BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
When it comes to Chinese food, Americans tend to like their sweet-and-sour pork bright red and sticky and their chicken fried à la General Tso — neither of which would be familiar to actual Chinese people living in China. Savvy American diners in search of authenticity know to ask for the “traditional menu” at most Chinese restaurants if they want the food that Chinese people eat.
At Lotus Garden (corner of North Walnut and East 17th Street) there is no need for a traditional menu because everything they serve is the real wonderful deal.
Giddy with excitement about finding really good Szechwan food in Bloomington, we made frequent visits to Lotus Garden last fall, but our meals were mostly confined to the dishes we already knew and loved. Crispy, spicy chicken studded with chili peppers, succulent eggplant braised in soy sauce, sizzling beef with green onions, and astoundingly good fish with pickled vegetables — everything we ordered instantly became a must-have the next time we went.
The range of the menu mocked our lack of adventure though, and at each meal the dishes left unordered haunted us. The restaurant is typically packed with Chinese students having amazing-looking meals with dishes we didn’t recognize. We wanted what they were having.
Which is how we found ourselves with friends sitting at a large round table at Lotus Garden recently, having a fabulous meal orchestrated by Wenjia Huo, a student from Shanghai. Asked to order the dishes she loves, with some input from the table (we didn’t think we were ready for the braised bullfrog with chili pepper or lamb testicles with cumin), she designed a delectable feast.
In China, Wenjia said, they don’t have appetizers, but since we were in America, she ordered some small plates to start. Chilled jellyfish earned some raised eyebrows, but she told us firmly we would like it, and we did. With a surprisingly addictive firm, yet silky, texture, it was delicious, as was the tofu with translucent preserved eggs, the cucumbers with garlic, and the five-spiced beef.
We followed that with phenomenally good garlic prawns, spicy ribs, and stewed beef in chili oil that also had a silky texture and a complex and lovely taste. For vegetables there were hot-and-sour potatoes (one of several really good spicy potato dishes on Lotus Garden’s menu); fragrant, dry-fried green beans; and a mix of eggplant, potatoes, and green peppers. We finished with wontons in chili oil and Dan Dan noodles [noodles in a spicy sauce with preserved vegetables] before waddling out to our cars in a dazed but contented stupor.
Lotus Garden is the brainchild of 20-year-old IU School of Public & Environmental Affairs student Qun Sun (who goes by “Blake”) and two of his friends, who cooked up the idea so they and their fellow Chinese students would have a good place to eat in Bloomington (and to help defray their tuition expenses). One of the many things the young owners did right before they opened in the summer of 2013 was to advertise in New York for a Chinese chef and give him control over the menu. The results are spectacular. Asked about the most popular dish on the menu, Blake says it’s the Mouthwatering Steamed Chicken served cold with sweet-and-spicy sauce. Hard to believe we missed that one. Next time.