Be ready for a food adventure at Grace Garden

I wish I could take credit for discovering Grace Garden, but I'm just happy to be able to tell about it now. It is the quintessential off-the-beaten-path, hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant that chowhounds, foodies, the Sandbox (the gang over at Dining@Large) and other assorted mavens dream about finding.

And they have. Chef Chun Keung Li's restaurant has been a pilgrimage for insiders for some time, and I admit to having read and absorbed some of the praise (the pork belly! those fish noodles!) that's been heaped upon it. In fact, when we finished ordering, the waitress said, "You've been reading the Internet."

Grace Garden operates with both an Eastern, or traditional, menu, and the Western, or Americanized, menu (General Tso, kung pao, lo mein, etc.). Here, diners are handed the Eastern menu and have to know to ask for the Western one. This is the opposite of every other restaurant I've ever been to that does it both ways, and I really loved that gesture. I'm not an authenticity snob. I love good, clean versions of Americanized Chinese food. But I like a good dining adventure, too, and I found Grace Garden's level of cuisine to be pitched at the perfect level - adventurous but still accessible to a Western palate and sensibility.

Yes, there's that pork belly, along with such other rarely seen menu items as smoked tea duck, sea cucumber, mini octopus, tripe and quail. Yes, heads are left on the shrimp, and on whole chickens, too. But the flavors and textures are uniformly gettable. Any kid would love those big, fat, slurpy fish noodles, which are made from ground fish. But tossing them with mushroom, cilantro and slivers of Chinese sausage makes them into something triumphant.

A few things are instantly and ridiculously pleasurable. Salt & Pepper Squid has a crunchy, savory and just slightly sugary coating that reminded us of the fried dough you get at carnivals. Usually, sweetness in Chinese dishes is off-putting, but not here. Not in the crispy fried eggplant dish, which is a big heaping plate of coin-purse-sized treats.

Located in an old strip mall near Fort Meade, Grace Garden is plenty plain inside. But there are three tables for 12 outfitted with Lazy Susans. I advise showing up with five or six other good eaters and ordering as much as you can afford. (Grace Garden has a very helpful and well-organized Web site, gracegardenchinese.com, that you should consult before you visit.) There are no appetizers or soups on the Eastern menu, so, having arrived famished, we ordered some egg rolls. They were good but we needn't have bothered, because very soon after, the first dish came out - those fish noodles - and other dishes continued to come out as they were prepared. We ate until we were all very full, and then kept eating. (Portions are generous.)

The Szechuan pork belly, stir-fried with leeks and bell peppers, is a fat-lover's fantasy. So much beautiful flavor from something so plain looking. Basil chicken, a crossover from the Western menu, was a table favorite. This was a dish in perfect balance, robust and aromatic, and it hits you instantly that it's fundamentally superior to similar dishes elsewhere. Folding a few familiar dishes like it into your choices is a good idea.

We found a few things that we didn't adore. The lightly fried pocket tofu had good flavor but a texture that not all of us took to. A plate of wok-fried quail was left virtually untroubled. It had a flavor we couldn't quite place. Then again, that's part of the fun. On return trips, we have more to look forward to: whole fish, either steamed or sauteed; twice-cooked, steamed or sauted pork; steamed or marinated whole chickens; and the Szechuan triple treasures - beef tongue, tripe and tendon, served chilled. We're ready.

grace garden
Where: 1690-A Annapolis Road, Odenton

Call: 410-672-3581

Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday. Note: Grace Garden will be closed Jan. 5-7.

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, Amex

Food: ****

Service: *** 1/2

Ambience: **

Entrees: $8.95-$27.95

Appetizers/sides: $1.19-$8.95

on the menu
Salt & pepper squid: $12.95

Fish noodles: $20.95

Basil chicken: $10.95

Wok-fried quail: $13.95

Szechuan pork belly: $11.95

Crispy eggplant: $9.95

Pocket tofu: $12.95

Chinese doughnut holes: $2.99