Eating is, at its very best, an epiphany. Those of us who care deeply about experience, and who revel in sensory memory, have all had moments of profound joy and understanding brought on by a meal or a flavor. Eating can be an act of sustenance, or of gluttony, or of boredom. But it can also be an act of love, of living, of revelation.
True moments like this, ones that are the impetus of obsessions, which define our tastes (and in some cases our careers), don't come along that often. I consider myself lucky if that flash of clarity and passion strikes me every year or two. The first time I bit into the soft yet crunchy sweet nuttiness of an authentic French almond croissant, the harmoniously savory spice of $3 chicken Shawarma on a cold San Francisco street, the surprising crunch of fig seeds within the dense chocolate of a flourless cake sitting in a small window-front restaurant in Brooklyn -- these are moments that define me. Time freezes for a second, the air seems to crackle in my ears. Newness! To have that experience multiple times in one restaurant is nothing short of a miracle.
It's a miracle made all the more miraculous because it occurs in a strip mall in Marietta. (Although, who are we kidding? I have often mused that when God finds me, it is usually in strip malls and thrift stores). Tasty China, which at first and second and third glance looks like every other suburban ethnic restaurant in America, hides a Chinese national treasure in its nether regions: chef Peter Chang.
Chang arrived in the United States in 2000 to cook for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. In China, he had held the head chef position at one of Beijing's highest-rated hotels. After leaving the embassy, though, Chang became notoriously fickle, staying at restaurants for only a few months at a time, leaving bereft diners and restaurant owners in his wake each time he moved on.
And now, he has moved on to Marietta. You don't have to search hard on the Internet to find legions of heartbroken D.C. diners plotting trips South to get one more taste of this guy's food.
Chang is a Szechuan chef, or as the blurb on the back of Tasty China's menu puts it, he is "a true JEDI of Szechuan style cooking." This is a cuisine that is distinct from other Chinese cooking styles, in part because the region is quite remote and surrounded by mountains. The cuisine is known for heavy spicing and liberal use of chilis. In some cases, the food has flavors that hint at curry, and this is no coincidence; Buddhist missionaries are known to have brought flavors and ingredients to the region from India, and the influence is unmistakable.
Chang has taken the cuisine, ramped it up, and made it his own. His cooking has a take-no-prisoners boldness to it, not just in terms of extreme heat, but also extreme flavor. It's shocking. It's a revelation.
Start with a plate of fish and coriander rolls -- delicate, cigar-shaped snacks comprised of white fish and cilantro enclosed in a wonton wrapper and fried. The cilantro, used here in a highly dense concentration, takes on a wholly new flavor, intrepidly playing off the comforting white fish to create a combination I'd be excited to eat in any restaurant in the world.
For dumpling lovers, the wontons in red chili oil are not to be missed. A soup dyed iridescent red from house-made chili oil holds delicate wontons that burst in your mouth and release a filling of savory pork laced with scallion and the freshest ginger.
Any dish on the menu that is labeled "hot and numbing" should be taken quite literally. Szechuan peppercorns are used liberally in these dishes, and they have the effect of numbing your mouth, almost as if you had dipped your tongue in battery acid. It's a strange sensation to say the least, but worth it in every respect for dishes like the hot and numbing beef roll appetizer -- a tantalizing combination of semi-dried beef slices, chilis, cilantro and Szechuan peppercorns wrapped in a rice flour pancake. Or, for the more adventurous, the hot and numbing rabbit cubes are intensely gamey and a little smoky, finished off with that tingling numb.
You will need help navigating this huge and unwieldy menu, and luckily help is readily available. Phuong, the capable, no-nonsense hostess who usually oversees the dining room, may try to steer you toward the Americanized section of the menu, but if you let her know that you are here for chef Chang's specialties, she will guide you in the right direction. "Number 5, is very good. Chicken," she says, pointing to the table menu, which is written only in Chinese. A plate of chicken arrives, a jumble of chilis and leeks, packing more flavor than seems possible.
There are so many dishes worth mentioning. The hauntingly satisfying smoked sesame chicken appetizer; the Szechuan beef entrees, some of them riddled with peppers, some of them so rife with cumin that they send your taste buds to a new planet; the sharp pepper fish, which arrives in a glass 9-inch pie dish, the top coated in a layer of red and orange peppers, hiding chunks of tender white fish and the silkiest tofu in a spicy, flavorful broth; the fried eggplant, coated in chili and draped in cilantro, with a smattering of Szechuan peppercorns, the exteriors crispy and lightly oily, the interiors sweet and creamy; green beans with pork and "old olives." The list goes on and on, and each visit becomes a struggle between reordering the dishes you have been craving since your last visit and forging on to find new favorites.
Could I lay it on any thicker?
In the midst of my rapture, I have to remind myself that I am a critic and not a love-struck groupie. There are caveats to all this adulation. This is not a pretty restaurant (who cares?). I am quite sure that Chang uses MSG liberally in his food. When MSG helps to make food taste like this, I am a big fan of the stuff, and I'm a little ambivalent about mentioning it at all because I am aware of its unreasonably bad reputation. But some folks don't react well, and for them, this place might be a problem. Know that most pork dishes, even the entrees, are made with pork belly. In other words, you will be getting a big plate of bacon (mmm ... bacon). Avoid the Americanized section of the menu. Until recently, the restaurant served a buffet lunch, filled with the same boring Chinese food available everywhere else, but for once good taste prevailed and the buffet became obsolete. They replaced it with more table seating.
Here is the most important warning: From 5:30 p.m. on Friday until closing time on Sunday, Tasty China is a complete madhouse. Unless you want to wait three hours for a table and then get service that would generously be referred to as spotty, do not go on the weekend. The area's Chinese community descends on the place, mayhem ensues, and as Phuong said to me on my first visit, "If you come after 5:30, we can't help you." It's not their fault if people adore them. I know. I'm making excuses. But I'm just a silly girl in love.
I prefer to visit on a weekday for lunch, when the drive up I-75 is a zippy 12 minutes from downtown, and Phuong has time to stop by and chat, to make suggestions, and to laugh as your eyes pop from your head and smoke comes out your ears.
"Too spicy, huh?" she asks, shaking her head at your foolhardiness.
"No, no, no, we love it," we reply. "Bring more, please bring more."
Time freezes for a second. The air crackles in my ears. These are the moments that make it all worthwhile.