A friend and I had two distinctly different experiences at Asia City, the huge new Chinese restaurant on Washtenaw just east of Golfside. My friend was born in southern China and knows the restaurant business in and out. She dislikes Americanized “Chinese food” like egg foo yong, fried rice, and sweet-and-sour anything. Until I moved to Ann Arbor, that was the only Chinese food I knew. I still can picture my mom on the kitchen phone, ordering egg rolls, won ton soup, and sweet-and-sour chicken, while I set the table and my dad reached for his coat and car keys to go pick it up.
Xingshou Wang, who owns Asia City with his younger brother and nephew, previously ran Chinese Buffet 2 at the same location, along with two other Chinese-American buffets in Iowa City. He sold one of the Iowa restaurants and used the profits to build Asia City. At 15,000 square feet, it’s three times the size of Chinese Buffet 2, with seating for nearly 500 people.
Wang wanted to make his new place more authentic but didn’t want to lose half his customer base–so Asia City is three restaurants in one. It offers a reborn buffet; a menu of Hong Kong and Chinese-American dishes, including a lot of seafood; and dim sum at lunchtime.
Asia City’s decor is big and bold–a huge boxy red-and-gold exterior, twin lions at the entrance, floral carpeting in the large dining rooms, golden Chinese dragons on the wall. It felt overwhelming and unwelcoming to me, but my friend loved it, finding it palatial and elegant.
On our first visit, I played it safe, ordering a small bowl of egg drop soup and asking the waitress to recommend a vegetarian entree. She pointed to “Asia City’s deluxe stir fry,” which she said was “very popular” and had many Chinese vegetables in it. I asked again, “It’s vegetarian?” She said, “Yes, yes.”
My friend was as adventurous as I was timid. She ordered a spicy soft-shell crab appetizer; “shrimp, scallop, squid in bird’s nest”; and “braised beef brisket in hot pot.”
My small soup was huge, but my “vegetarian” entree came with shrimp, and virtually none of the vegetables were Chinese. My friend was disappointed in her crab appetizer, too, because the heat came from sliced jalapenos–it would have been more authentic, she said, if it had been breaded, deep-fried, and sauteed in hot peppers. The seafood “nest” was presented nicely–shrimp, scallops, squid, and vegetables on a bed of fried shoestring potatoes–but the portion was small, and the seasoning was bland. In hindsight, she wished she’d asked for MSG–Wang says they don’t use it routinely but will add it on request.
Her favorite that night was the beef, served authentically in a clay pot and well seasoned with five-spice powder (a blend of fennel, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorns). I was put off by the tendons in this dish, but my friend even liked those–they were cooked till tender, she said, and enhanced the beefy flavor.
“It’s not perfect,” was her verdict that first night. “Service is a little lacking because the people don’t speak English.” But, she added, “This is the most authentic Chinese restaurant in Washtenaw County.”
Our experiences diverged again when we returned to try the buffet. Since I grew up eating and enjoying Americanized Chinese food, I thought I might feel like a kid in the candy store at the buffet. But what I once found scrumptious–sweet-and-sour chicken, fried shrimp, egg foo yong, General Tso’s chicken–no longer seemed appetizing. Much too saucy, much too fried, much too sweet. And some things seemed to have been sitting too long. Other Americanized offerings, like the garlic chicken and broccoli, were bland (though I appreciated that they hadn’t overcooked the broccoli). The fried tofu was rubbery and tough, impossible to cut with the spoon and fork provided.
Again, my friend chose more authentic dishes and had better luck. She thought the spareribs were “awful,” but found mussels, squid, and green vegetables “very tasty…and saucy.” We both agreed that the steamed fish and the vegetables with rice noodles were excellent. Overall, she said, she thought the buffet was fine.
We both liked the dim sum. Once you are seated in the large dim sum dining room, the waitress drops off a paper ticket. Stamped each time you choose a dish from the passing carts, it becomes your bill when you are finished. This was all new to me, but for my friend, the sight of the dim sum cart brought back loving memories of her childhood–especially the sticky rice stuffed with Chinese sausage, pork, and egg yolk and steamed in banana leaves.
A newcomer needs a sense of adventure to do the dim sum–and even the buffet, since not every item is labeled–and it helps to know Chinese. (Few of the waitstaff speak English, and all of the dim sum items are unmarked.) But with my friend’s guidance, I plunged ahead.
She liked the tripe and turnips (like a little stew), while I liked the congee (rice porridge) with dried scallops. We both enjoyed the fried shrimp patties and turnip cakes (steamed and then pan fried.) The shrimp noodle dish–large, flat rice noodles with shrimp rolled into them–was also delicious. For dessert, the egg tarts and baked durian puff were a hit.
My friend disapproved of the small portions–“very un-Chinese-like,” she said–but otherwise gave Asia City’s dim sum high marks for authenticity. She says that at her favorite dim sum place, Shangri-La in West Bloomfield Township, the portions are a little larger and the prices a little lower. But it’s a long trek there, so my friend now alternates between the two places. She says that, all in all, she likes Asia City’s dim sum just as much.
Asia City is still a work in progress. Steve Xiao, the manager, says they’ll be adding tanks of live fish, so customers’ seafood might literally be swimming when they walk in. They’ve already hired the chefs for a sushi bar, and once they reclaim Chinese Buffet 2’s liquor license from escrow they’ll open a Western-style liquor bar, too. (Xiao says he’s working with the state closely on that–they already have wedding parties on the books.) And the big-screen TVs in the dining rooms–currently tuned to CNN–will eventually be used for karaoke. “That’s a favorite entertainment in China,” Xiao says. “People like to play rock star and sing along.”
Xiao says they want a clientele that’s “half Asian, half American,” and you can hear that mix in the dining rooms. It’s a long way from the old-fashioned Chinese-American dinners my Jewish family often ordered on Christmas, but my friend loves it. Even I can appreciate what Asia City means to her and enjoy parts of its culinary crazy quilt.
Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dim sum daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Appetizers and soups $1.20-$13.25, seafood “cold plates” $8.95-$11.95, entrees $6.95-$48. All-you-can-eat buffet $7.99 at lunch, $12.99 at dinner. Dim sum $2.99-$3.59 per dish.