When someone mentions the phrase “ma la”, what does that mean to you? If it sounds like a part of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s number, then you’d best stop reading and watch your copy of “The Sound of Music”. But if those four simple letters conjure images of oil slicked Dan Dan Noodles, prickly ash and the majesty of Sichuan province, then you almost certainly know the name Peter Chang.
As elusive as his food is delicious, the man is a legend in Chinese cuisine on the east coast. One needs only to read The New Yorker article from March 2010 to know just how devoted his fans are. With that in mind, imagine the excitement of the Atlanta blogosphere, when it was announced that Chang was settling down and opening his own restaurant in the city. At the end of 2010, it happened and my first time there was eye opening. In my subsequent visits, the spiciness and fiddly details have fluctuated in quality, but Peter Chang’s Tasty 2 is still a constant favorite.
What does this have to do with Charlottesville? Well, when I was invited to a wedding there, I immediately began research on the best local dining options. However, it wasn’t until I made it to the city that I remembered Chang’s plan to open a restaurant in Charlottesville. A little phone searching later, I found that Peter Chang’s China Grill had opened in March. This was all the information I needed; I knew where I was going for dinner on my first night in town.
With the guiding voice of my gps, it wasn’t hard to find Peter Chang’s China Grill but I was a little surprised at the location. Instead of the freestanding, rather hastily decorated location in Atlanta, the China Grill was at the corner of a strip mall and fairly inconspicuous. Location and décor are usually quite inconsequential to quality Chinese food, so I walked inside and was quickly shown to a table.
After playing the role of the patient diner, my drinks were delivered and my order was taken. I intended to see how my favorites from the Atlanta location compared to their more northerly counterparts, which meant starting with the peter roll.
The familiar texture of crispiness and greasiness was there, but I was surprised to find the first peter roll still slightly frozen in the middle. So much for the idea of all food being made fresh that day.
While waiting on a waiter to complain about the still frozen rolls, I began eating the next roll out of boredom only to find it near molten in the middle. Once I got past the searing heat, I was surprised at the smokiness of the filling.
I don’t remember the Atlanta versions being so potent with smoke flavor. It wasn’t a bad taste, it went quite well with the filling and sauce. These rolls were almost like a Chinese take on southern bbq, nice but unexpected.
Next up was an order of the hot & numbing beef.
Right away, the chewy texture and condensed flavor was excellent but I was disappointed in the chili and peppercorn punch. It wasn’t completely absent but almost too subtle to notice. I have a hard time believing that the Atlanta version, in a city that I often criticize for being too resistant to spicy food, was hotter and more numbing but that seemed to be the case.
Even with the missing “ma la”, I couldn’t get enough of the dry fried beef flavor.
More a Shanghai specialty than Sichuan, I still find it incredibly hard to pass up an order of soup dumplings.
However, this would have been a good time to start my hiatus.
There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the dumplings’ exterior. Some had a thick wrapper with a decent amount of unctuous broth inside, but the problem was finding one dumpling that wasn’t ripped. No matter how I tried it seemed like every dumpling ripped when lifted from the tray or they didn’t have any broth at all. I expected to find a puddle of broth under the steamer basket but there was nothing.
Hoping to end on a high note, I went straight for the throat with an order of Dan Dan noodles.
Tender noodles, a topping of stir-fried pork and peanuts, a blend of chili and vinegar for the sauce, there was just enough “ma la” to the dish to make everything work. It was still toned down compared to most of my Atlanta experiences but enough to give this Sichuan junky his fix.
I don’t know if I was expecting a carbon copy of Peter Chang’s in Atlanta, but I was disappointed in what his Charlottesville outpost had to offer. It was practically the same menu, word for word, but it seemed like the flavors, the spiciness, and the numbing had been toned down if not completely eliminated. Of course, this may be an indication of the Charlottesville palate, or maybe the Chang magic didn’t travel well this time. Regardless, I have no plans to revisit Charlottesville so it looks like I’ll just have to make do with the superior Atlanta option….poor me.
Peter Chang’s China Grill Address & Information