It’s so difficult to find good Chinese food around here that I pretty much gave up.
I’ve got my two go-to spots in Greensboro — Golden Wok for the fast-food, take-out style of American Chinese food and China Kitchen for a more refined vibe — and Sampan Chinese in Winston-Salem. But unlike divvy Mexican joints and taco trucks, which I’ll eagerly try and rarely feel wronged, hitting up an unknown Chinese restaurant around here seems to be more of a gamble than just about any cuisine in the area.
So when a reader that I really only vaguely knew swore by a Chinese place I’d never heard of, I leapt at the opportunity to try it, eager to find another venue to add to the list of even passable options.
“Let’s go,” I told Sam, a relatively recent transplant to Greensboro.
Not long after I found myself sitting with him and his girlfriend Katie and our mutual friend Erin at Captain Chen’s Gourmet China, a restaurant marked by a “Go. China” sign out front and that played the Doors as we ate.
Captain Chen’s is a Sichuan-style Chinese restaurant, meaning no General Tso’s chicken here — instead, there are dished with the numbing heat of signature Sichuan peppercorn and the flare of Chongqing, a sprawling inland metropolis that was considered part of the Sichuan province until about 20 years ago.
The food from this area of central-southwest China is known first for its heat, but also lighter dishes for balance, pork, more beef than in other parts of the country and ingredients like star anise and garlic. China’s largest river, the Yangtze, runs through the province, so fish is prevalent as well.
We ordered family style, trying to sample a variety of the cuisine and trusting Sam’s recommendations as the only returning customer at the table. Trying to accommodate a vegetarian in our midst, we ordered the classic mapo tofu that is known for its chili paste, but discovered it came with ground pork sprinkled on top. The rest of the items under the vegetable section weren’t much more promising — two explicitly say they come with minced pork, the restaurant was temporarily out of the lotus roots we tried to order and the stir-fried green beans came straight up without the benefit of other vegetables.
But Captain Chen’s excelled marvelously elsewhere. The shredded pork with home-style garlic sauce provided a much-needed counterbalance to several of the spicier dishes we ordered, including a delicious noodle soup with spicy braised beef and what we took for star anise making for a distinct flavor (see top image).
Sam and I dove into the Chongqing-style hot and spicy fish — tilapia, our server said, with what looked like red pepper flakes and Sichuan peppercorn delivering a numbing sort of sensation to our tongues but an otherwise mild heat. Katie and Erin looked on, somewhat bewildered by our gleeful sadism. The broth of the beef noodle soup wasn’t for the spice averse, but the fish came hot enough to really slow us down.
We tried other things too, including the pork belly with mashed garlic and the cucumber with mashed garlic appetizers, both of which we enjoyed but if you had to pick one, it’d be impossible not to go with the pork belly. We savored the green beans, which served as a counterweight to the gelatinous and also-hot mapo tofu.
We skipped the fried pork bungs — that’s pig rectum, y’all — with red chili peppers, figuring it’d be too much for a getting-to-know-you meal, but wondered aloud how the other Chongqing-style meals including two chicken dishes and boiled pork might compare. Pork proliferates on the menu, which also includes duck, shrimp, a few other tilapia entrees, fried chicken gizzards and at least one item recognizable to average American consumers: egg drop soup.
Sam said he enjoyed the pork ear in red chili oil last time through, and after thoroughly enjoying Captain Chen’s at his recommendation, I’m inclined to trust his judgment. I loved Chen’s, and not just because I had low expectations or enjoy trying new things. The good company helped, and I definitely recommend coming here with enough people to order a few dishes to share, but the real high point was the food.
Bombastic flavor and strong execution helped me fall for a subset of Chinese cuisine that I’ve never experienced before and might not have been inclined to like on first taste given its particularly strong and distinct characteristics. I’m sure some of you won’t, especially if you aren’t into spicy food.
Most of the items we ordered aren’t molded to white America’s palates in the same way that the Chinese dishes I grew up eating are. And while we didn’t order the pork bung, Captain Chen’s makes it easy to sample high quality, Sichuan-style fare without straying too far out of your comfort zone unless that’s what you want.
Captain Chen’s doesn’t just stand out among somewhat dismal Chinese food options in the Triad — it’s one of my new favorite restaurants, easily in the top tier of high quality and unique venues of any stripe. It proves once again that there’s plenty of overlooked but worthwhile places in the Triad, and that even after covering places like it for a few years, sometimes the readers still know best.
Visit Captain Chen’s Gourmet China at 3709 Battleground Ave. (GSO) or find it on Facebook.
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I should add that I love May Way Dumplings in Winston-Salem, but I didn’t mention it because they are so specialized that I put them in a separate category than full-on restaurants. But May Way is a must try.