Chinatown Plaza: Savor the Journey
Chinatown Plaza occupies a plain expanse on West Colonial Drive. But the flavors to be had at its eateries, bakeries and groceries offer a rich sampling of Asian cuisines, opening a new world to adventurous diners and shoppers.
A traveler wandering from China to Korea to Vietnam would embark upon a journey of several thousand miles, beginning, as the Chinese proverb tells us, with a single step. In our case, a sojourn west on Colonial Drive leads to the self-named Chinatown Plaza, a center of Asian food culture that touches many parts of that world.
Orlando’s Chinatown inhabits the former Westside Crossing shopping center (the sign is still there) in Pine Hills, a complex that was at different times home to Publix and Walmart. The center, established by Chinese investors in 2007, sports a red tile-roofed paifang entrance arch and a bronze statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, erected in 2012 in honor of the founding father of the Republic of China.
The Plaza is, frankly, an environment in need of repair, with several long-closed storefronts and a patchwork bumper-car ride of a parking lot that lets drivers cut across with rather loose interpretations of lanes. A depot for Star Line Express Bus offers $90 trips to New York and points in between; a branch of the Amerasia Bank, founded by a Taiwanese immigrant, offers checking accounts and loans.
It is, in essence, a place for the people living in Orlando’s multifaceted Asian community to reacquaint themselves with a taste of home. Shoppers and diners find their comfort foods behind a strip mall façade, where touchstones speak to the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese populace about tradition and family. And the Plaza’s standout restaurants and food centers also offer the eager adventurer an authentic way of experiencing those cultures, without trekking too far from home.
Soon tofu, bulgogi and cheese buldak, BBB Tofu House (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)
BBB Tofu House
Owner Tony Teng had several restaurants in California before opening BBB with partner Elaine Ho. I walked in not knowing what to expect; I hadn’t heard many recommendations from friends in the know, but the menu I found online looked interesting and I love Korean food. I left an absolute fan.
Archetypal Korean cuisine goes back thousands of years, and may be the oldest in Asia, with a history of fermentation that is still present in kimchi, doenjang fermented soybean paste, and the suddenly popular gochujang red pepper sauce. Even though we think in hot and spicy terms, chili peppers and their distinctive heat weren’t a staple in Korea until their introduction in the 16th century via Japan by way of Portuguese traders, who in turn imported Mexican plants first encountered by Christopher Columbus. Their convoluted journey has culminated in the marvels of BBB Tofu House.
When your server says a dish is better spicy, believe it. There’s a fullness to the heat that enhances the deep tastes of seafood, barbecued beef and chicken. It is distressingly difficult to make a menu choice; each dish seems like the ideal meal—until you read the next one. Items like the familiar bulgogi (thin sliced marinated sirloin, $21.99) and the decidedly unfamiliar cheese buldak (a contemporary Korean fast food of extremely spicy chicken topped with mozzarella, $19.99) come served on a sizzling stone pan—as do most items. The various bowls of broth graced with organic silken-soft tofu (what’s called soon tofu, $11.99) arrive at a furious bubble in individual-sized heated stone pots, in which you crack an egg to let soft-boil. Assorted seafood, galbi short ribs, ramen and very pleasing dumplings are options.
Every meal comes with a changeable assortment of small house-made side dishes called banchan—and we all know how much I love small side dishes. Kimchi, pepper-basted turnip, bean sprouts, a tart citrus-dressed shredded cabbage are all delightful on their own or as condiments for the main dish. Even the pan-fried seafood pancake ($16.99), wonderful in its crunchy goodness, benefited from a few well-placed additions.
Korean BBQ is famous for a reason—the taste. Grilled chicken, sliced pork, grilled corvina and rib eye are offered as combos, served with tofu, rice, and those delightful banchan ($19.99-$21.99). Kimchi bokum bap ($16.99), a hot stone platter of rice, egg and melted cheese, arrives like a hyperactive paella, vibrant with crunchy rice bottom and stringy cheese. BBB demands lots of time, and lots of friends to fully enjoy every choice.
BBB Tofu House
5140 W. Colonial Drive
Chef Wang’s Kitchen
The chef is Jian Hua Wang, born in Beijing and a master of the hand-pulled noodle, a skill he used to great effect while in residence at Epcot’s Nine Dragons restaurant. His origins are reflected in his Northern Chinese dishes, such as eggplant with peppers and potatoes (di san xian, $10.95), a staple from Dongbei in the northeast, Manchurian cuisine that uses potatoes (an incomer from its Russian Siberian neighbor) and wheat instead of rice. The eggplant and potatoes are deep fried, then sautéed in sweet soy sauce and garlic. It’s a beautifully simple dish with a homey, comfort food flavor.
Pork dumplings ($10.95 for 10) are simple dim sum-sized packets, perfectly pan-fried with crisp wrapping and savory filling. I kept going back to the “special” of cucumber with garlic sauce (pai huang gua, $6.95), which dresses smashed cucumber segments with sesame oil, salt, rice vinegar and crushed garlic. It has a beautiful crunch, and the surprising combination of bright cucumber and deep sesame and garlic flavors counters spicy dishes perfectly.
Chef Wang’s specialties run from sweet and sour shredded potatoes (Dongbei is the home of sweet and sour, $12.95) to a ginger steamed whole fish ($24.95).
Sichuan styles are represented in dan dan mein($9.95), a favorite from Southwest China, hand-pulled round noodles artistically topped with ground pork, hoisin, five spice powder and hot chili oil. There’s nothing al dente about this dish, so the soft texture might be surprising. And for the less daring who might want to refrain from the various dishes made with intestines, there is a very good beef chow fun or kung pao chicken. And a surprising highlight is one of the fried rice choices: particularly good rice with chicken, pork, beef or shrimp that gets even better at home the next day after a hit in a hot pan. Be adventurous.
Chef Wang’s Kitchen
5148 W Colonial Drive
1st Oriental Market is overflowing with cooking essentials that include produce, herbs and fresh fish. (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)
An Eclectic Assortment
The Chinatown Plaza anchor is 1st Oriental Market, a rambling pan-Asian arcade with a dizzying array of dried noodles, oils, teas and enough dishes and pots to open your own restaurant. Often-local produce presents remarkable assortments of cabbage, artistic dragon fruits and a cornucopia of exotic herbs like curry leaves, makrut lime and perilla. Ingredients from China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand fill the aisles, and the fresh meat and fish departments (whole, bright-eyed fish, almost all from the U.S.) will make you realize that there’s more to food than what’s in your local supermarket. 1storiental.com
Sapporo Ramen is an aficionado’s favorite. Often crowded, the small dining room makes up for lack of space with well-crafted bowls of ramen, soba, and udon. Broths include soy sauce, pork bone, bean paste and curry, served with pork slices, fishcakes and bok choy. Japanese brown curries and fried octopus fritters add to the options. Vegetarians will rejoice in the option of vegetable broth; dessert lovers and children at heart will smile at the fish-shaped taiyaki dessert. facebook.com, search for Sapporo-Ramen
Open since 2004, Sun Pearl Bakery is a go-to for the Asian community. Sun Pearl offers Taiwanese sweet and savory buns such as pineapple and red bean, chocolate pineapple, roast pork and curry and scallion. The shop showcases rice dumplings, fruit-filled whipped cream cakes and wedding cakes. sunpearlbakery.com
Noodles arrived in Vietnam while it was under Chinese rule 2,000 years ago, but the “classic” Vietnamese dish, pho, is a product of French colonialism in the late 1800s, along with bánh mì sandwiches on French baguettes and killer strong coffee.
Huong Viet Vietnamese serves summer rolls, deep fried tofu, the rice and tapioca flour dish called bánh bèo, and grilled pork and spring roll rice vermicelli in a simple setting. facebook.com/HuongVietVietnameseCuisine
Pho Viet is a noodle and rice shop, with the standard variety of rice vermicelli and protein options (bun dac biet is an all-inclusive version with grilled shrimp, pork, beef and spring roll.). facebook.com/PhoVietOrlando
K2P Délices Bakery makes inexpensive bánh mì sandwiches on house-baked bread, stuffed with meats, head cheese, pâté, grilled pork and chicken, and pork meatballs. facebook.com/K2P Delices