Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chang’s Garden, Arcadia

Known for its vegetarian dishes, the regional food of Shanghai can oftentimes be a source for better than average meatless renditions of normally carnivorous delicacies. One of the finest examples is the rendition of a smoked duck appetizer constructed from multiple layers of tofu skin common on many Shanghainese restaurant menus. Chang’s Garden does not make the vegetarian duck but their cold kao fu (listed as sliced gluten) definitely satisfies the vegetarian meaty appetizer crave. Unlike the "gluten puffs” swimming in brown sauce found in some Chinese restaurants or the gluten appetizers common in vegetarian delis in Hong Kong, Chang’s kao fu is a dry firm, slightly spongy vehicle for the rich savory sauce in which it is marinated. Served with equally flavorful mushrooms, knots of tofu skin, and bamboo shoots, I could have been satisfied with an entrée sized portion of this alone.

We ordered another classic Shanghainese cold appetizer, sweet lotus root. I believe the dish is normally prepared with glutinous rice stuffed into the little holes of the root but this version was stuffed with what tasted like dried fruit. My friend said that some unidentifiable flavor in the dish transported him in memory to many a meal in China. The lotus roots had been braised until softened in a sugary, fruity syrup seasoned with that unknown spice.

I had to try the green bean pancake, a vegetarian version of the beef rolls that have been getting rave reviews over at 101 Noodle Express. Of course, I can’t compare the two, but I’d think that any carnivore would be more than pleased with this hot appetizer. A pancake (similar in texture but thinner than scallion pancakes) is rolled around green beans that have been fried with sliced shiitake mushrooms.

The Hunan tofu (without pork) was a spicy dish similar in appearance to its Sichuan equivalent. Unlike mapo tofu though, the slices of soft tofu were cooked with green onions and thin slices of black mushroom; instead of the heat arising from the numbing addition of Sichuan peppercorn, the oily bright red sauce was cooked with slices of fresh chiles. It was pretty great and was the first item on the table to disappear.

The vegetarian kidneys were made of the stuff sold in the packaged vegetarian meat section of Chinese supermarkets. The waitress couldn’t tell us what was the actual ingredient in the substitution although she said she guessed it was made of grain. The texture is a bit rubbery, the shape is almost accurate and the criss-cross design on the top resembles the pattern cut into real kidneys in Chinese cooking. Stir fried with black mushroom, bell peppers and basil, the bland “kidneys” mostly served to provide texture while the cuttings helped the little nuggets to hold the brown sauce.

Better versions of snow cabbage with tofu sheets and fresh soy beans can be found elsewhere. The greens were tough and the sauce lacked depth.

Upon hearing our vegetarian request, the waitress suggested that anything on the menu in the tofu and vegetable sections could be prepared sans meat. In fact, she was so conscientious that she inquired as to whether or not we could have leeks and garlic (ingredients prohibited by many vegetarian Buddhists). She inspected each dish on our table to ensure that her instructions to the kitchen to omit the meat had been followed.

complimentary boiled peanuts arrived before the meal

Our feast for three, with plenty left over totaled $46. The service was attentive and a vegetarian can comfortably enjoy regional fare here without feeling like you are missing the essence of the cuisine.

Chang's Garden
627 W. Duarte Rd. (626) 445-0606;
Open daily 11:30am-10pm


Sophie said...

ooo... i am a tofu super fan! sigh. i want the mapo tofu soooooo badly right now. with rice.

Here I bought a sauce pack so as to skip all the seasonings! and i will try this friday after work.

meatlessinla said...

The House brand hot mapo tofu sauce isn't bad, especially if you cook it with a little spicy black bean sauce and add a drizzle of Szechuan peppercorn oil at the end.