Chances are you haven't had Chinese food. Fried rice, egg drop soup and Kung Pao Chicken? That's Americanized Chinese, a cuisine created and adapted by Chinese immigrants to appeal to American tastes (especially our love for salt and sugar) that's almost impossible to find in China. Lisa Zhang, the chef and co-owner of Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co., is a Chinese immigrant herself who wants to appeal to a broad audience. But rather than alter a cuisine with thousands of years of history and dozens of regional varieties, she's picked from it selectively in hopes of winning over crowds who probably only know Americanized Chinese.
A not-so-bold prediction: She's going to be successful. Her restaurant represents a concept unique to Arkansas, yet familiar and accessible enough to appeal to diners who're reluctant to try new things. The menu helps the uninitiated. It's as stripped down as you'll find. There are three options for entrees: wheat noodles ($7.79), dumplings ($8.69) and buns ($7.49). Three options for toppings: chicken, pork and tofu with veggies. And three options for sides: cabbage slaw ($1.49), carrot slaw ($1.49 or $2.79 if you get both kinds of slaw) and taro chips ($2.19).
It didn't take long for us to try everything. And then try it again and again. You should do the same, too, because there's not a bad bite.
The pork bun especially stands out. Think of it as a jumbo Asian barbecue sandwich. The bun itself is thick, pillowy and fairly dense and as big as a large hamburger bun. The dough is made in house, then it's steamed rather than baked, sliced in half and pan-fried to make the bottoms of the buns slightly crispy. On top of that goes braised, shredded and marinated pork, Chinese pickles, lettuce and your choice of spicy and mild sauces. If you can tolerate the heat of Louisiana Hot Sauce, go with spicy. It's gentle heat. (In fact, we wouldn't mind an extra spicy option.) All that together makes for a decadent flavor bomb that's earned a place in our pantheon of the most delicious sandwiches in Arkansas. If you're craving something lighter, the chicken is almost just as good. It's marinated in the same secret sauce (our guess: vinegar, garlic and more). Ditto for the tofu.
The dumplings will likely also be relatively familiar to most diners, though perhaps most are used to seeing them fried. That's an option here that we're not especially anxious to try. We don't believe frying makes everything better. Besides, how could these handmade steamed dumplings be better? A key to getting the most out of them is taking the sauce that comes with them — again, if you can tolerate any heat whatsoever, go with the spicy option — and pouring it over your dumplings and then turning them over in the bowl in which they're served until they're fully covered. It's difficult for us to pick a favorite among the protein options, though on meatless days, its hard to think of comfort food more satisfying than the vegetarian dumplings with tofu, bok choy and Shiitake mushroom stuffed inside.
The hand-stretched Wuhan-style wheat noodles, a popular street food in central China, come in big bowls, tossed in your choice of sauces and topped with Chinese pickles and your pick of protein (the same that goes into buns) on top. We like these a lot — we've eaten them probably half a dozen times — but in the tossing these get coated in what tastes like sesame paste, which gives the noodles a different texture than most other noodles we've ever had. That's not a bad thing — just something that threw this reviewer's taste receptors for a loop initially. Meanwhile, several of our colleagues have expressed amazement that anyone wouldn't favor the noodles over the buns and dumplings. To each his own.
Everything is priced fairly at Three Fold. But it seems strange to us that the bun, which is the cheapest and might be the most filling of the entree options, alone comes with a side of either carrot or cabbage slaw, each of which are fresh and delicious and mysteriously (to these tastebuds) flavored. Even if you're not getting a bun, the slaws are worth trying. Taro, a tuber that enjoys a similarly central place in Chinese cuisine as the potato does in American, is here sliced paper thin, fried until crisp, then tossed with salt and a little sugar. A bag is ideal for splitting. They're delicious.
The space, wholly renovated since Your Mama's closed, is bright and inviting with shiny hexagonal tile on the floors, exposed brick and beautiful wooden tables and benches that, thanks to the restaurant's Instagram page, we know were made in Montreal from reclaimed wood.
To get your food, you proceed through a cafeteria line, like at Chipotle or Subway, to select among the various options. Even though it's all out there on a steam table waiting to be ordered, everything we've had was warm and tasted like it was made recently. A peek in the kitchen suggests as much. There appears to be a small army in there chopping and folding and steaming away. As word spreads about the restaurant, we suspect that army will need to grow.