My friend and fellow local food colleague Ricky Ly knows Asian cuisine. So when I decided to explore authentic Chinese Sichuan fare at Orlando's Chuan Lu Garden, I invited him along to make sure I chose wisely from the menu.
Chuan Lu Garden is a newcomer that operates adjacent to the Ginza Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar on Colonial Drive near Mills Avenue. Each eatery has a separate entrance but they are connected by a hallway. On my first venture, I dined alone at lunch and the small dining room filled up fast. Ginza absorbs the overflow and allows guests to order from Chuan Lu's menu, making this a nice arrangement.
Before we ordered on my second visit, Ly explained that Chinese cuisine in Orlando has long been dominated by Cantonese-style restaurants, which are known for dim sum and seafood dishes such as steamed scallops with ginger and garlic.
Sichuan cuisine is known for the skillful use of peppercorns, peppers, onions, garlic and other bold flavors. My palate is not intimidated, but it is nice to be forewarned about the "prickly bombs of spice and numbing flavors," as Ly accurately calls the cooked peppercorns. The small spheres are one of the most intriguing aspects of this cookery style. Place a cooked peppercorn on the center of your tongue and slowly crack it open with your teeth and tongue. The flavor blooms with an initial floral, citrus-singed burst and then evolves into a pleasant, tingling numbness on the front of the tongue.
We took baby steps at first, starting with the pork and chive dumplings ($7.95), a platter of 12 hand-sealed, plump pouches. The herbs were fragrant and fresh and melded nicely into the sweet meat. We got braver with our next choice. The sliced roast beef appetizer ($7.95) included pieces of stomach and tendons tossed in a medium-spiced chili sauce. The tender meat was delicately flavored.
For entrees, the medium-spiced chong qing lazi chicken ($10.95) is a good dish for neophytes. The pieces of fried chicken are cooked with peppercorns, dried red peppers, fresh basil leaves and green onion pieces. But check the nooks and crannies before taking a bite: There's a minefield of peppercorns hiding in the battered ridges of every piece. Brush the spheres away if you like, but do try them. The heat fires up nicely on the finish.
We also tried the cumin lamb ($13.95), a sultry Sichuan specialty that is another good dish for first-timers. The lamb was sliced into thin pieces with a nice amount of fat left on the cuts.
The hand-pulled Lanzhou-style style noodle soup ($8.50) is prepared to order in the kitchen. Made by stretching and folding dough into strands, the tender noodles are the star of every variation on the menu. In fact, the noodles and full-bodied broths alone make a fine meal.
Opened since March, the restaurant's small dining room fills up fast at lunch and dinner. That's not a surprise: Chuan Lu Garden is the most intriguing dining experience in Orlando today.
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Chuan Lu Garden
Where: 1101 E. Colonial Drive in Orlando (adjacent to Ginza Japanese Steakhouse, between Thornton and Mills avenues)
When: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
How much: $8-$28
Beverages: Full bar
Wines by the glass: From $4
Wheelchair access: Easy
Extras: Good for groups, takeout, sushi bar, table service, Wi-Fi
Service: Knowledgeable and attentive
Noise level: Quiet to moderate buzz
Credit: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
Diningon a budget
The soups ($6.95-$8.95) are large enough to feed two people. (Try the seafood combo — $8.95.) Also, the hand-pulled noodle dishes are all less than $10.Copyright © 2015, CT Now