Bao buns at Great Wall Restaurant

Scaling the Wall

The closest thing New Haven has to a Chinatown is a group of Asian storefronts on a half-block of Whitney Avenue: a massage parlor, a restaurant/wine bar, a grocery store and a Great Wall.

Unlike its namesake, this Great Wall is meant to let people in, not keep them out. A Cantonese-style restaurant, there’s a takeout section in front and a larger dining room behind. There, a pot of tea arrived at my table nearly as quickly as I did—although the teacup took an asking. The condiment stand at the end was stocked with sriracha, Chinkiang Vinegar and Kikkoman soy sauce.

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A look at the menu quickly revealed American Chinese food canon: General Tso’s Chicken, Lo Mein, spring rolls and others you probably know well. But the remainder—and there was a lot remaining—was new and unnerving territory. I’d come to the foot of the Wall, with catapults primed for the launch, and as I soon found out, some of what lies on the other side is not for the squeamish.

The tempting yet peculiar smells that waft about when you first enter the place take shape on the page: Sauteed Frogs on Hot Platter ($19.99); Pig’s Ear, Tongue or Stomach (each $8.99); Sliced Conch with Red Chili Sauce ($9.99); Braised Pork Intestines & Pork Blood Cake in Casserole ($12.99). With items like these, even the bravest American stomachs have every right to hesitate. Mine certainly did. But a menu like this demands commitment, perhaps even overcommitment, so I chose the strangest fare I could find.

For soup, I picked the Fish Maw (Stomach) Soup ($9.99), where mushy cotton ball-looking lumps of maw—not stomach, in fact, but bladder—came floating on a broth of egg whites. Reminiscent of Egg Drop Soup, yellow scallops gave the soup a gentle crunch while bits of shrimp, eel and fish at the bottom added a degree of chew.

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Spicy, gristly peaces of meat—some looking like honeycombs, others like cross-sections of some otherworldly fruit—were next, via the Ox Tongue and Tripe with Hot Sauce ($8.99). Rising above the taste of tongue and stomach lining, flavors of hot sauce and parsley were dominant. The dish’s extraordinarily fibrous textures will come as a shock to people used to more common meats, while seasoned daredevils will be delighted by the shock value.

The crowning course of the meal was grand but also a return to fundamentals: Peking Duck ($19.99), a famous dish from Beijing dating to China’s imperial era. Prepared entirely in-house, it arrived to the table with additional assembly encouraged. Folded dim sum pancakes—made with bao flour, I think—are meant to be lathered in Hoisin sauce, loaded with cuts of duck and garnished by sliced-up scallions. With each bite, my teeth were slowed by the soft, flavorless layer of dough—a moment of nothingness—followed by a crash of tastes as crispy skinned duck, sweet and salty Hoisin and zesty scallions hit my palate. Each taco-like vessel produced two such collisions, with the half-duck offering enough to fill about five wraps.

Unlike the Peking Duck—but like the monument that still runs along China’s upper middle—Great Wall’s menu just goes on and on. Each item bears a number, and the last is 234, not counting the separate menus for hot pot and dim sum items. The all-you-can-eat hot pots involve thinly sliced raw meats, seafood and various veggies, which diners dip into broths simmered right at the table, thus cooking them. A spot around the pot goes for $25.99 a head.

Great Wall’s dim sum experience is similarly unusual. On weekdays Great Wall has 14 kinds to choose from; on weekends and holidays—which can be crowded and chaotic, in a novel, fun sort of way—the variety more than triples to 48, with waitresses carting them out in tall circular stacks to the restaurant floor. There are menus, but they’re hardly used. Particular items are snatched up whenever carts come by. It’s probably one of the few times when sitting by the kitchen door carries a distinct advantage.

The man most responsible for building New Haven’s Great Wall is Peter Guo. He opened the restaurant in 1992, but even today his passion for food remains vigorous and youthful. His wife, Michelle Guo, works the front of the house while he works the kitchen. After the meal, Peter brought out soft shell blue crabs, frozen conch and two roasted ducks to show me. He delightedly explained where each item was from, the bargains he got, which of the odd gauntlet of delicacies I’d just tried were most valued in China, and what I should try next time. And though I understood little of his English, the pride in his eyes needed no translation.

Great Wall Restaurant
67 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 11am-9:30pm, Friday 11am-10pm, Sat 10am-10pm, Sun 10am-9:30pm
(203) 777-8886
Website | Facebook

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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