Years ago I heard something in a Chinese restaurant that changed my ordering habits. While all of the customers were eating crispy fried Sesame Chicken or General Tsao’s, the manager’s wife was eating rice porridge and a plate of steamed bok choy. She hurried to the counter to ring me up and I asked her, “You don’t eat Chinese food?”
She covered her smile with a polite hand and said simply, “This is American food. Not Chinese.”
It was a mini moment for me.
And by moment, I mean what if you want food that can speak to you in both English and Chinese seamlessly like a foreign exchange student? A menu that has Pineapple Fried Rice and Mapo Tofu? Firecracker Shrimp and Salt and Pepper Shrimp? Baoding is such a place.
Open since 1993 in a quaint shopping mall across the street from South Park, Baoding has proved that it has been able to find a way to attract and keep loyal customers. And yet if you mention South Park Chinese, you probably won’t have people guess Baoding. There is a beauty to that. It is a hidden gem.
There is a simplicity and refinement that happens in a kitchen that is confident in itself and is knowledgeable about its customers. The ordering process is insanely uncomplicated. Baoding has perfected guiding patrons to their own satisfaction. They list the sauce, the vegetables and aromatics that accompany it, and then the protein choices. There is little dawdling, no explanation necessary -you make a choice and, nine times out of 10, you are happy with it.
I met a friend for lunch. He had never been. Over my years of frequenting Baoding, I have tried nearly everything on the menu and yet we arrived at our choices (Garlic Chicken for him and Asian Chicken for me) around the same time. That equalizing between a first timer and a veteran speaks of the ingenuity of their menu.
The efficiency of their service is also of note. Servers moved around tables they had memorized with heads straight forward, eyes searching for where the next need could be met. In the entire restaurant there were no sounds of straws finding the bottom of the ice, gone was the philosophical dilemma of a half empty glass-they were instantly filled.
And the food? Instantly engaging when set down in front of you. Their presentation is spot on. And the colors and textures that they achieved only comes about from knowing how to cook to peak potential. Translucent slivers of onion glistened under the track lighting.
Carmine chilies were large enough to be plucked out with my chopsticks but I kept them in until the last second because they were beautiful. Scallions, mushrooms and chicken were flecked with black pepper. The heat was pleasurable, a buzz at the flanks of my tongue but what I instantly appreciated was the necessity of everything.
They did not add a seasoning for the sake of adding it, or a pile of vegetables to add cheap bulk to a dish. Everything felt proportionate, appropriate and well balanced. My companion called it clean. With their near perfect rating, of course that is a given, but those who have had a specific type of Chinese before will immediately know what he meant by it. The food felt light in your mouth with only flavor remaining after each bite.
My fortune cookie, the most American item that can be served at a Chinese restaurant, seemed to be correct, albeit a little late: “A pleasant surprise is soon in store for you!” Baoding itself is the surprise, with the consistency of their excellent service and accessible Chinese. If you are in the South Park area, just once, bypass Phillips Place for true Charlottean Chinese.