Close your eyes. Think of Chinese food. Conjure up the tastes, sights and smells in your imagination.
If the scene in your head includes General Tso’s chicken, little packets of duck sauce, and a happy Buddha made of fake jade, then 26-year-old Lan Chen wants to change that.
“I want people to know Chinese food isn’t just about sesame chicken,” says Chen, who opened the restaurant Captain Chen’s Gourmet China last year on Battleground Avenue. The restaurant specializes in food from Sichuan and Chongqing, which is known for being very spicy and flavorful.
The sign in the front window proudly advertises “The First and Only Authentic Chinese Restaurant in Greensboro.” Authentic, of course, is the keyword.
Chen began the restaurant with his wife Yoyo to fill a void they first felt as students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Like most college students, they wanted home cooking. But in their case, that cooking came from the other side of the world.
Lan Chen was born in Sichuan and his mother immigrated to the United States from China when he was 16, moving to Raleigh at 18. Yoyo came to Greensboro as a college student from Beijing.
Sometimes they would be the only Asian in their classes. They searched the Triad for food experiences that reminded them of authentic Chinese food but they mostly found Chinese restaurants catering to American tastes, which meant lots of frozen food fried and drowned in overly sweet sauces.
“We were looking for food from home,” says Lan Chen.
He met more Chinese students and realized they were having to drive all the way to Raleigh for authentic cooking like he remembered in Sichuan. He looked around Greensboro and thought “If you want to eat something you need to do it yourself.”
Chen, who studied Business Administration at UNCG, knew he wanted to own his own restaurant business. Being in Greensboro gave him the chance to see the opportunity and seize it
He says, laughing with Yoyo, that their plan was to “start with authentic Chinese food and in three months if it doesn’t work we’ll just serve sesame chicken.” (Sesame chicken is not currently on the menu.)
Sichuan province is famous throughout China for its unique blend of spicy sauces, featuring hot chili oil - what Yoyo calls “the soul of Sichuan cooking” - and Sichuan peppercorns, which create a tingling, zesty sensation quite different but related to the standard American black pepper.
What makes Gourmet China different? For starters, don’t look for those little plastic packets of duck sauce.
Every sauce is homemade. Every ingredient bought fresh. They use seasonal ingredients. They encourage homestyle dining, with everyone at the table sharing their food.
The menu features famous dishes from Sichuan and Chongqing, such as double-cooked pork belly and shredded pork with garlic sauce. Many of the dishes, including a soft and flaky fish cooked in Chongqing-style spicy broth, appear in flavorful red pools of chili oil broth mixed with aromatic garlic and whole hot red peppers.
The cooks at Captain Chen’s Gourmet China use many steps to draw flavor from their ingredients. Much of the meat is cooked on the bone in order to draw out more flavor. They use what Lan Chen calls “living” meat - thighs and other parts of the body used by the animal in daily life that gives it a tender, juicy texture different from bland chicken breasts.
Surprising side dishes like cucumber with mashed garlic and pan-cooked strings of potatoes create mellow, deep counterpoints to spicy entrees.
Because many of their core diners are from China, authenticity can also mean unfamiliarity. Some of the ingredients on the menu might be exotic to Americans looking for General Tso. Chicken feet and pickled pork ears appear on the menu, right above chicken stir-fry.
“People have to have an open mind,” says Yoyo.
Lan says they’ve personally filtered the menu to items they enjoy. “We only put what we personally like in the menu,” says Chen. “I don’t want people here to have food they’re not interested in.”
One difficulty with sharing food from their birthplace is finding the right ingredients. Markets in Chongqing are very different than markets in the United States, and replicating dishes means having to find the same quality and consistency here that you find there with ingredients that might be rare.
Chen’s sources for rare Chinese ingredients such as lotus root are Greensboro international markets like Super G Mart (4927 W Market St), and Li Ming’s Global Mart (3703 W Gate City Blvd).
He also has personal relationships with food distributors at Han Feng, a leading Chinese restaurant supplier with a center in Greensboro.
That personal engagement is part of what brings another level of authenticity to Gourmet China. Instead of a fake jade Buddha, Lan has decorated the cash register with his toy collection. Over the cash register hangs an autographed pendant for Inter-Milan, his favorite soccer team.
On the sound system isn’t traditional Chinese classical music but instead it’s whatever the wait staff is listening to -- David Bowie, Pink Floyd, different K-pop groups. It’s music that lots of young professionals listen to.
In a time when the Greensboro City Council is studying how to keep entrepreneurial and smart college students in town after they graduate, it would be a great idea for them to pull up a chair at Gourmet China and see how two successful UNCG grads have made Greensboro home by creating a space to share. For Lan and Yoyo Chen, the keyword is authentic.