Chong Qing Cuisine & Hot Pot (5750-A Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-457-1994) sits in a strip mall that's seen better days. The massive parking lot is eerily empty despite several nearby stores. Entering the restaurant does little to dispel the misgivings of even the most happily curious eaters. A railroad-car-shaped room is peppered with prefabricated booths, tables, and a few choice nooks with precarious stairs (watch your step). The lack of décor is shocking even by Buford Highway standards.
The food, however, is alive with color, spice and variety. Chong Qing — which is not related to the Chong Qing in the Chinatown Food Court — specializes in Szechuan cuisine, a style of cooking most Atlantans stopped searching for on Buford Highway when chef Peter Chang landed in Marietta. It's an odd thing, really, that it's hard to find really good Szechuan on Buford Highway with the many Chinese establishments that line the corridor. The Szechuan you do find mostly falls into Little Szechuan territory: dumbed down and past its prime.
Chong Qing isn't dumbing down a thing. The restaurant has been open a little over a month according to our waitress, who seems to be the only waitress ever in the establishment. The young, attractive girl with the impeccably liquid lined eyes will do her best to help you out despite her limited English. She won't steer you away from dishes you may want to try. Want the home-style bullfrog or diced rabbit with pickled chili pepper or pork trotters with red dates? Have at it.
In fact, adventurous eaters will have plenty of ground to cover on the menu, which holds about 15 sections. The namesake hot pots come in categories: light soup pot, hot and spicy pot, and pot with spicy and light soup. At $4.95, the hot pots appear to be a good deal, but it adds up once you start choosing from the long list of vegetables, seafood, "meat and others," and soy products. You can make a meal of the hot pots, though there are more satisfying things on the menu — especially if you easily tire of dunking chicken claws into bland liquids and dipping them into a chalky sesame-paste-based sauce.
Sour and hot pork dumplings arrive in broth swimming with chilies, roasted peppercorns and chili oil. They're so tender the tangy filling spills out of the dumpling skins the moment they're plucked with chopsticks. Use a spoon. Meat dumplings in spicy sauce also arrive in a bowl, but these dumplings are flatter and firmer. Coat them with a slick of the spicy sesame-seed-laden sauce and eat them in one bite. They are worth a visit alone.
Triangles of homemade firm tofu are fried and mixed with slippery mushrooms, onions, bell peppers and a slightly piquant sauce. A massive bowl of flat noodles, dan dan style, are one of the better versions in Atlanta. The generous serving of the dan dan meat sauce is spicy and well-seasoned, but like most of the Szechuan dishes, not too much so. Confit-like chunks of Japanese eggplant coated in a sweet sauce balance out the more Szechuan peppercorn-heavy dishes such as the Anshun crispy chicken, a platter of a small piece of boneless chicken piled high with dry red chilies and aromatic peppercorns.
After a few visits where I sampled many of Chong Qing's dishes, it's evident this is no Tasty China. However, the food merits a solid B, making the odd little restaurant a welcome addition to the Szechuan-starved stretch of Buford Highway so many of us roam.