Marshall V. King
Dining A La King
A great meal doesn’t just happen, but you can’t entirely plan for it either.
The wrong dinner topic can ruin good food. A kitchen disaster may ruin good food — or spark laughter and camaraderie.
But usually a blend of amazing food, the right company and expectations that are exceeded can make a meal to remember.
When the pieces fall into place, however it happens, it’s gold.
And a meal at J.W. Chen’s Chinese Cuisine on Dec. 29 had all the pieces, fitting together in a happy way.
Jean Chen left Elkhart in November 2006 by closing China Star and opened just east of the University of Notre Dame at 1835 South Bend Ave. (S.R. 23).
She and her staff can make Cantonese or Szechwan food. During our meal, a man walked in and loudly asked for a carry-out menu. He probably got sweet and sour chicken, though I don’t know that.
But while Chen can do the classic dishes to which many are accustomed, she invents others. Even after decades, she’s playing with her food.
I went with my wife, Bethany, and family members who were in town. We introduced a vegetarian niece and two nephews to a woman who can flat-out cook.
Chen greeted us warmly. She remembers us and other customers. She remembers what they order and like.
We sat. She came to our table and sat down with us, as she often does. And she asked, “What are you hungry for?”
The menu at J.W. Chen’s doesn’t matter much when we go. We know we like the almond-encrusted shrimp that was on the menu at China Star. We know we like the curried fish and sizzling rice soup.
But we also know that she’ll find a sweet spot in what she wants to cook and what we may want to eat. And we haven’t been disappointed.
We said we wanted the soup, the shrimp, some fish, vegetarian food, and beef. She asked if we liked dumplings. We assured her we do. She took our order and we didn’t really know what she’d written in Chinese on her order pad.
The food started coming from the kitchen.
The soup is a simple broth with pieces of chicken, shrimp, mushroom, vegetables and the rice cake that gives the soup its name.
The handmade pork dumplings came. Pork wrapped in a tender dough. They were gone quickly.
The platters started arriving.
The mo pa tofu was good — if you really want a plate of flavorful tofu.
The beautiful almond shrimp with broccoli and a mild but flavorful sauce. The fish in a spicy sauce. A pile of cabbage that was cooked to the point of tenderness and crispness with enough garlic to add a layer of flavor.
A plate of chicken that had been chopped and somehow coated with a light and crisp coating and served with celery and dried peppers came to the table. It’s on the menu as Jean’s Hot Hot Chicken.
Chen brought out a bowl of beef and assured us we hadn’t had it before. She called it “water beef.” It had melt-in-your-mouth beef with spice and vegetables. And it was amazing.
As we ate, we exclaimed. We spun the turntable in the middle to reach more of a dish. We smiled and sighed and chewed.
Then came a surprise. Chen brought out pork belly with leeks. She assured us that we hadn’t ordered it and it was her gift.
The flavors worked well. It wasn’t the pork belly with eggplant that’s on the menu. It was using pork belly in a different way. And pork belly always seems to make a dish better.
It was in so many ways a simple meal. We were among the only ones in a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. The food wasn’t complicated. But here’s why it was a great meal:
1. We felt welcomed. Chen was a warm and gracious host. She encouraged us to enjoy her food.
2. We were overwhelmed with food. She always brings us more than we need and we box it and gladly take it home. But we relish that too.
3. The flavors were stellar. The simple combinations, both classic and new, of good ingredients make great dishes. Great dishes help make a great meal. Simple, really.
4. The company was great. When we couldn’t travel to see them, family members came to us. We showed them our community, cooked and ate out, and enjoyed being together.
5. There was both trust and surprise. Chen manages to regularly offer something new to the delight of her customers. As that happens, as trust grows, the restaurant experience deepens and changes. (One of the things that surprised me was the bill of just less than $100. Great food doesn’t have to be expensive.)
As the meal was nearly over, Alex, our nephew, said, “This was the Chinese food I was looking for. It’s the best I’ve ever had.”
I want more meals like this in 2014. I want meals that we relish and savor. I want to sit with family and friends and laugh and taste.
I hope you have meals like this too. We all have to eat. We really want to enjoy good company and good food. It’s one of the best things for which we can hope.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.