Captain Chen’s unboxes the Chinese dinner

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There’s a yin for every yang. The crowd-pleasers versus the acquired tastes. The listicle versus the long form. Food is no different.

A cursory glance at Captain Chen’s Gourmet China menu might lead one to believe that the 3-month-old restaurant in the Brassfield Shopping center in north Greensboro is just another fast, paper-box Chinese takeout joint. One would be wrong. Like the hibachi steakhouses that save authentic Japanese food for the sushi bar menu (order the stuff that’s not sushi), Gourmet China offers a swath of complex, homey Sichuan dishes alongside its Chinese-American menu — the authentic yin to its Americanized yang. And they make it easy for you. While 75 percent of the offerings list the familiar sesame chicken and lo mein, the other quarter is listed under the “Highly Recommended Authentic Sichuan Cuisine” section. Items like spicy, double-cooked pork and sichuan-bean jellyfish grace the menu, allowing those ready to up their game a chance to try what the owners eat at their own dinner tables.

On a Sunday at noon right when Gourmet China opens its doors, I’m the first one in, but within half an hour, the place has filled up, mostly with Asian customers. I bring along my family for extra stomach space and we order a range of items off the menu, some standard Chinese-American fare and some off the authentic side.

First up is the Sichuan wontons with red oil off the highly recommended appetizer section.

A small, oval plate with little dumpling-like wontons swimming in a red chili oil graces the table, which is covered in a sheet of white paper so messy eaters don’t grease up the otherwise pristine surfaces.

Despite the bright red color of the oil, the wontons are not at all spicy and instead activate the taste buds with subtle umami of pork. Juicy and wrapped in soft, delicate wonton wrappers that look like they’ve been steamed, these are an absolute treat. Plus they’re highly recommended by the restaurant.

We also order a hefty serving of vegetarian lo mein noodles (my dad’s favorite), a plate of moo goo gai pan for my sister, eggplant with garlic sauce, my personal pick, and a plate of the baby shrimp with tofu. All come out fairly swiftly and quickly decorate the table with beautiful hues of deep brown, green and red with dots of orange where pieces of carrot peek through.

Both the lo mein and moo goo gai pan, which can be found at Chinese restaurants around the country, are flavorful and satisfying, and the contrasting of flavors of fried, savory noodles pair well with the more subdued, salty notes derived from the chicken in the moo goo gai pan.

The baby shrimp with the tofu, a dish we’d never tried before, is also more on the mellow side. Cubed pieces of carrots and sliced green onion mingle with the blocks of silken tofu and the baby shrimps in a clear, slightly salty sauce that’s not unlike the sauce in the moo goo gai pan. It’s good, but a little too light in flavor for my mom.

The star of the table? The eggplant with garlic sauce. A favorite of mine since I discovered it at the Sichuan fixture in Carrboro, Gourmet Kingdom, the dish is as good as I remember it. Plump and silky asymmetrical cuts of Chinese eggplant (softer and with a thinner skin than Italian eggplant), are coated in a delicious, smoky, slightly vinegary soy sauce-based gravy and garnished with long slivers of green onion. It’s hard to say whether it’s the texture or the flavor that makes the dish but it’s a knockout and my family’s favorite besides the wontons at the beginning of the meal.

While we only ended up ordering a few picks from the authentic portion of the menu, other customers in the renovated space, complete with dark wood flooring, could be seen ordering an array of items like the hot pots, some sort of noodle dish offered in a steaming pot, and what looked like the sauteed string beans. It’s exciting to know that this place exists; it’s like discovering that there’s a sequel to your favorite book coming out — there’s more to be discovered. The vast variety of Captain Chen’s Gourmet China will definitely keep us coming back and I encourage those who normally order the fried rice or beef with broccoli to peel back a layer and try something off their highly recommended Sichuan menu. And if you already do? Invite me next time.

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