East-Northeast

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W hen I ask restaurateur Hu Ping Dolph about the origins of Taste of China, she says, “It’s a long story,” and then revises: “It’s a love story.” 

She’s talking about her marriage of 22 years with Taste’s co-owner, Jonathan Dolph, whom she met in her home city of Nanjing, where he was teaching her English. But she’s also talking about food.

Taste of China, their Chapel Street eatery, began two years after the couple arrived in Connecticut. “It was hard,” she says. “Everything was new. The food, the language, the culture. Everything.”

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Although she says she enjoys it, America’s version of Chinese food couldn’t comfort Hu Ping in those early years. Deep-fried, sweet and reliant on glutinous, pre-made sauces, it was a stark departure from the complex and adventurous textures and flavors of the Szechuan and Chengdu cuisine she’d known.

Hungry for home, Hu Ping decided the only solution was to open a restaurant of her own. After convincing Jonathan to quit his job, the couple set up shop in Clinton 20 years ago. The New Haven location came along in 2013, spurred on by the large number of Yale students who were trekking out to Clinton just to eat there.

My journey at Taste of China began with the Chengdu Dumplings ($10), which arrived swimming in a bright red broth. The wrappings were translucent and thin, and the slightly sweet pork filling was well-proportioned. Alive with fresh garlic, the sauce was tangy and gently spicy. It was a measured introduction to one of the flavor profiles Hu Ping says is at the heart of her cooking: heat.

Right on cue, the Napa Beef ($20) arrived. Smothered in red pepper flakes and scallions, and sunk into a vibrant red chili broth, the beef, sliced thin, was so tender it seemed to melt, with translucent slices of leeks and noodle-like bean sprouts below. This was the most spice-forward of the dishes I tried, but it was still well-balanced, by no means overwhelming.

Next, I sampled the Smoked Duck ($22), a specialty dish Hu Ping says takes several days to prepare. You can tell; smoked with tea leaves added to the wood chips, the duck arrived deeply browned, with crisp skin and rich, smoky meat that fell off the bone. It was served with a mound of lightly steamed broccoli, mushroom caps and bamboo shoots tossed with a dash of sesame oil.

I finished by trying one of the menu’s showstoppers, the Squirrel Fish ($28). Hu Ping says the deep-fried sea bass’s unique presentation, complete with head and fins, is meant to mimic a squirrel. While that wasn’t the first thing that came to mind, it was a beautiful dish. The bass arced up out of a pink and orange sauce like an island, a cherry cheekily placed in its fried open mouth.

The sauce was the sophisticated big sister to other sweet and sour offerings I’ve had. Sugary and punchy, with a faintly tropical flavor, it was studded with carrots and peas along with pine nuts, which provided texture and a subtle extra dimension of sweetness. The fish itself was moist and slightly crisp from the fryer while still being light.

When Hu Ping first opened Taste of China, many customers, used to Americanized Chinese food, found her menu “a little bit hard and surprising,” she says, but it’s important to her that the restaurant “shows people our culture.”

Other customers have needed no convincing. Hu Ping says many people, especially Chinese customers, come into Taste of China and say, “Thank God I found this place.” Hu Ping smiles; she understands the relief. Taste of China is exactly the kind of place Hu Ping herself was hungry for when she first arrived.

Taste of China
954 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 11am-3pm & 4:30-9:30pm, Sat-Sun 11am-3pm & 4:30-10pm
(203) 745-5872
www.tasteofchinaus.com/newhaven

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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