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Great China on Kittredge?

March 28, 2007


To clarify, Great China is the name of the Chinese restaurant at 2115 Kittredge St in downtown Berkeley. (510-843-7996) But to clarify further…not so great.

It’s housed in a cutesy-pie little storefront that it shares with a burrito shop next door and it’s right next to the California Theatre which we like to go to now and then. Every time we’d go see a flick, we’d walk past Great China and say let’s try it some time. It’s always crowded and there’s always a good balance between the gringo patrons and the Chinese patrons which is a great sign.

The opportunity presented itself this evening as we were hoping for a quick bite before seeing some jazz at Zellerbach Hall and found ourselves parking very nearby to Great China.

At 7pm on a Wednesday there was a wait. A short one, but still…I was feeling the love that this was going to be a new crave.

I even had my camera with me and everything. I was snapping pix of the forks and the chopsticks, and we were chatting, and we had ordered our food already, and then it was maybe 20 minutes and still no food. How long does it take to make a vegetarian Hot & Sour soup? (About 4 minutes is the correct answer.) We asked and were told that they had accidentally made one with meat and were making another one.

Finally the soup comes out…at which point already I’m telling the staff to bring the remainder of our order post haste. We had ordered Spicy Eggplant with Garlic Sauce and the Vegetable Chow Mein. I like to judge a new Chinese restaurant based first and foremost on it’s noodles and it’s vegetable dishes. If they can’t do vegetables right, who’d want the meat at all? Most small places don’t roast their own pork or duck anyway, so it’s not a good barometer for the kitchen’s prowess. Especially around here where anyone can purchase ducks and pigs and things all roasted and ready to go from any number of places in Oakland and San Francisco.
The soup was thick with flavor. Extremely tardy, yes, but it was good. Lots of mushrooms – shiitakes and maitakes – and a pleasing sharpness to it that did well with the hot spice. Stacked with dropped eggs and bits of soft tofu, it had the right combination of heartiness from the fungus, but a lightness too, considering the broth was corn-starch thickened water, not stock. It was also, unfortunately, a total salt lick. I like salty foods. I really like salty foods. This was borderline too salty, even for me. But nonetheless, I perservered..

The remainder of our order came out eventually and what a dissappointment. What happened to all that love I was feeling?? The noodles were not made from scratch like at our neighborhood place in Albany (which i’ll review later…) nor were they particularly flavorful. No sauce, no spice, no nothing. Just a huge pile of bland noodles with mushroom cap and bok choy landmines strewn about haphazardly. Then there was the eggplant which had been steamed before going into the wok so it had NONE of the rich caramelization that typifies good Szechuan cooking. Nor did it have any real flavor to it. Just kind of bland and vegetal, and the sauce it was dressed with didn’t do much to perk up the poor guys. It was kind of sad actually, seeing a beautiful looking plate of purple slices of eggplant in this warm looking brown gravy and then tasting it all to find out that it was the culinary equivalent of getting dropped off at home early on prom night. Super lame.
To top it off…it then took forever to get a check and containers for the leftovers. So we were fifteen minutes late to the show. We was robbed I say!

The service was pretty off too, in my book. And having spent as many years in restaurants as I have, I’m usually the first to allow some leeway, but these guys were just plain disorganized. Chinese food is all about speed and efficiency, right? Eveything is supposed to be chopped and prepped in advance, the basic sauce ingredients are in their little bins next to the wok, and you go off to the races, basically. A couple of cooks and a well greased floor staff can feed 100 people in 10 minutes with 4 high powered woks. These guys couldn’t feed two of us twenty minutes? WTF? I just don’t get why it’s always crowded. Maybe I’m missing something…but onight was not their best night.

I will say this though, that they were very friendly and when they eventually picked up on the fact that we were annoyed they seemed to get a bounce in their step, but not really. I’m really not an asshole, but when you’ve got a guest who’s waving his credit card in the air, it’s time to stop loading empty water glasses into the cabinet and get the damned check. It’s not that complicated people.

Oh well, there you have it…not so Great China gets my first mediocre review.

I’ll be honest. It’s much more fun writing about places that I enjoy. When I can sit back and re-live a particularly delicious meal, writing a review is nearly as good as the meal itself. Well…not quite.

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