I’ve written about the dearth of quality old-school Chinese restaurants that specialize in Americanized Cantonese cuisine around the Philadelphia region a few times. It turns out I had been overlooking one that’s been in plain sight for years.
China Garden Inn of Willow Grove, which is north of Philly, in Montgomery County, has probably been in business for at least 30 years. They may even go back to the 80s. I’ve taken food out from them a few times since Covid hit, as they are fairly close to where my father lives and I drive right past them when visiting him. But they either exchanged the food for my payment through the front door, which was held open by a table that made it impossible to enter; or, after they had reopened for dine-in, I only went as far as the lobby to pick up my order and didn’t really get a good look at the place.
I had driven past them less frequently for years before then, but I never felt moved to stop and eat there. I guess the bland look of the shopping center in which it sits was one turn off. I’d also never heard much about them; either positive or negative. And there were other Chinese restaurants in the northern suburbs that I used to frequent. But so many have not reopened for dine-in service since the start of the pandemic. China Garden Inn is one of the few in that part of the region that has. So when my wife mentioned to me in the car Sunday while in route to visit my father that she couldn’t hold out until we got back home and would want to stop to eat somewhere close by afterward, it was the first place that popped into my mind.
Not only were they open again for dine-in, but they would also be a nice change of pace from the pizza and cheesesteaks that I’ve been overloading on lately.
I have to say that my jaw dropped a bit in awe when we were led to our table and I caught my initial glimpse of China Garden’s gorgeous dining-room. It holds often spectacular traditional decorations in every direction, while also being tastefully and comfortably furnished.
Aside from including Japanese food, the menu was very much in my wheelhouse, with almost all of my longtime Chinese standbys available. The one thing they don’t have is Chicken in Foil, but that’s virtually impossible to find around here, so I can’t hold it against them (although I guarantee you I’d have eaten there a lot sooner if they had it).
After we browsed through the options for a bit, my wife ordered an egg roll and Mango Chicken.
I thought about a PuPu platter, which, as you know, is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. But I didn’t have a big enough appetite for that given my intention to also get an entrée. So I zeroed in on their combination platters and went with number 5 – Sweet & Sour Shrimp. No surprise there. I’m nothing if not a creature of habit.
I didn’t really want the soup that came with it, but my wife was happy to take it and decided on wonton. I tried it and was fairly impressed. It included little slivers of roast pork, which used to be standard, but no longer is, and old-school wontons rather than the thinner Hong Kong-style ones served by a lot of places nowadays.
Our egg rolls were brought out next with the traditional accompaniments – duck sauce and hot mustard. They were just the way I like them; again, with the old-school style outer skin that I grew up on and little pieces of roast pork mixed in with the vegetables.
Nothing was rushed by our waiter, who was neatly dressed in a black vest, bow-tie and pants along with a white shirt – another old-school touch you don’t usually see today. Actually, I remember when the old waiters in Chinatown would wear gold or red jackets and black bow-ties. But I digress. My point was that the next course was always brought out a few minutes after we finished the previous one.
Our main courses were next up.
Again, I tried my wife’s Mango Chicken and liked it. The chicken wasn’t breaded, as I expected it to be, and there was plenty of sliced mango mixed in with it.
The Sweet & Sour Shrimp and accompanying fried rice were on the mark. And I was pleased to see my platter arrive with the sauce already applied to the shrimp. I’ve gone into that issue a couple times in recent months. This looked like the Sweet & Sour Shrimp of yore. And there were actually decent-sized shrimp inside that breading, which is often not the case when I order this dish.
While I am generally happy with white rice, given the choice, I prefer fried with pork or shrimp. This version had a bit of pork mixed in. And as I’ve been doing for almost my entire life, I spooned as much of the Sweet & Sour sauce that was on the plate as I could onto the rice. It’s a comforting and tasty ritual for me.
While I thought China Garden’s food was perfectly fine the few times I took it out, I wasn’t blown away. Is it possible that having it in such a stunning atmosphere made a difference? Or perhaps, as is the case with cheesesteaks, the dishes I order at Chinese restaurants are better eaten on sight, when everything is hot and freshly made. In either case, today’s meal was a real treat in more ways than one.
For the second time in four days, I finished a meal and thought, “I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to do this.” Hopefully China Garden Inn will remain in business for years to come so I can make up for lost time.