At the Great Wall restaurant, an introduction to its creative and complex Sichuan cuisine begins with peanut butter for many diners. When customers are interested in owner Sunny Liu’s regional Chinese dishes, she recommends what she calls “peanut butter wontons.”
Listed on the menu as Won Ton in Spicy Peanut Sauce ($5.95), the appetizer features steamed ground pork wrapped in noodles bathed in a savory garlic and chili sauce thickened with peanut butter.
“When I say ‘peanut butter wontons,’ people say it sounds weird,” Liu says. “I say, ‘Try it.’ After that, every time [they come back] they order it. When we try to take the [remaining] sauce, they say ‘No, no!’ They want to keep it for their rice. »
The all-American addition of peanut butter is familiar to diners and acts as a bridge to foreign cuisine. This helps to show that spicy flavors are just one element of the cuisine of Sichuan province in central western China.
Great Wall, on Valley Avenue, leads a group of restaurants in the Birmingham area offering traditional Chinese dishes as an alternative to standard Chinese-American fare. (Don’t worry, old favorites can still be found in the menu.)
But Great Wall goes further by specializing in the distinctive cuisine of specific regions.
The main menu features classics from Shanghai, where Liu grew up and often returns to visit his mother. A separate, evolving list added in 2014 — formerly called the “Secret Menu” — includes creations by current chef, Weizhuan Xia, a specialist in Sichuan (sometimes spelled Szechuan) cuisine.
Sichuan cuisine is popular across China, says Liu, who started as a cashier at Great Wall in 1994 and became its owner in 2010.
“It’s the hardest to cook,” she says. “Every master chef has a special chili sauce. Most people think Sichuan is just hot, one-dimensional. Our chef uses at least 20 different spices.”
Look for Chef Xia’s special sauce — which includes dried chilies, garlic, star anise, cloves, nutmeg and bay leaf — in Sichuan dishes called Flaming Pan. These stir-fries, with a choice of meat or seafood, go in a metal pan covered with chopped raw onion, and it’s all delivered over a burner. The flavors concentrate as the sauce bubbles; the added onion releases salty and sweet notes during cooking.
The Spicy Chicken and Vegetable Flambé Skillet ($12.95) includes bell peppers, carrots, green onions, wood-eared mushrooms and pressed tofu. Balancing salty, sweet, spicy and savory, Chef Xia’s sauce builds with every bite. A pleasant tingling and numbing effect on the lips – called ma la – is produced by Sichuan peppercorns.
“A lot of people ask me about it,” Liu said. “They’re a bit apprehensive at first. Then they love the numbing feeling.”
Ma la is part of the fun of Szechuan Beef Noodle Soup ($10.95), with its incredibly tender pieces of meat.
Liu insists the kitchen only uses steak in beef dishes, plaice in fish plates and white meat chicken. The crabs are soft-shelled to make the crustacean easier and safer to eat. Xia regularly shop several markets for the freshest produce.
“Top quality food makes the difference,” says Liu.
The same goes for Xia’s skills and her cooking. This is evident in the breadth of flavors of a bowl of Dan-Dan noodles ($5.95) and the delicious savory-salty-sesame mix of fish fillets with ginger and green onions ($14.95).
The latter is served over translucent sweet potato noodles, which are also featured in Clear Noodles in Chili Sauce ($8.95).
Great Wall is the last local Chinese restaurant that retains the ornate, old-fashioned decor of traditional Chinese restaurants. Featuring dark, carved wood and lucky red seats, the interior only adds to the experience.
It’s a great ambience to explore exotic dishes made with pork stomach, pig’s trotters or kidneys; duck blood curd (exceptionally good); salted egg yolk; or frog. Experience new takes on the familiar with steamed pork meatballs, cumin lamb, Chen-Du beef or Xia’s signature braised chicken dish, The Oasis.
Liu also recommends terra cotta starters, like chicken and aubergine with basil ($11.95). These wok-cooked dishes are enhanced when served in a covered, preheated stoneware pot. “The clay pot brings out the taste of food,” Liu says.
Vegetarians have plenty of options, including tofu dishes, Chinese vegetables, vinegar-and-pepper shredded potatoes ($9.95) and spicy eggplant stir-fry ($10.95).
Some items require explanation. “Fishballs” are fried plaice nuggets. If you see “Be For Time”, it is a transliteration for meat that is breaded and fried Bi Feng Tang style. And chili oil in many dishes is a flavor dip; it is not meant to suck.
When asked about Stewed Fish Filet and Lamb in Milky-Based Soup ($14.95), Liu points to three Chinese characters next to the English translation of the menu. The first symbolizes the “fish”. The second represents “the lamb”. The third combines the fish and lamb symbols. It means “delicious”.
Its dairy-free broth requires a skilled chef, who coaxes a “milky” color by starting fish bones fried in cold water. “If my master chef isn’t here, we won’t cook it,” she says. This is yet another dish that brings an authentic variety of cuisine to the menu.
Liu enjoys educating customers on the nuances of an antique kitchen. Some stick to the basics; others dive enthusiastically.
“When they try it,” Liu says, “they love it.”
Great Wall Chinese Restaurant | 706 Valley Ave (Homewood) | 205.945.1465 | Dinner hours: Mon-Sat 11am-3pm | Dinner hours: Monday to Thursday. 4.30pm-9.30pm, Fri-.Sat. 4:30-10:30 p.m. | Sun. 11am-9pm
–Photos by Wes Frazer
This story appears in the October 2017 issue of Birmingham magazine. Subscribe today!