HALF SPICY, HALF FRAGRANT: The "original" hot pot can be divided into two broths for diners to cook with.
We've been waiting on a cold snap to venture back to Mr. Chen's Authentic Chinese Cooking, the restaurant inside Mr. Chen's Oriental Supermarket at University and Asher avenues. Visits during the warm weather months were always satisfying, but one of us would always say, "I bet this would hit the spot on a chilly day."
We've only been eating at Mr. Chen's for about a year, though it's been around a lot longer. We were late to the party, but we're making up for lost time, because we're convinced Mr. Chen's serves the best Chinese food in Little Rock, and maybe the best Chinese food in the entire state.
The decor is traditional. Wooden latticework fills the windows between private family-style tables. We don't ever forget we're eating in a dining room connected to a grocery store (its fluorescence is a glowing portal at the restaurant's entrance), but we ain't here for the ambiance. The food is the star of the show.
On this occasion, on a gray Sunday afternoon, we ordered the steamed buns the minute we sat down. We've learned they can sometimes take a while, but they're worth the wait.
The beverage selection is a playland, with choices such as Tapioca Milk Tea, Royal Milk Tea, Ginger Milk Tea and dozens of others. We tried the Taro Milk Tea ($3 for small), not knowing a thing about what we'd just ordered, which is part of the fun of eating here, especially if you're willing to try the more authentic dishes. It was purple and tasted like the milk after you've had Fruity Pebbles, which is to say it tasted delicious, though it probably would have been better after the meal.
Mr. Chen serves hot pots, pots of stock on a burner at the table accompanied by a platter of various ingredients that diners assemble and cook. Friends elsewhere swear by these, both for the communal experience and the flavor, and this is exactly the dish we had in mind for cold weather. (The hot pots are on a separate menu; ask the waiter for it.)
For our first hot pot, we were obliged to try the "original" ($12.99).
We ordered pan-fried dumplings ($4.95), too. Knowing full well we were ordering too much food, we nevertheless appeased our inner glutton and ordered a few Chinese-American classics: Orange Chicken ($8.95), Kung Pao Shrimp ($9.95) and, because we've thought about being vegetarian once or twice, the Sizzling Tofu ($8.95).
The dishes came out in rapid succession and in ample portions that were very much a value for the price. The steamed buns, which on this visit didn't take long at all, were light, and the pork inside was melt-in-your-mouth flavorful. The pan-fried dumplings were crispy but not dry. Then came the hot pot. A round lid was lifted from the middle of our table to reveal the burner. The waitress placed the pot on the burner and we were presented with, because we'd ordered the "half-and-half," two separate broths, one clear and fragrant and the other fiery red with chilies and rolling oil. The platter accompanying the hot pot included cabbage, mushrooms, prawns, fish cakes, herbs and a few other unfamiliar items. We carefully loaded up the soup and enjoyed the appetizers while the stock did the work. After a few minutes, we ladled the soup into our bowls and instantly understood why hot pots are comfort food. The original version was vibrant and delicious. The spicy version was even better, and we quickly realized we could control the heat of each bite with the amount of chili oil on our spoons.
We had no need for the entrees, but happily ate them. The Orange Chicken was just the right balance of crispy and tender, and small pieces of orange rind cooked in the orange sauce made for bright bites. The Kung Pao Shrimp dish, with diced zucchini and peanuts enhancing the sauce, was one of the best we've ever had. The Sizzling Tofu was the Chinese answer to fajitas. The tofu, its crisp outside giving way to a silky interior, was served with broccoli, carrots and onions in a rich sauce on a cast-iron plate. The entrees were accompanied by a generous bowl of steamed white rice that itself was subtly wonderful.
The wait staff was attentive and kept our glasses filled. They answered any questions we had and made us feel welcome even when we didn't know exactly how to order the hot pot or when we didn't know what a particular ingredient was. The total was a little over $60, and we'll have at least two more meals out of the leftovers. We could happily eat, the two of us, for less than $20.
The highest praise we can give to a restaurant is to say the food tastes like somebody's grandmother is back in the kitchen churning out plate after plate. Mr. Chen's earns that high praise. We don't know if there's a grandmother in the kitchen, but whoever is cooking is cooking with love.
Mr. Chen's Authentic Chinese Cooking
3901 S. University Ave.
At Mr. Chen's, the meat and seafood are fresh because the kitchen is attached to the supermarket. Typical Chinese go-to items (sesame chicken, pepper steak, etc.) are always ready in a hurry. At lunch, entrees are mostly $6.95 and come with an egg roll or spring roll and steamed or fried rice.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Credit cards accepted. Beer, wine and sake served.