One night at Northern China Eatery, I happened to notice my friends were the only people speaking English.
Over in a corner, a couple chattered over cups of oolong tea. At a round table, a group of teenagers was gossiping and slurping on hot pot under a paper lantern. The waitress, who had listened to my order in English while casually writing it down in Mandarin, was talking with the kitchen.
I became slightly self-aware of our presence, the table of monolingual Americans drinking lager and waiting on dumplings, the only people in the joint who couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin. That’s when the teenagers started singing “Happy Birthday” in English at full volume. I guess some things just can’t be translated.
The menu at Northern China Eatery probably will make you consider the limitations of translation, too. What does “homemade sauce w/ pork noodle” specifically mean? What flavor is flavored pig ear supposed to be? Should anyone actually order a dish called Chong Ching Spicy Chicken? Is that supposed to be some kind of bad joke?
I am here to tell you that you should order the Chong Ching Spicy Chicken. When the plate arrives, a bed of shredded napa cabbage will be topped with slightly greasy but decidedly fiery chunks of dry fried chicken studded with dozens of bright red chiles. After a taste, you may recognize the name is a phonetic transliteration. The dish you’re eating is better known as Chongqing chicken, so named for the city in southwest China.
Enough of that heat and you’ll want something to cool you off. How about a Tiger Salad? That sounds fierce, right? On the contrary, it is a cool chopped mix of cilantro, cucumber and scallion, a crunchy green relief.
Northern China Eatery doesn’t observe any strict rules about regional cuisine, but you should know the arid northern regions of China grow more wheat and less rice. The carbs here are all about dumplings and buns.
I’ve seen some talk about xiao long bao served here, the soup buns called ShangHai Juicy Buns on the menu, but I can’t recommend them. Every time they arrived at my table, the wrappers were oversteamed and busted, missing the crucial burst of hot soup.
Much better were the fried pork and chive dumplings, which arrive golden brown and crispy on one side, sticky soft on the other. Same goes for the variation with shrimp. Doused in the black vinegar or chile oil kept on the table here, these make an addictive pairing with cold lager. (You’ll have to bring that yourself.)
The menu is very long, somewhere around 200 options, but that doesn’t mean everything is available. I’m still waiting to try the bitter melon salad or the sweet bean paste buns.
Some dishes are fine but forgettable, like a too mild serving of mapo tofu or the noodles with “homemade sauce,” a bland mushroom brown sauce that reminds of me of thick hot and sour soup without the hot or sour. The hot pots, served laden with cabbage and chiles, are generous in size but don’t have the rich depth of good stock.
Those hundreds of options do contain some surprising delights, though. The cold dan dan noodles come with a bowl of sauce that tastes like hot chiles and peanut butter. The skewers of barbecue lamb pack a big cumin punch. Those flavored pig ears happen to be little slices, both gelatinous and crunchy, of funky umami, fermented soy richness.
At my most recent lunch, I was about to leave when I noticed a couple of older ladies who waved the menu away entirely and instead interrogated the waitress in Mandarin. Seemingly satisfied with her answers, they ordered. I stuck around and drank my tea. What would you get if you didn’t have to bother with the translations? They got the dumplings. You should, too.
Northern China Eatery
Overall rating: 1 of 4 stars
Food: dumplings, buns and hot pots
Service: friendly but limited
Best dishes: pork and chive dumplings, barbecue lamb skewers, fish hot pot, Chong Ching Spicy Chicken, Tiger Salad
Vegetarian selections: noodles and vegetable dumplings
Price range: $
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays-Sundays; closed Tuesdays.
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Address, phone: 5141 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-458-2282.
SAME CUISINE, MORE OPTIONS
A departure from many of the street food-oriented Taiwanese restaurants in town, Bento Cafe has earned a loyal following of those looking for truly authentic, home-style cuisine. Make sure to try the pork dumplings or any of the myriad fried treats like fish balls. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays. 5495 Jimmy Carter Blvd, Norcross. 770-300-9798, bentocafe.com. $
After Taiwan spent the first five decades of the 20th century under Japanese rule, the influence of that country on Taiwanese cooking still can be found today. TJ House specializes in just this style of cooking. The pork with bamboo shoots is not to be missed, as well as the tea-smoked duck or the pork and tofu with spicy sauce. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays. 3780 Old Norcross Road, Duluth. 470-545-0431, tjhousega.com. $-$$
Kan Pai Cafe
Specializing in the street food of Taiwan, Kan Pai Cafe is a great spot to try a wide range of small plates. It’s also a great spot to bring friends and share. Make sure you don’t skip the sweet and salty Taiwanese sausage. And, if you are feeling particularly adventurous, try the glutinous meatball, a ball of stewed beef wrapped in tapioca flour dough and topped with chili sauce. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. 3466 Holcomb Bridge Road, Norcross. 770-840-8999, kanpaicafe.com. $