With a restaurant population consisting mainly of fast food chains, we've never really thought of the Village Shopping center on South University to be much of a culinary destination, and upon first glance, the simple sign that hangs above the entrance to Mr. Chen's Asian Supermarket and Restaurant doesn't do much to change that idea. Don't let the faded and out-dated surroundings fool you, though: Mr. Chen's is one of the most exciting places to shop and eat in town.
The grocery section is almost overwhelming, with aisle after aisle of exotic foods, spices, cookware and a wall-long, well-maintained fish market. Stocked with live crawfish and blue crabs, huge slabs of grouper, tilapia, and catfish, and some out-of-the ordinary things like snails and conchs, this section alone makes the store worth a visit. The back wall boasts a varied, inexpensive selection of fresh produce, herbs, and meats that's sure to please any bargain hunter. Some of the delicacies, such as the fertilized duck eggs known as balut, are beyond our experience, but we found ourselves salivating at the whole roast ducks and piles of fruit.
In addition to the wonderland of ingredients and snacks that constitutes the grocery section of Mr. Chen's, the store also has a small, elegantly decorated restaurant. 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.
We always like to start our meal at any Chinese restaurant with an order of dumplings, which are available either steamed or pan-fried. At $3.95 for an order of eight, we thought it prudent to try both varieties. We're pretty picky about our dumplings, having eaten far too many limp and soggy versions, but these hit the spot. The steamed dumplings were firm, tightly wrapped, and packed with a savory pork mixture that had a nicely balanced flavor — and more importantly, held up to a vigorous dunk in the soy sauce and rice vinegar dipping sauce provided. The pan-fried dumplings were crisply seared; fans of either variety of dumplings will enjoy these.
We were less pleased with our second starter, a bowl of Seafood Hot and Sour soup ($4.95), which while loaded with flavorful shrimp and bits of crab was a touch too thick for our taste. A lighter touch with the cornstarch in the broth-based soup would have served it well.
The best deals on the menu are to be found at lunch, and we tried several. Each lunch special is served with a scoop of either fried or steamed rice and a tasty egg roll. Being enamored of all things cashew, we tried both the Cashew Chicken ($6.50) and the Cashew Shrimp ($6.95), both of which came with a light sauce of stir-fried cashews, mushrooms, and zucchini. This proved to be the backbone for the rest of the lunch specials we tried: cashews or peanuts, mushrooms, zucchini, and a tangy sauce. While this might sound like a recipe for boredom, it isn't — where the first two lunch specials we tried were savory and mild, the tender Kung Pao Beef ($6.50) we sampled on our second visit added a healthy dose of dried chili peppers to the mix and had us in a pleasant pepper glow by the end of the meal. Our last lunch special sampled, Sesame Chicken ($6.50) broke the mold completely, with breaded chunks of chicken in a sweet orange sauce.
We returned for dinner to try Chen's Crazy Spicy Chicken ($8.95), which we had to order based on name alone. The chicken in question was dusted with rice flour and fried crisp along with pieces of seitan (wheat gluten), scallions and more of those hot red peppers. It tasted like some of the best popcorn chicken we've ever eaten, but we thought it could have been spicier, at least as spicy as the Kung Pao Beef we had earlier. Wanting to try a noodle dish, we went for the Combination Lo Mein, a generous portion of firm noodles mixed with bits of beef, chicken, shrimp, and cabbage. The flavors and textures of the lo mein were executed perfectly, but we wished for a few more vegetables in the mix. Either of these dishes could be split between two people, adding to the value on this menu.
The best part of the Mr. Chen's menu is the huge variety of dishes on offer. Despite having eaten there multiple times, we've just barely scratched the surface of the menu, which includes things found on few menus in Arkansas — like jellyfish, stir-fried anchovies, crispy pig's ear, and several dishes that prominently featured the word "intestines." Foodies interested in unleashing their inner Andrew Zimmern could definitely stage their own "Bizarre Foods" meal at Mr. Chen's, while folks more used to tried and true mainstream items will be impressed with the high-quality versions of those dishes found here. On every visit, service was impeccable and friendly, and the food is served up so fast and fresh that you'll find yourself digging into a plate of something delicious before you know it.