857 Bell Rd., Antioch. 717-4449
Lunch (with buffet): 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Dinner: 4-9:30 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 4-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Judging by the inquiries I receive from friends, colleagues, acquaintances and readers, the hunt for “a good Chinese restaurant in Nashville” must be as futile as my own dream of a cozy French bistro with a great, affordable wine list within walking distance of my home. Maybe it’s just the universal desire for what we don’t have, but there sure are a lot of you out there longing for something beyond the established haunts. It’s not that we are lacking in Chinese restaurants here; look in the restaurant directory of the Yellow Pages, and it’s enough to make you dizzy. From China Bell to China Wok, there are 22 listings alone.
“Good,” then, is the key qualifier in the question. But good by what standards? I’m guessing that most of the people in search of first-rate Chinese food have probably been to a cityNew York, Washington, San Franciscothat has a defined Chinatown, where a memorable meal can be found by stumbling into Door Number One, Two or Three, pointing to the dishes on the table beside them, and saying “Me too.” Unfortunately, Nashville lacks a Chinatown (though there is a Chinatown restaurant in Green Hills).
Another reason we lack a “good” Chinese restaurant here is because most Nashvillians are satisfied with standard, passable or even mediocre Chinese food, as long as they can get their egg roll, fried rice, moo goo gai pan and fortune cookie. The Scene Dining Guide doesn’t even have a category for Chinese restaurants thus far, as there is little to distinguish one from another. (Please don’t even mention P.F. Chang’s, the Houston’s of Chinese restaurants.)
I have occasionally asked the folks who own or operate Thai, Korean, Japanese or Vietnamese restaurants where they would go to eat Chinese in town. Unfailingly, they either look baffled or shake their heads and say what I already suspected: “There are no good Chinese restaurants in Nashville.”
Recently, Scene managing editor Jonathan Marx asked the same question of Tsuo and Chun Fu, the engaging couple who own Parco Café in the Nashville Farmers Market. Though their lunch counter doesn’t serve Chinese food, the Fus are from Taiwan, and for a number of years, they did own and run a popular Chinese eatery in Murfreesboro. (To call Parco a lunch counter is both accurate and terribly misleading. By virtue of their warm and charming personalities, Mrs. Fu’s repertoire of fresh-brewed coffees and teas, and Mr. Fu’s indescribably delicious sandwiches, salads and desserts, they have developed a cult following. To call the revolving cast of characters who eat here “customers” would also be accurate and misleading; eat one time at Parco, and you can count yourself among the ever-widening circle of friends the Fus embrace every hour their eatery is open.)
The Fus responded to Marx’s question by inviting the both of us to dine with them at China Chef. Located in the Hickory Hollow area, the recently opened restaurant is operated by chef Chia Wang, with his wife Susan and son John running the front of the house. The red-and-gold-dominated main dining room looks like your typical Chinese restaurant, and the menu mostly looks like what you’d expect as well. But there are advantages to dining with the Asian friends of an Asian restaurant owner, not that the attributes of China Chef are unavailable to Joe Diner, coming in off the street in a quixotic quest for a noteworthy experience.
I am not going to mislead you, dear readers. China Chef will not make you forget that spectacular meal you had when you were last in Manhattan or San Francisco. But it is quite a few notches above the status quo that has been set so pitifully low in Nashville all these years. And the secret is not necessarily to go with the Fusthough you will have a most delightful time if you are so fortunatebut to order from the “Special Chinese Menu” posted on the bottom right-hand corner of the regular menu.
Not everything on the Special Chinese Menu is necessarily unique to that section, nor is it necessarily all that special. The Golden Crispy Orange Jumbo Shrimp are, as far as I can tell, the same as the Golden Crispy Jumbo Shrimp on the regular menu. Though the orange sauce was nicely spiced, the jumbo size of the shrimp was accomplished by an excess of breading. We were also a little disappointed in the chicken-corn soup; though creamy and rich, it was rather pedestrian.
What I can wholeheartedly recommend is the Peking Duck. In response to my question as to why Mr. Wang’s duck lacked the layer of fat and resultant greasiness I have found in most Chinese restaurants here, he explained that he orders white Peking duck from Atlanta, then spends two days preparing it. The presentation is lovely, with slices of the dark meat fanned over the plate, garnished with a crown of julienned scallions and carrots cut into flower shapes. Mrs. Fu spread plum sauce over a pancake, added a couple slices of duck and scallion, then deftly folded one end over another, offering two apiece to everyone in our party of five.
We also loved the perfectly steamed grouper in a delicate brown sauce with lemongrass and ginger; the same goes for the beautifully arranged vegetable plate of baby corn, shiitake mushrooms and bok choy in a light white sauce. The five-flavored eggplant was a thick and meaty stew, with a lingering kick, but minus any bitterness or excess oil. Though we didn’t get to try the sweet-and-sour tilapia, the sautéed hot and sour squid or the beef flank noodle soup, we certainly would on a future visit.
China Chef has only been open under the Wangs’ ownership for about two months, and the Fus feel hopeful that as time goes by, they’ll add more genuine Chinese dishes to the menu. In the meanwhile, the Wangs must continue to offer what so many customers wantthe ubiquitous lunch buffet. Still, Nashvillians looking for a “good” Chinese restaurant will want to give this one a try, if only to support the family’s efforts to raise the bar for Chinese food in this city. John Wang says that diners are invited to call ahead with a special request, and his father can fix it to order (as long as he has the ingredients). So if you’re one of the many Nashvillians excited by the possibility of finding authentic Chinese cuisine in our town, pay the Wangs a visit, and let them know about the kind of dining experience you’re seeking.
Personally, I would place the Fus’ humble counter among Nashville’s best dining experiences, regardless of the type of food they serve. Along with the rest of their flock of faithfuls, I am eagerly awaiting the day when they open their dream restauranthopefully within walking distance of my home.