Shopping and Dining at Mr. Chen’s

It seems like ever since it broke onto a dramatically-improving local Chinese food scene, Montgomery residents have fiercely treasured Mr. Chen’s. If you’ve never been, it’s out on the Atlanta Highway in the same shopping center as the Burlington Coat Factory. Mr. Chen’s makes a unique contribution to the local food scene because it’s both a restaurant and a market. The restaurant’s good – on our last trip, we ate the crispy tofu and garlic (from the specials board) and a great dish with chow fun noodles, eggs and vegetables. Portions are generous and the service is fast, with enough vegetarian options to keep us interested – though we still think Chin Chin has the market pretty much cornered for Chinese vegetarian food in this town.

Mostly we were there to explore the market. When we first moved to Montgomery, there weren’t a ton of options for finding ingredients needed to cook in the different Asian cuisines. The “Oriental Market” next to the deceptively-named No.1 China was really the only option. And though that’s a fine shop with some good produce, it’s pretty small. These days, between the Capitol Market on the Boulevard, Mr. Chen’s market and the Korean market over by the bowling alley on the Boulevard, you can buy pretty much everything you need. Heck, even Publix has started carrying shiitake mushrooms and fresh noodles. Part of the fun exploring a grocery store like this is that you can find familiar ingredients and take some chances with new ones. Here, whether you’re a novice looking to learn or a seasoned veteran of cooking across the Asian spectrum, we talk about a few key purchases from our recent trip and the ways we plan to use them.

1. Soy Sauce. There’s a massive difference between good soy sauce and everything else. You can check to see if you’re getting the best stuff with one easy trick: Read the ingredients. If water is the first ingredient, pass. While there are certainly tiers of good soy sauce above this line, in general if you’re buying something where soy is the first ingredient, you’re good. Weirdly, the Capitol Market doesn’t stock much of the good stuff. You can get Nama Shoyu at Earthfare, and we decided to try this variety from Mr. Chen’s.

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2. Good mushrooms. Delicate enoki mushrooms look pretty alien, but they taste great and add some additional visual appeal if used in garnishing bowls of miso. Here we got two kinds of mushrooms, both destined for a steaming bowl of miso soup. Speaking of miso, it’s pretty hard to find fresh around here. For a few years now, we’ve been ordering ours online from South River Miso. Once you buy fresh, actively fermenting miso, it’s hard to go back. South River only ships to Alabama for part of the year because their product is so heat-sensititve; fortunately, November 1 opens the ordering season. If anyone knows where to get good (fresh) miso around here, let us know. The powdered stuff isn’t the same.

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3. Chinese chives. Closer in taste to garlic and onion than their milder cousins, these are hard to find and extremely versatile. They’re great with eggs and in thin pancakes cooked like crepes, or sprinkled on leftovers to give them a fresh boost with a little bite.

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4. Green tea. Though we make green tea by the pitcher for our fridge, this stuff is hard to beat. It’s served out of basically every vending machine in Japan and provides a lot of energy without the sugar of soft drinks. Mr. Chen’s also has a darker version of the tea that we’ve never tried, so we figured we’d give it a try. You can also get this variety in the chilled case at Fresh Market.

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5. Radish kimchi. There are so many places to get good kimchi around here, but we’d never tried Mr. Chen’s, so we thought we’d give it a whirl. The stuff they sell in jars at Publix just doesn’t cut it – it’s not nearly spicy enough for us. Lately we’ve been eating kimchi and greens on bowls of grain with a hard-boiled egg, inspired by this recipe, and we’ll see how this kind matches up.

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6. These intriguing dried soy things. Regular readers may remember that we’re interested in ways to incorporate more protein into our vegetarian diets. Mr. Chen’s carries an extensive selection of canned soy & seitan meat substitutes, but we’ve never seen these dried things before. Evidently you soak them to rehydrate (like we used to do with textured vegetable protein back in the old days before you could get it in the freezer section) and then stir-fry. We’ll report back once we’ve given them a whirl.

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7. Black sesame oil. There’s a whole world of sesame oil out there, all of it with slightly different flavors. The lighter stuff you can buy at the grocery store is okay, but I prefer the strong flavor of black sesame oil – and you don’t need to use very much to get the taste into whatever dish you’re making. As a bonus, this kind comes in a metal container, so it’s less vulnerable to going rancid than the stuff in bottles (though all nut oils can go surprisingly quickly outside of a cool storage place).

SAMSUNG CSCWe’re thrilled to have so many new options for new ingredients in Montgomery – home cooks are lucky to have a great place like Mr. Chen’s to shop, and it’s also a good place to eat.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

 

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