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Tasty China even tastier

Peter Chang's second — or is it third? — coming

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Chinese chefs are notoriously nomadic, bouncing from one restaurant to the next without apparent cause, and nobody embodies this stereotype more than the enigmatic and wildly revered Peter Chang. When Chang popped up on the Atlanta restaurant scene at Tasty China (585 Franklin Road, Marietta, 770-419-9849) in 2006, food fiends went mad for his intoxicatingly ma-la (hot and numbing) Szechuan dishes. They'd suck air into their mouths to kill the burn and wipe their damp brows in between bites, only to return days later for more gastrointestinal masochism. But the chef suddenly left Atlanta just months later and landed somewhere in Tennessee. Or was it Washington D.C.? Virginia?

As they'd been doing for years, Chang devotees filled forums around the country with sightings and rumors about the chef's latest whereabouts. However, as soon as he appeared — poof! — he'd vanish. Chang's fugitive-like movements caught the attention of the New Yorker and the Oxford American, which published similar pieces about the mysterious and talented chef around the same time. The coverage only built his fans' fervor. Fanatics wanted to know: Where in the world is Peter Chang?

For now, the Wuhan, Hubei, native and former Chinese embassy chef is cooking in Marietta at his old stomping grounds, Tasty China. This time he promises to stay. He's even talking about opening a new restaurant in mid-October called Mr. Chang's, with a possible location on Powers Ferry Road near Rays on the River. Don't hold your breath, but Chang tells us (through a translator) that Mr. Chang's will be much larger and a tad fancier than Tasty China — and just as affordable. The menu will resemble the specials board near the entrance at Tasty China. Until then, you can join the growing ranks of Chang devotees at the bare-bones strip mall restaurant every day during lunch and dinner. Chef Chang is working both shifts.

All of Chang's greatest hits are permanent fixtures on Tasty China's menu. Many are much improved. The hot and numbing beef rolls aren't as sloppily rolled, which allows the shreds of beef, cilantro, shredded lettuce and other fillings to be enjoyed in one single bite without falling to pieces. The fish and silken tofu in chili oil still offers its signature spicy and sexy textures. Anything done Shan City style — try the chicken or shrimp — will have even the most devoted Southerners questioning their fried chicken and shrimp allegiances. Other dishes, like the dry-fried eggplant, have been tweaked. The texture is more battered onion ring than souped-up french fry.

New dishes from the specials board offer a bit of excitement for the regulars who've meandered through the menu countless times. Hot and numbing bean curd is piled into a mound that resembles lasagna in appearance and egg noodles in texture, with a little bit of ma-la thrown in to make your eyes and taste buds pop. A large covered earthenware vessel arrives packed with a multitude of mushrooms and tender pork spareribs; it's a milder flavor to which you may be accustomed, but still full of porky and earthy goodness. Fried slices of pork belly arranged on a plate with homemade buns slightly golden from a quick pan-fry are like Chang's ode to a fried pork chop sandwich, except it's about a hundred times more sinful. The best dish, however, is the smoked chicken and sun-dried tomato beggar's purses, which are fried to a crisp and served with a dark, indiscernible dipping sauce. There are more dishes to explore, but one thing is clear: Chang is upping the ante.

When asked what he had to say to his loyal eaters, Chang responded (and this is a rough translation): "I apologize to all the people that have had to travel around so much to taste my food. But now I am going to settle down and have a party with everyone and stay put." His wife added: "If the restaurant does well, we'll move all of our family here and make Atlanta our home." Keep your chopsticks crossed that they do.

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