Uncommon dishes from Northeastern China, plus strong kitchen execution, lend distinction to a new mom-and-pop shop in the Old North
N.E. Chinese Restaurant isn't just, well, any Chinese restaurant. It's a distinct little place, and as its name implies, this welcome establishment specializes in a type of Chinese food that isn't as well known in the States as Cantonese or even Sichuan cuisine: the fare of Northeastern China, aka Dongbei.
Once referred to as “Manchuria,” Dongbei is a region whose proximity to Russia and Korea is reflected in its dishes. This means ingredients such as cabbage, vinegar, potatoes and chilies often play a prominent role in the cooking.
That's evident on the restaurant's Chinese-specific menu, which is vastly more interesting than the menu it offers containing Chinese-American favorites. Also evident: This humble business occupying the former Secret Vessel space, which is slightly enlivened by lilac walls and bamboo shades, generally attracts patrons already familiar with its distinctive cuisine.
If you don't fall into that category, the prosaically worded English on the large, potentially baffling Chinese menu won't yield a wealth of information. For instance, it's hardly obvious that ordering something called “Cucumber, Dried Tofu, Cabbage, Bean Noodle Salad”($9) would result in a vegetarian powerhouse.
The meal-sized melange consists of fresh carrot and cucumber sticks, wispy noodles, cabbage and heft-supplying tofu-skin batons piled into an attractive stack. Garlic, chilies, vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce and cilantro give it a refreshing, spicy and dynamic edge.
The huge dish that arrives with an order of Sour Veg with Sweet Potato Noodle ($10) is a monochromatically tan stir fry that delightfully evokes fresh sauerkraut mingled with the kind of glass noodles found in japchae, a Korean classic.
Diners frustrated by the minimalist English prevalent on a menu rife with uncommon entries can find relief in an addendum of specialties illustrated with accurate color photographs. Indeed, the terrific Mixed Vegetable and Pork with Homemade Noodle ($14), an entree I recently heard was discontinued but hope is brought back soon, was as good — and as big — as it looked on that appendix.
An array of skillfully cut, raw vegetables such as carrot and cucumber sticks, purple cabbage and black “cloud ear” mushrooms, plus omelet-style eggs sliced into noodle-like strips, radiated around a serving plate like the spokes in a wheel. In the arrangement's hub were fat ribbons of bouncy and translucent house-made mung bean noodles, plus a smattering of tender, smoky, soy-sauced pork strips. Although almost a shame to disrupt the pretty presentation, the meant-to-be-shared salad begged to be blended with the sesame-and-garlic dressing served on the side.
The addictive Spicy Pork with Cilantro entree($13) is also highly recommended. It's a spicy, but not fiery, jumble of dried chilies, floral cilantro stems, garlic, scallions, plus super-tender pork strips seasoned with soy sauce and given a smoke-scenting stir fry.
Beef Noodle in Cold Broth ($9), a summertime special advertised in the restaurant's window, is a pleasant way to beat the seasonal heat. The handsomely arranged, substantial bowl of chilled soup is mostly vermicelli in a compelling, sweet-tart broth. Gilding the lily are garnishes that might've come from the ramen playbook: sesame seeds; hard-cooked egg; thin slices of cured beef; julienned cucumber; and sliced tomato.
Outsize stews designed to accompany family-style feasts — dining in groups is popular here — compose the bulk of the “Chef's Recommendations” section. One of the smallest and least expensive is a characteristically lusty, rustic and delicious dish called Spicy Chicken, Potato, Noodles ($18).
Roughly hacked pieces of bone-in bird, spuds and wheat pasta are joined by green peppers, chilies, carrots and onions in a rich and thick, soy-based broth energized by chilies, sichuan peppercorns, ginger and star anise. It takes some work to release the chicken meat from its gnarly bones but, like figuring out what to order from this restaurant's taciturn menu, it's worth the effort.