Ju Xiang Yuan, on the eastern edge of Chinatown, has had a revamp such that I can’t recall what it looked like before. Walls now pop with a damask-patterned wallpaper, black and shiny silver. Tall, tufted benches and chairs are all black and all match. The 20 or so tables are faux marble. Floor is pale tile. The accent to all this black and white is a bit of red in lanterns and lights. It’s all pretty smart.
There’s a flat screen on one wall and, notwithstanding it’s Super Bowl Sunday night, it’s tuned to basketball. No one is watching. Nor is anyone complaining. My husband keeps asking if he thinks it would be rude to request they change the channel. I keep suggesting yes. And we keep waiting for food, some of us a bit crankily, distracted by the wrong game.
Tea arrives instantly. Food takes a little longer, given the room has filled up quickly, fully, and all at the same time. (Clearly not an NFL fan among them.) The lone server is overwhelmed and though service is brusque, it is what it must be and certainly not unpleasant. She manages the room all on her own and without losing her cool. Full marks.
I was desperate to get our order down on the paper provided before the table of 10 young men hand over theirs (or the table of young women in the corner, eyeing the young men). Examining the extensive menu, a good portion of which is devoted to Northern-style Chinese dishes, I ordered with only a modicum of reflection. Congee, I thought, for the boy with sniffles; bread soup for me; Northern-style barbecue beef; pot roast chicken with noodles; eggplant and pork with garlic sauce; barbecue duck; mushrooms with Chinese greens; a cold plate of poached chicken in peanut sauce.
Once food began to arrive about 30 minutes later, it kept arriving at a steady pace.
Dishes were served generously, and we had a fine lunch with the considerable leftovers. Other than the flabby- skinned chicken smothered with an undistinguished peanut sauce and the dreary skewered beef, tough, chewy and under-seasoned, we liked the balance of our order just fine.
Congee is not for everyone — whitish, runny gruel made with rice, bland and unseasoned with some softly poached chicken — but they work for what ails you. And it worked for me. The bread soup ticked that comfort box too. Here, the crumbled bread became almost dumpling-like in texture, floating in the hot chicken broth, filled in with shredded cabbage and scallions.
Noodles were wide and supple, like thick tagliatelle, in the “Big Plate Chicken,” a spicy stew of chopped-up chicken, with potatoes, green pepper, garlic, cumin, some Sichuan pepper. The noodles lined the bottom of the dish, serving to mop up the sauce. It was indeed big and, for $15.95, fed us all, twice over.
Beef with two onions, ginger and shallots featured tender meat in a dark, salty sauce. It was the dish devoured by the boys, while the tough, flavourless beef skewers were left to languish. Roast duck was meaty, with a crisp and fragrant, amber skin. Chinese eggplant with sliced pork, carrots, and whole garlic was surprisingly sweet, cooked down to a glorious mash of flavours. And finally, crisp Chinese broccoli stems topped with a sauté of enoki mushrooms was delicious.
Ju Xiang Yuan may have spruced up a bit, but it remains a hard-working, sit-order-eat-pay-and make-room-for-the-next-guy Chinese restaurant with a menu that’s not been dumbed down, and where a family of four can eat fully and well for not much. And there’s much to recommend about that.