Several years ago, my wife and I were in State College, Pennsylvania, for a friend’s wedding. Tired after the long drive, we stumbled into a Chinese restaurant mainly frequented by Penn State students. I ordered the mapo tofu, which I had been getting for years from takeout joints. It came out, floating delicately in a ring of bright red chile oil, and I took one unsettling bite. What is this? I wondered. Although recognizable as the old dish, there were strange new dimensions: the deep funk of fermented black beans, the faintly citrusy aroma, and even more mysteriously, the tingling numbing quality that spread across my mouth and throat.
What I was having, it turned out, was the dish as it is actually supposed to be prepared. It was bizarre and intoxicating, and after I moved past my initial confusion, it was completely, addictively delicious. We had just taken our first bite of real Chinese food—specifically, a classic Sichuanese-style dish. Sichuanese, one of the four great culinary styles of China, is generally marked by its love of spice, including the distinctively numbing Sichuan peppercorn. One taste left me utterly captivated, but I had no idea how to experience it again. Little by little, though, authentic Chinese food has begun to arrive in Cincinnati. There are a number of places where you can eat extraordinarily well for very little money and broaden your sense of what Chinese food actually is. If you can get to West Chester, I would begin your explorations with Great Tang.
Although the menu features classic dishes in every style, the specialty at Great Tang is the refined coastal cuisine of Zhejiang. In Land of Fish and Rice, author Fuchsia Dunlop describes cooks from this area as favoring “gentle tastes, which are described in Chinese by the beautiful term qing dan…. The word combines the two characters for ‘pure’ and ‘light’ and expresses a mildness of taste that refreshes and comforts, restoring equanimity to mind and body.”
In short, Great Tang is likely to appeal to most American palates while still revealing the breadth of Chinese culinary tradition. And if you like spice, you can get still the Sichuanese and Hunanese classics.
The gentler side of Great Tang is best enjoyed in its weekend dim sum, where carts circulate with stacks of bamboo steamers filled mostly with dumplings: opaque, glutinous, or lightly translucent, with a focus on flavor of the fillings themselves. The main condiment is black vinegar, a rich and malty-sour brew placed in old empty sriracha bottles, a few drips adequate to wake up each piece, with a bit of chile oil if you like. My favorite piece of dim sum had the unglamorous name “pan fried turnip cake,” which had a magically firm-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, polenta-like consistency with a crispy sear and the mingled flavors of pork and shrimp. The lovely and unusual mixture of meaty undertone and fishy roundness is a mark of many of the best dishes in Great Tang’s dim sum.
On weekdays, the regular menu is an astonishing 24 pages long, with the American Chinese dishes at the back. Even after several meals, I am still just beginning to explore the authentic section. Although Great Tang has its specialties—from Zhejiang and Sichuan, mainly—our server kindly pointed out that one dish of noodles was characteristically Cantonese, another from Hunan, and so on. All I can say is that they were all totally wonderful.
One dish will hint at the surprises in store for people who, like me, are mainly used to Chinese takeout: the lovely Xian cold noodle. The dish is exquisitely layered: the creamy and nutty undertone of what I think is sesame paste, mixed with notes of tang and spice, topped with the bright pop of cilantro. The combination of textures is also delightful, with crunches of cucumber and sprouted mung and the softness of the flat noodles. And that tofu! It was wonderfully meaty, with dense layers, substantial and satisfying as a counterpart to the noodles, utterly unlike the firm or silken varieties available for sale in America.
Almost every dish showed me some dimension of Chinese cuisine that I’ve never encountered before, from the intensely briny sourness of the fish fillet in a pickled cabbage soup to the tangy-spicy sauce on the cartilaginous pig’s ear, with its numbing Sichuanese quality. Be as brave as you are in the mood to be. You don’t have to order the bullfrog or the pig’s ear (this wasn’t my wife’s first choice), but ask for some suggestions and prepare to be astonished.
Great Tang is, in some ways, clearly focused on its Chinese clientele, so for example, specials at the door are only in Chinese, and going for dim sum can frankly be overwhelming. Still, the staff was always patient and accommodating, giving suggestions and attempting to decipher my fumbling questions about Hangzhou versus Yangzhou (I am still working on distinguishing between the various tones of Mandarin).
The scope and strangeness of this tradition is dizzying for newcomers; there’s just so much to understand. But from the echoes that reach me in English translations of the ancient Chinese poets, or the mysterious tingling symphony in that bite of mapo tofu, I know that there is something here too deep and wonderful to miss. Go at your own pace, but make sure you go. This is probably the best Chinese food in Cincinnati.
Great Tang, 7340 Kingsgate Way, West Chester, (513) 847-6097