Years ago, we started hearing whispers about Grace Garden. It was said the restaurant was turning out some of the region's best, most authentic Chinese food, all from a small space in a run-down strip mall across from Fort Meade.
This year, Grace Garden celebrates its 10th anniversary. The restaurant is still in that same inauspicious location — and it's still heralded as the home of the Baltimore-area's best Chinese meals.
As our recent visit confirmed, Grace Garden deserves every ounce of the praise.
Scene & Decor Grace Garden's charm is culinary, not aesthetic. Both outside and in, it looks more like a run-of-the-mill carryout joint than one of the region's top restaurants. Neon signs glow in the windows, lighting the narrow front sidewalk. Inside, photos of food and framed articles are hung haphazardly on the walls.
But the decor is not the point. When we arrived, around 6 on a Monday evening, only a couple of Grace Garden's tables — all large and round — were full. By the time we left, every table was occupied and in the back of the room, a group of what appeared to be food-loving colleagues with their families continued to grow. The place is popular not for how it looks, but because of what happens in the kitchen.
Appetizers After choosing a table, we were presented with two menus: one stocked with traditional Chinese dishes and one including familiar Chinese-American options.
Our meal started with a bang. Steamed dumplings ($6.95), ordered from the American menu, were slippery and tender, with centers stuffed with ground meat. Swimming in dark sauce that started sweet and finished with sneaky heat and topped with chopped scallions for bright crunch, the dumplings indicated that Grace Garden's kitchen takes even simple Americanized appetizers seriously.
Entrees According to Xiu Mei, who owns Grace Garden with her husband, chef Chun Keung Li, few diners order the Triple Treasures ($16.95), a complicated dish of eggplant, tofu and bell peppers stuffed with shrimp and cooked in spicy black bean sauce.
That's too bad; the dish showed off the kitchen's chops. Each element was carefully seasoned and cooked. The eggplant, breaded and fried, was tender and earthy; large squares of tofu were slightly crispy on the outside and pillowy in the center. The peppers, stuffed with balls of minced shrimp, were sweet and spicy. And the sauce, tying it all together, was smooth and fabulous.
A bowl of braised beef tendons and bits of beef ($15.95), served in a spicy, meaty brown sauce with Sichuan roots, was enormous and exciting. The tendons were fairly tender, though still chewy. The texture isn't for everyone, but the connective tissue had an intense beefy flavor that was worth a bit of extra effort.
Instead of white rice, we ordered the Yang Chow fried rice ($11.95), a large serving of lightly fried rice tossed with small shrimp, cubes of ham and bits of scallion. Even on its own, it was lovely, cooked well and packed with flavor.
The menu includes a handful of dishes that must be ordered in advance. After spying another table's smoked tea duck — a whole smoked duck, which requires three days of notice — we vowed to make sure we called ahead before our next visit. The duck looked gorgeous and must have tasted even better. The people at the table devoured it.
Drinks Grace Garden does not serve alcohol and the owners do not encourage BYOB. We made do with water, though by the end of the meal, we wished we had ordered tea, after we spotted pretty teapots on a nearby table.
Dessert A giant helping of small, freshly fried rounds of sugar-dusted dough ($4.95) were a hot, sweet way to end the meal.
Service During our visit, only one person worked the entire dining room. She was obviously busy, so we forgave the empty water glasses and slight lag as we waited for the check.
At that point, we were so sated that a few extra minutes of sitting was welcome. Plus, we could see that her focus was getting food to everyone. The food, throughout our meal, arrived quickly and steaming hot.
The space might not be fancy and the post-meal service might slip, but at Grace Garden, the cuisine is the priority. And that works.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Anne Arundel