by Orin Anne Heidelberg
Chinese take-out: even when it’s bad, it can still be pretty good. Those inscrutable cuts of meat and limp vegetables swimming in sugary, salty sauces are awfully comforting, as is act of eating it straight from the paper carton. According to the yellow pages, there are 150 listings for restaurants serving Chinese food in Jacksonville. Of these, most are take-out-style joints with nearly identical menus and a very similar product. Happily, notable exceptions do exist and at Mr. Chan Asian Cuisine on Beach Boulevard, the proof is in the pudding. That’s not a cliche, because Mr. Chan really does serve pudding- or more specifically, congee, a rice porridge that’s popular in many Asian countries. They also sell crispy roast duck, sauteed bok choy, and even beef tripe. Indeed, Mr. Chan veers off the Americanized Chinese track towards something decidedly more authentic.
Mr. Chan caught my attention thanks to some glowing online reviews, punctuated by one enthusiastic real-life recommendation from a friend who described his entree to me as, “crispy duck, omygawd.” Sold. Mr. Chan is a snug sit-down operation located on the corner of a strip mall near the intracoastal. It’s at ground zero of Beach Boulevard traffic congestion, but the restaurant is easy to spot from the road due to stern red lettering on the facade that declares in all caps: “MR. CHAN.” It’s like Mr. Chan himself is commanding you to dine with him. I paid my respects to Mr. Chan for the first time on a recent Friday night and my date and I scored the last open table during dinner rush. Our server whisked over a complimentary basket of warm fried won ton skins along with two sets of menus: one with text and one with pictures. A boon to perplexed diners, the picture menu showcases the menu’s more recognizable items alongside dishes like seafood tofu casserole and beef with bitter melon.
I am embarrassed to report that my date and I did not order adventurous food at all. I have no experience with authentic Chinese, save one awkward experience in San Francisco’s Chinatown when I blindly ordered the “special” and received a large bowl of steaming chicken’s feet in broth. So after all my babbling about authenticity and whatnot, we chose honey garlic chicken, beef mei fun, and an order of fried cream cheese won tons. The enormous portion of honey garlic chicken featured juicy chunks of chicken breast fried in a light, pillowy batter with none of the rank fryer oil taste that seems to come standard with Chinese take-out. The chicken was glazed with, but not bathed in, a sticky-sweet honey sauce laced with plenty of pungent garlic. Our mei fun noodles were surprisingly spicy, with tender slices of beef and crispy-fresh vegetables and the won tons were stuffed with fluffy cream cheese and crab.
Despite the packed house, our diligent and friendly server brought the food out fast. And it tasted like home cooking, which is something I can honestly say I’ve never experienced with a Chinese meal. The majority of customers at Mr. Chan that night were Asians enjoying big family meals with passed platters of foods I didn’t recognize. Those platters seem exotic to me, but Mr. Chan’s seafood casseroles, fish soups, and porridges are simply comfort food I haven’t met yet. That little detail, above all, illustrates more about the restaurant’s character and quality than anything this reviewer can offer. Whether you’re a fan of traditional Chinese or just looking for Americanized Chinese done right, Mr. Chan will not disappoint you. Might I suggest trying both?
Meet Mr. Chan
by Orin Anne Heidelberg