Jackson is, from what I’ve seen elsewhere in the Deep South, a typical Southern small town/city when it comes to Chinese food–lots of American Chinese buffets and not a lot of authentic Chinese cuisine. As far as I know, the new Ding How is the only show in town for real Chinese fare–they have a Chinese menu (all items are also listed in English) that they used to only trot out for Chinese customers but I think they now stick in the back of their regular menu, and they also serve dim sum. Or should I say was the only show in town for real Chinese fare? Enter Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Cooking.
Mr. Chen’s in Jackson is tucked inside the new massive asian grocery store off of I-55 Frontage South in the strip mall where Cowboy Maloney’s and Big Lots are (and Chuck E. Cheese used to be, for those of you with long memories). I say “in Jackson” because the original Mr. Chen’s is in Birmingham, AL. I haven’t figured out if this is a branch, or if the original owners sold their shop and opened this new one or what, but there’s definitely a connection and the menus are practically identical. Don’t go looking for a sign for Mr. Chen’s. Just look for the awfully generic-sounding “Oriental Supermarket & Restaurant”, and it’ll be right inside. I found out about it through my friend Scott and his trusty employee who always gets us the scoop on new Chinese joints in town. A lady at church told me about the new supermarket, but Scott clued me in to the restaurant tucked inside. Thanks again, man.
A couple days before Christmas I rounded up the mini-posse of me, Scott, and Susie to check out Mr. Chen’s for lunch. Denise was otherwise engaged with Christmas related prep, but we promised to bring her back copious amounts of delicious leftovers. We walked in and were immediately heartened by the Chinese folks already eating there. It was an early lunch so the crowd was sparse, but it’s always a good sign when a Chinese place is frequented by Chinese people.
Upon looking at the menu our already high hopes soared even higher. Not that you have to eat this for it to be an authentic Chinese meal, but the appearance of such strange-to-Americans dishes as Tossed Jelly Fish in Sesame Oil, Spicy Pork Intestines in Hot Pot, and Beef in Black Bean Sauce was a good omen. They have dishes some will be more familiar with such as General Tso’s Chicken and Sweet and Sour Chicken, which no doubt they also do a good job with, but for me I can get those dishes at any American Chinese restaurant. At places like Mr. Chen’s it’s an opportunity to take what some might consider a more adventurous path, but I would just consider good eating. That’s not me bragging about being an adventurous eater–it’s just I was raised from childhood with this stuff, so it’s not weird to me. Your mileage may vary.
They also had quite a few dishes labeled “Taiwanese” this-or-that, so I’m guessing the cuisine is heavily influenced by Taiwanese cuisine. I believe a lot of Chinese food in Indonesia is the same, at least at the restaurants we visited when I was growing up, which could explain why the flavors at Mr. Chen’s seemed so familiar and comforting to me.
Right off the bat we start out with an interesting appetizer: the 2 Delicacies Cold Platter, where one can choose from a few different items served cold. We chose Braised Beef Shanks and Spicy Beef Tendon. The tendon is obviously the weirder of the two. We were all surprised by how tender it was, probably a combination of the cooking technique and the razor-thin slices of tendon. The beef shanks had a nice beefy flavor, and I enjoyed the chewy connective tissue in them, which I know people wouldn’t. Didn’t seem to bother Scott though, and neither did the tendons. Tell you what, I’m impressed with him. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Recently he made a trip up to New York City and was indoctrinated in the ways of good Chinese food straight from the best places in Chinatown, so this is all probably old hat by now. Still, good job going with the flow!
Both dishes were supposed to be spicy, but our tongues barely tingled. If you’re a spicy food maniac, ask them to make the dishes spicier. I don’t blame them for hedging their bets though. I think a lot of “ethnic” restaurants do the same.
Originally we wanted to order the 3 Delicacies instead of 2 with Roast Duck as the third item, but turns out not everything in the Cold Plate section of the menu is eligible to be part of a 2- or 3-dish combo, so we got it as a separate appetizer. As expected it was served cold, which was a new preparation style for me. Watch out for tiny bones. They don’t bother to de-bone the duck before bringing the cleaver down on it, so be careful. As for the flavor, what can I say–it’s roast duck. Not spectacular, but even average roast duck is flat out delicious and if you have basic duck roasting skills it’s hard to screw it up. Good stuff, and I’ll be happy to order duck from them again. Maybe next time I’ll see if I can get an off-menu whole duck chopped up for us. I love that this is even an option in Jackson since Ding How started doing it and now Mr. Chen’s does too. Roast Duck is an iconic Chinese dish, and you can’t claim to have authentic Chinese cuisine in a city without it.
We tried to order the House Clay Pot, but if I recall correctly they didn’t have the pickled something-or-another that constitutes the only difference between the House and Seafood Clay Pot dishes, so we got our order changed to the Seafood variant. It’s a soup with shrimp, squid, fish balls (meatballs made with fish), shrimp balls, beef meatballs, fake crab, tofu, and various vegetables and mushrooms. Could’ve done without the fake crab, but the rest was good and the broth by itself was terrific. The various balls of meat are very springy and chewy–not sticky chewy but elastic chewy–which is the texture they’re supposed to be but can potentially be off-putting for the unaware. I would’ve preferred more seafood in not-ball-form, but the price is right for the amount of food so it’s petty to complain. It’s hard to tell from the picture since there’s no frame of reference, but this is a big pot of food. Don’t think about tackling this by yourself unless you plan on taking home leftovers.
The Ginger and Onion Squid was the star of the show for me. Lightly breaded and cooked to just the right doneness, the squid was a very tasty dish. If you’ve had calamari but not squid, this dish is similar in flavor and texture to fried calamari except a touch more seafood-y, so if you like good fried calamari you’ll mostly likely dig this too. The cook apparently didn’t mix the batter ingredients evenly enough as I hit a couple salty spots, but overall this dish was awesome.
The Taiwanese Style Braised Pork came in a close second in terms of best dish we had. The dish is pork belly braised with a light brown sauce. You can see the telltale alternating stripes of meat and fat in the piece on the right side of the plate indicating that pork belly was used. The vegetable on the left side is pickled greens of some sort. The flavor is familiar from my childhood since mom used to use the same vegetable for her pork rib soup. Despite the fatty pork belly, I found the overall effect of the dish to be lighter than expected probably due to the thin almost broth-like delicious sauce. I could just pour that sauce on steamed white rice and eat it.
So our first visit was a smashing success, so much so that a couple weeks later I brought Denise and the family there so she could have some fresh instead of as leftovers. The leftovers were good, but Chinese food is almost universally best served fresh especially the stir-fried dishes that are very quickly cooked in a matter of a few minutes since reheating such dishes tends to overcook them, and textures that are great served fresh can become soggy after sitting in its own sauce for a day or two. We were both excited, but I was excited for Denise also. We re-ordered the Ginger and Onion Squid since we loved it so much, and it was even better the second time around because the seasoning mix was more even–no overly salty spots.
Our next dish was Shredded Pork with Garlic Sauce. I’ve tried garlic sauce dishes at various American Chinese places, and nothing I’ve had there touches this dish. Spicy and pungent with thin slices/julienne pieces of tender pork–outstanding. Sofia loved it so much she chose to eat it over everything else we let her try. When we took the leftovers home I served her a good serving of rice and this pork dish for dinner, and she finished it in about 15 minutes, which is record time for her. She repeated the feat the next day. Not that she’s any kind of gourmand, but this dish was just really, really good. A bit spicy, but nothing that bothered even Sofia. Unless you have no heat tolerance you’ll be fine, and if so you can always ask them to tone down the spice. The flavor profile here is similar to a Pork with Wood Ear Mushrooms dish that Denise cooks for us and I grew up with, so that’s likely playing heavily into my preference, but again I really loved this dish.
I love pan fried noodles. The basic idea is you fry the noodles to a crisp, then you heap the equivalent of a complete stir fry dish on top. Seriously, the topping they served with the noodles could easily serve as its own dish. The sauce from the stir fry portion then drips down onto the crispy noodles softening some of it while leaving other parts crispy. The result is a fun mix of textures and flavors. The toppings can vary–the one we got is actually listed in the beef section of the menu. We did get a healthy amount of beef in our dish, but if we hadn’t known that it was supposed to be a beef dish we wouldn’t have guessed since the beef wasn’t a focal point. There was just as much chicken, shrimp, and vegetables–more, actually. The beef, while delicious, was just a member of a tasty medley of ingredients instead of the stand-out star. And what a tasty medley it was. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but again they hit one out of the park.
Blame Denise for this one. Whenever we eat Chinese she makes us get a vegetable dish. Party-pooper. Actually this was good too. It was a nice light dish with baby bok choy and Chinese mushrooms. Not attention-grabbing in terms of flavor, but it’s a good complement to the louder tasting dishes. Interesting sidenote: the sauce for this is closer in color and flavor to what I expected for the pan fried noodles than what they ended up serving on the noodles.
And this probably goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: we ate the dishes with steamed white rice. I believe most entrees come with rice, and if it’s clear you’ll be eating family-style they just bring it to you in one big bowl. They default to providing forks, but you can request chopsticks if you so please.
Denise and Sofia got Coconut Milk Tea and Grass Jelly Milk Tea respectively. The coconut didn’t taste very coconut-y to me; more like a lychee flavor I thought. Maybe it’s made with coconut but artificially flavored with something else. The grass jelly was definitely very much grass jelly though. Don’t let the name or the black coloring scare you. It doesn’t taste grassy at all. It’s difficult for me to describe the flavor, but if you’re feeling up for it you should give it a shot. They have a bunch of different iced milk tea drinks to choose from, but they should all basically look like this although some have jelly and some don’t.
Restaurant verdict: four thumbs way up in the air. Ding How better watch out–they have some serious competition in terms of authentic Chinese cuisine. Scott took his dad and a friend there after our first visit, he liked it so much. I know I’ll have fun going back again and again, exploring all the wonderful-sounding dishes they have on offer. If you go, don’t let the “weird” stuff like tripe and intestines scare you. Start slow, but do yourself a favor and at least try to steer clear of the American Chinese staples that you can get anywhere. Give the different stuff a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised by how good the real Chinese stuff is.
Now if we could only get a real Szechuan place in town I’d be absolutely set. We’re getting there, folks. Slowly but surely, we’re getting there. Pretty soon I’ll lose my main motivation for wanting to go to New York at this rate. We’ll have everything I need right here in Jackson.
Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Cooking
5465 I-55 N
Jackson, MS 39206
“Located between big lots and Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City”
Open 7 days a week, 11:00a – 9:00p.