There's a new formula for Chinese restaurant success in San Diego. Find a seemingly obscure region of China, focus on its specialty dishes, throw in something "handcrafted" and trade on "authenticity" and exoticism. Village Kitchen, Myung In Dumplings and Xian Kitchen are all doing it. Green China Grill (4688 Convoy St., Suite 110) shows both the promise and the peril of this formula.
Local foodie conventional wisdom has it San Diego is a Chinese cuisine wasteland with "inauthentic" American-Chinese places, average dim sum and second-rate Cantonese spots. While our Chinese food scene may not match San Gabriel Valley's, it was never as bad as rumored. The influx of regional Chinese restaurants, though, has clearly upped our game.
Green China features the cuisine of Lanzhou, capital of Northwestern China's Gansu Province. The Province bears the mark of Gansu's ethnic minority Hui and Tibetan peoples. Their cuisine prominently features hand-pulled noodles (there's that hand-crafted element), beef and lamb.
The best dish at Green China is one of Lanzhou's signatures: hand-pulled noodles with braised beef brisket (sometimes called beef lamien). While the deeply savory braised brisket is one feature of the dish, it's those toothsome hand-pulled noodles that star. The broth is simple, flavorful and soothing if not particularly complex. Daikon radishes provide vegetal interest.
As you await your bowl of soup you could do worse than marvel at the cook in the interior window of the kitchen—swinging, twisting and stretching the noodles. It's a welcome distraction from the enforced-cheer of the blindingly bright and almost comically green ice cream parlor style décor of the place. Did I mention it's bright?
Green China also offers variations on the beef lamien. One had sirloin—more tender if less flavorful than the brisket—with a thinner broth and a distinctive MSG salty-sweetness. The menu also offers a spinach-and-beef version, though it was unavailable on any of my trips. Indeed, much of Green China's menu—all of the skewered meat and vegetable dishes, for example—are frustratingly unavailable at lunch. The result is a short menu: two beef noodle dishes, some fried noodle (not hand pulled) dishes that are not particularly distinctive, and cold appetizers.
But, as so often seems to be the case with regional Chinese cuisines, those cold appetizers are worth the price of admission. At Green China, unlike many of the Sichuan restaurants in town, the offerings are mostly vegetarian. They are also delicious. The celery and bean curd dish, for example, puts the bright astringency of the celery forward, but backs it up with umami-laden bean curd and the warm glow of sesame oil. Soy comes to the foreground in the terrific lotus root appetizer, the best use of that vegetable I've experienced. Frankly, though, there isn't a bad cold appetizer.
Ultimately, the limited menu—especially at lunch—gives one pause contemplating Green China's prospects. How many visits will one make for the same soups, a few grilled kabobs and that very, very green décor? It will be a test of the new formula for Chinese restaurant success in San Diego.