Posted 16 July 2010 - 05:55 AM
A few months ago, I was wondering whether Howard County had much Chinese food worth eating.
I know people love their local joints, but average Chinese does little for me. Heavy sauces. Chopped up meat. Limp broccoli with the General Tso's chicken. I love Grace Garden in Odenton and enjoyed myself at Hunan Taste in Catonsville. But my old standard Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro was the only Chinese closeby that had drawn me back.
My tastebuds and my email say that I was wrong.
Red Pearl opened on the Columbia lakefront in May, and it drew me in with a menu of authentic Sichuan food. Last Saturday, we went for lunch and ordered across the menu -- kung pao from the "authentic" menu, a stirfried noodles with seafood from the standard menu, and a Chinese broccoli in garlic sauce from the specials.
This was a surprising hit. The broccoli was tender, but still crisp with a sauce that clung to the green but wasn't heavy at all. The kung pao was spicy, but tasted of ginger as much as it tasted of hot peppers. And the noodles may have been my favorite -- tender noodles crisped up on a wok and then mixed with shrimps, scallops and huge chunks of fish. The fish fillets were cooked beautifully. The focus really came from the seafood. We gorged at lunch, then had two lunches -- plus some extra broccoli that I snacked instead of having dessert on Sunday night.
On top of my meal, Red Pearl has been getting some raves from other folks. People have recommend potstickers with hot oil and flounder with soft tofu off the regular menu. The Minx of the Mix Eats blog had some authentic dishes along with Peking duck and crispy fried rockfish. And my real inspiration to visit was an acquaintance who wrote about how he had eaten Red Pearl's regular menu kung poa and then gone back for the same dish off the authenic menu: "The waiter repeatedly warned me about the spiciness. I assured him I was up for it. Well it was nothing like the American version with the gloppy sauce. The dish had lots of blackened dried pepper, ginger and other authentic ingredients. It was stir fried to smokey charred perfection with lots of flavor. The waiter warned me not to actually eat the dried peppers. I mostly followed his advice and the dish was complex and hot enough anyway. My mouth was numb at the end so I got the real experience. I can't go back to normal glop again."
Red Pearl isn't just a corner joint. This is a kitchen that wants to do something special. They put the authentic menu -- fully translated -- on every table. For now, I'll push that menu and the items, like the tea smoked duck, in comments to old posts. Our waiter warned us twice that the authentic kung pao was spicy, and he wasn't kidding. The dish had the chicken and peanuts of the kung pao I grew up on, but it had a drier texture and a spicier bite than those old dishes. But it's absolutely delicious, and I'm already thinking about how I want to go back again.
On top of it all, Red Pearl is bringing dim sum back to Columbia in August. We'll see how it compares to the Asian Court dim sum that sets the standard for now.