Mr. Chen's Asian Supermarket and Restaurant isn't much to look at from the outside, nestled in the tired and out-dated Village Shopping Center on South University, but don't let the simple sign and boring facade fool you: this is one of the most exciting and interesting places to shop and eat in the city. The main grocery part is large and almost overwhelming at first, with aisle after aisle of exotic condiments, spices, snacks, and cookware — and that's even before you make it back to the well-stocked fish market that takes up the entire left side. Live crawfish and blue crabs are available for purchase, and huge slabs of grouper, catfish, and tilapia are all iced down over tanks holding more fish swimming live. On my last visit there, the fish section was piled with fresh prawns larger than my thumb and some the freshest snails, clams, and conchs I've ever seen offered in the state. The entire back area of the store is taken up with produce, and bargain hunters would do well to take a look at some of the fresh herbs and vegetables here. Some of the delicacies, such as balut (fertilized duck eggs) and durian (the legendary smelly fruit) were intriguing but beyond my experience, while the whole roast ducks and packages of frozen quail were perfect for my tastes.
In addition to the wonderland of ingredients and cookware that constitutes the grocery section of Mr. Chen's, the store also has a small, but elegantly decorated restaurant located immediately to the left as you enter the store. Like the grocery section, the restaurant's offerings are diverse, reasonably priced, and extremely fresh — and served up quick enough to make an hour-long lunch break seem a lot longer.
At my most recent meal at Mr. Chen's, we started with a platter of eight Steamed Dumplings ($3.95). I'm pretty picky about my dumplings, having eaten far too many limp, soggy, apathetic versions in my time, but these hit the spot. The texture of the wrapper was firm and tight, and the dumplings were packed with a savory pork mixture that had a nicely balanced flavor — and more importantly, held up to a vigorous dip into the soy and rice vinegar sauce served to the side. The Seafood Hot and Sour Soup ($4.95) wasn't quite as successful as the dumplings, because while we were pleased with the amount of shrimp and other seafood bits in the soup, we felt that the broth was a touch too thick and could been prepared with less corn starch.
My dining companion decided on the Cashew Chicken, one of 22 lunch specials on the menu ranging from $6.50-$6.95. The special came with a generous helping of tender chicken loaded with cashews and stir-fried zucchini, a large scoop of fried rice, and an egg roll. The egg roll and rice were nothing out of the ordinary, but the chicken was quite good, and we were pleased to discover that it wasn't overpowered by the tangy sauce. The portions were large and tasty enough to make this one of the better lunch values I've come across.
For my own entree, I couldn't pass up Chen's Crazy Spicy Chicken ($8.95) based on the name alone. Upon getting the dish, I realized that this was meant to be eaten by two people. Being a glutton, I didn't let this bother me one bit and ate it all myself. The chicken in question were small bits of rice-flour dusted and deep fried chicken that tasted like some of the best popcorn chicken I've ever had. Mixed in with the chicken were crispy fried bits of wheat gluten (which tastes a lot better than it sounds), scallions, and a healthy dose of dried red chili peppers. And while I'll put this down as one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten, I could have honestly done with a little more crazy spice, although I did have a bit of sweat on my forehead by the time I was done.
The best part of the Mr. Chen's menu is the sheer amount of food offered. My recent lunch barely scratched the surface of what's available, with dishes ranging from traditional favorites like beef and broccoli and sesame chicken to more unfamiliar (to me, at least) things like stir-fried anchovies and a spicy pork intestine hot pot. In addition to the food, there's also a large selection of Asian coffee and tea drinks that's sure to entice any hot or cold beverage fan. The most attractive thing about the menu is that everything is so incredibly fresh, fast, and delicious — and nothing is priced higher than about $12.95. The restaurant and grocery are open until 9 p.m. daily, and they accept all major credit cards.