Tuesday, July 18, 2017

JW Chen's: Chinese/Taiwanese food (Closest thing to home in South Bend, IN)

Out of the five or so Chinese places in South Bend, JW Chen's consistently ranks the top in both "word-of-mouth" recommendations and online research.  The restaurant is located on an unassuming strip mall (it's not really a strip mall, but it's the closest thing to it, I suppose, really it's a parking lot with some storefronts linked together in an odd configuration), in between a Papa John's and a large tobacco store.  It's hard to miss if you aren't looking for it, and the restaurant itself is quaint and homey.  It can maybe at capacity seat less than 40.  However, the moment you walk in, you're greeted by this lovely grandmotherly owner named Jean.  She seats you and then proceeds to take a seat with you and discuss what you're eating.

Now, I'm decently familiar with what I like in Chinese food, and I can read Chinese/know what to order.  Yet, even before I had a chance to really read the menu, she has taken a chair, and proceeds to help me decide what I want for lunch.  We settle on 豆瓣魚 (fried fish in chili sauce) and 高麗菜 (Taiwanese cabbage stir-fried with garlic) and some rice.  Within ten minutes, my food had arrived and I was taken aback.  The first thing that hits you is the garlic from the cabbage.  It's a smell that reminds you of any random stall in a wet market in Taipei, where the owners are yelling in the background and banging of spatulas in woks.  That first bite solidifies the image.  The crisp and crunchy cabbage mixed in with extremely fragrant garlic is the best bite of vegetables ever.  I would eat a bowl of rice and cabbage every day if it was made like that.  Then with the fish, lightly breaded and fried then combined with a spicy red sauce that has a hint of sweetness is just divine.  Extremely flaky and surprisingly fresh, each morsel of fish is exploding with flavor.  The spice is hot, enough to make you sweat and replace every other bite with rice or cabbage, but not overwhelmingly so.  As I dine on food that takes me home, I have brief conversations with the owner, other wait staff, and I find myself having a sigh of relief and joy with every pause in the meal.

It's hard to describe in words how wonderful it felt to be in a restaurant where all the servers and staff spoke Chinese and would take care of you as if you were a member of their family.  Before I left, I let the owner know that I would return in a couple hours, on my way back to Culver, to pick up some take out for dinner.  We spent another five to ten minutes discussing what to order and later returned to pick up 五更腸旺(pig intestine and blood stew), 三杯雞 (three-cup chicken), 炒菠菜 (stir-fried spinach) and some rice.  She then threw in a free plate of 炒米粉 (fried rice noodles) to ensure that I would have more meals to enjoy.  All in all, I highly recommend coming here for meals, but be sure to bring someone who knows Chinese food.  Don't be stuck just having "orange chicken" or "mongolian beef" or "honey walnut shrimp".  Have a good meal and really enjoy it.
More food for more meals!

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