- By Wyatt Williams For the AJC
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.