We could NOT get enough of this. A slightly sweet dish with eggplant, garlic, and and juicy chicken. The eggplant was soft and full of flavor. Very light and healthy, not oily or greasy at all.
Next up was the pork meatball. That description did not sell me whatsoever, and by this point I was pretty full. Again, clay pot and voila, what’s inside?
I wish we had smell-a-vision or whatever because this smelled absolutely fantastic-rich and meaty. I grabbed a meatball-look at the size, like a baseball for goodness sakes:
This was the perfect complement to the chicken. Savory and rich coating on the exterior, soft and a little crunchy from onions inside. I’ve never had anything quite like this.
In our food afterglow, we noticed a very nice woman introducing herself to diners. When she came over to us, she said, wow, you ordered all authentic Chinese dishes! How do you like them? This was the perfect opportunity for me to ask a few questions….of course, we told her how much we loved everything. And then we asked for a little bit of the backstory. I’m saving some of this for another post (I really want to interview her properly and I hope she will let me!). But suffice it to say, her name is Sunny, she is the owner, and there is a new chef in the back from Shanghai, which is also where she is from. She says that a few months ago they decided that Birmingham needed more authentic Chinese food, and so they decided to expand their authentic menu. The bottom half of the chicken and beef menus, and all the seafood and lamb menus, are authentic. Of course they still have the American favorites like sesame chicken, which she said is one of their most popular dishes, as well. Although she doesn’t cook, she tastes everything to be sure it is up to her high standards before she serves it to customers. And it shows.
I asked her if she had ever considered a dim sum menu. She explained that while there are a few dim sum items on the menu, having a full dim sum experience complete with carts etc would require a bigger place. But this conversation made me realize that their menu probably has the most authentic (if limited) dim sum offerings in town. And all are homemade. So if you want dim sum and you are in Bham-this is the place. End of story.
Our waiter came back and boxed up our food for us (I love it when places do that-much classier than doing it myself, and I always end up dripping or dropping something). We chatted for a long while with another foodie couple about how excited we all are about Great Wall and other ethnic restaurants in the ‘Ham that fly under the radar. To me, that’s the best indication of a restaurant – when the food inspires great conversation.
Mr Foodie reported that the leftovers were just as good for lunch today. And by 8pm tonite, amazingly, we were both in the mood for more.
Sunny greeted us at the door tonight when we returned for round two. Today, my allergies have really been bugging me, and I was in the mood for wonton soup. Wow was I in luck. I didn’t get a chance to ask but these really tasted homemade. Shrimp and pork on the inside, perfect dough consistency on the outside, and a flavorful broth with a little kick. The stock included carrots and snap peas. Incredible:
Next up, totally homemade pan fried pork dumplings. Sunny told us they had sold out the night before so we knew we were in for a treat. These guys are enormous and have a perfect little bit of char on the bottom. Served with black “Shanghai vinegar” and “garlic sauce.” When you bite in, especially after dunking in a sauce, you get the pork mixed with the sauce with chewy and crunchy…. Just spectacular. Check them out, aren’t they beautiful:
And then, Mr Foodie’s entree. Pepper beef tenderloin. Slightly fatty and very succulent meat, a little bit sweet and a little bit savory. Served on a bed of crunchy fresh onions, meant to be eaten together. I’m not a big beef eater but I have to admit that this was great. Mr Foodie ate it up:
Sunny waived us goodbye as we left, saying we would see her soon-which I know we will. I opened up my fortune cookie as I got in the car-I’m not much into fortunes, but I did a double take at this one. I’m substituting the word “blog” for “book” and took it as a sign that I should go home and write this post.