Of all the reasons for a favorite restaurant to close, fire is one of the most tragic. There's no gradual decline in food or service, no switch in management or ownership, none of the usual warning signs of a failing restaurant — it's firing on all cylinders one day and gone the next.
Such was the case with Great China in downtown Berkeley, a popular Chinese-American restaurant that was destroyed by fire in January 2012. Though the owners, the Yu family, vowed to reopen, then signed a lease on a new, bigger location a block away, it's the rare restaurant that can sustain its customer base and level of quality after a catastrophe and a move. But in December 2013, nearly two years after it was destroyed, Great China rose from the ashes, with its original chefs and part of its original staff, to once again become the Chinese restaurant that Berkeley residents knew and loved. And with its crowd lined up outside most nights and its popular lunch specials, it shows no signs of having lost anything along the way.
Great China's appeal is not that it pushes the envelope on cuisine, though it does have a few specialties, like its double-skin noodles and warm crab rolls, that you don't encounter much at the usual Chinese-American joints. It's also got a better wine list than most — you can thank owner James Yu for developing it and Berkeley's population for supporting it. But at heart, Great China is a neighborhood restaurant, and I was curious to see how it stood up to someone who had no emotional attachment to the place. How much of the reason we love a restaurant is nostalgia and convenience, and how much is the food itself?
It didn't take long to see the restaurant's enduring appeal. It started with the Peking duck, a menu highlight that graced most of the tables in the 150-seat restaurant. The duck meat itself, shredded and free of fat and bone, is topped with shingles of crisp, paper-thin duck skin that make up a bronze geodesic dome. It's served with two dozen doughy pancakes meant to be spread with tangy plum sauce, topped with duck meat, skin, and shredded scallions, and rolled into a taco. An order of Peking duck and a glass of wine would not be bad company for an evening.
But then you'd miss out on the restaurant's many other highlights. Shandong is a coastal province known for its seafood, which features in some of the menu's unique dishes. White puffy buns come with a small mountain of warm crab sauteed with vegetables and topped with an egg, mixed by the server at the table. There wasn't much texture in the mushy crab, and its gingery sauce overpowered its delicate flavor — a disappointment at its $25 price tag. But spooned into the sweet buns, it clicked: Here was a Chinese version of a crab roll.
You can order the popular double-skin noodles in a range of sizes; small is good for a party of four. A plate arrives with a pile of translucent glass noodles in the middle, quivering like jellyfish. Orbiting it are intriguing shreds of other ingredients: squid, shrimp, egg crepe, carrots, cucumber, and sea cucumber, which has the cartilaginous texture of pig ear. A separate bowl of shredded, cooked pork is added to the plate along with a vinegar/mustard sauce and mixed by the waiter. The final product tasted mostly of mustard and vinegar, but it was a textural delight: Each bite had a bit of something slippery, firm, crunchy, and soft.
The menu also offers items so familiar they're comfort food for many of us, like another of the house specialties, the honey-walnut prawns. Great China's rendition is a fine one, with fresh prawns encased in a crisp rice-flour coating, candied walnuts with nuttiness beneath their sugary lacquer, and a creamy sauce with lively citrus to counteract its usual sweetness.
Most of the tables — an even mix of families, couples, and college students — were graced with some combination of the above dishes. The woman seated next to us with her family said she was a regular and nodded approvingly at our menu choices, leaning over to ask how we'd liked every dish. This kind of interaction between parties was easy to have with tables only a few inches apart, but large windows and soaring ceilings keep the room from feeling claustrophobic. Its walls and floor are concrete, a show of permanence, but softened by abstract Chinese art on the walls. A long bar in front accommodates single diners, though as of yet there's no alcohol behind it (the restaurant does have a beer and wine license, but the shelves are empty except for a row of backlit glasses, kind of like the bar in The Shining).
Lunch brings in another type of crowd, students and downtown Berkeley workers, for the prices as much as the food itself. Less than $10 gets you a special with an entree, rice (fried, white, or brown), a spring roll, salad, orange slices, tea, and fortune cookies. Most of the entrees follow the standard Chinese-restaurant playbook. Mongolian beef was tender, if not particularly spicy — just a solid riff on the takeout mainstay. Ma po tofu was soft and dusky, with a nice balance of oil and spice. It was enough to make me wish the restaurant was in my lunch radius so I could eat there every week.
If it were near my house, I'd go there for dinner too and methodically work my way through the long menu, which had more dishes to try than my time and budget allowed. One order of ong choy, Chinese spinach with fermented tofu, had the kind of funk that made me want to explore other meatless items, like guo ta tofu with ginger and scallions. The meat dishes are just as compelling, from five-spice-braised lamb shanks to thrice-cooked pork belly.
That's the great appeal of a neighborhood restaurant: It's a place that's as reliable as a good friend, as comfortable as your favorite hoodie, and can reassure you when you're feeling blue and challenge you when you're feeling adventurous. Welcome back to the fold, Great China.