While watching The Travel Channel several weeks ago, I happened upon a rerun of “No Reservations,” where retired chef and recent Peabody Award winner Anthony Bourdain decided to eat lunch at a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. He was joined by a young Chinese-American chef who told him the restaurant serves authentic Chinese food, which is not on the menu, along with Chinese-American dishes.
Bourdain wanted crispy noodles, won ton soup, egg rolls and sweet and sour pork. To paraphrase him, he said these dishes were the Chinese foods of his childhood. It brought back a floodgate of memories.
I grew up on these dishes, along with shrimp and lobster sauce, chicken or shrimp chow mein with ice cream and fortune cookies for dessert. It’s Americanized Chinese food, and there’s nothing wrong with it as long as it is well-prepared.
There are many Vietnamese restaurants in South Philly, but the neighborhood lacks Chinese ones. I recall reviewing JC Chinese many years ago, but somehow I missed Johnny Chang’s.
The eatery was the South Philly Review’s Readers’ Choice Award winner as best ethnic/non-Italian restaurant, so I decided to try it.
The dining room has a small sushi bar and polished wood tables decorated with Chinese characters. I was not surprised to see sushi and sashimi on the menu because although I thought Japanese food jumped the shark years ago, many Asian sites have added this cuisine to their menus.
The restaurant is BYOB and moderately priced. It was relatively quiet but I noticed a number of people picking up take-out. There is delivery service as well.
I was curious about the sushi and sashimi offerings. Dinner began with a combination platter ($17.95) that easily serves two. Since I like spicy tuna rolls, I asked our server if we could substitute it for the plain tuna. The answer was “yes.” The colorful eye-appealing platter consisted of slices of fresh salmon, yellowtail tuna, lovely ahi tuna and cubes of white tuna. The fish was fresh and cool and just needed a bit of soy sauce, which I poured into a small round dish. Assorted sushi included shrimp, ahi tuna and white tuna, thinly-sliced and perched on perfectly prepared sushi rice, which lacked the sometimes gummy texture I find from time to time. Pretty squiggles of carrot, thinly-sliced ginger and hotter-than-usual wasabi finished the platter.
Wor wonton soup for two ($8.50) is found on the majority of Chinese menus throughout the city. Homemade chicken stock formed the base for the soup, which featured shrimp, sliced chicken breast, slices of pork and an assortment of vegetables including snow peas, broccoli, carrots, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, baby corn and napa cabbage. I discovered the wontons of my childhood floating in the tasty broth. The wrappers were thick and doughy, filled with a small amount of ground pork.
The steamed dumplings ($5.50) were a disappointment. Although they were house-made, I found the noodle wrapper a bit gummy, and the ground pork filling was slightly sweet. They arrived cold. Egg rolls ($1.25) fared poorly as well. The shredded cabbage filling and bits of pork were also slightly sweet. A bite should produce a crispy sound, but, alas, this one was cold and a little mushy.
I hoped the half Peking duck ($10.95) would make me smile. The platter consisted of a mound of cold shredded iceberg lettuce, slices of roasted duck breast and two drumsticks. The duck lacked flavor and was ice cold. Pancakes and plum sauce are the necessary helpers here, but the pancakes were quite frigid and had the texture of rubber.
I wondered why some of our dishes were cold because we were the only people in the room except for a couple who arrived during our meal.
To be fair, the sushi and sashimi were nicely prepared. It was not the Zama, Morimoto or Izumi experience, but I suspect the Japanese fare at Johnny Chang’s is the way to go.
One tip of the toque to Johnny Chang’s. ■
2601 S. Broad St.
Restaurant Review: 1 = Poor; 2 = Fair; 3 = Very Good; 4 = Extraordinary
No matter where one’s culinary allegiance lies, establishments charge themselves with ensuring that diehards and novices will have a plethora of delicious dishes from which to choose. Italian eateries have long enjoyed favor in South Philly, but other cultures have grown competitive, with Johnny Chang’s, 2601 S. Broad St., emerging as this year’s top ethnic restaurant (non-Italian).