I have been to the Great Wall twice, but I always avoid Badaling. Badaling is its most visited section, an overly renovated expanse of Disney-theme-park-style stone signal towers and perfectly rectangular steps and railings, replacing real disintegrating ruins, where foreign dignitaries and tourists giddily frolic and, with their backs to the stretches of walls and rolling hills beyond, take the requisite photo before buying an “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirt. Its lack of character is disappointing.
The same is true for the newly refurbished Great Wall restaurant on 67 Whitney Ave.
Great Wall used to be concealed in the dark depths of Hong Kong Grocery. Upon entering, you were first greeted by the smells of shrimp paste, persimmons, ginger, green onions and other exotic foodstuffs in cardboard boxes. After walking along a stained floor past aisles of dried seaweed and squid to Pocky, you reached the unassuming kitchen in back.
I went there often because everything about it was so authentic, so reminiscent of the restaurants I used to frequent for lunch in Beijing: the snappy women demanding your order and yelling in dialect, the chef in back chopping huge cuts of pork, the Styrofoam containers exploding with rice and stir-fry, the impossibly cheap prices, the Chinese clientele sitting at scattered tables and plastic chairs busily eating with little chatter. If asked, they would even make something not on the menu, scurrying into the store in search of necessary ingredients. It was decidedly sketchy, but the food, as I remember it, was delicious.
Unfortunately, the new Great Wall has lost much of its charm. The grocery has been moved next door, and the restaurant has expanded to fill the entire space. Pleather booths, clean linoleum floors and striped wallpapered walls making little, if any, attempt at an authentically Chinese ambience give the place a cafeteria-like sterility.
The menu has expanded as well — for the worse. The Fujianese working there now try their hand, not always successfully, at the Chinese culinary kaleidoscope with a huge list of Szechuan fare and a la carte Cantonese dim sum. They even have plans for Mongolian hotpot.
When we sat down at our table, a patronizing set of forks and knives awaited us. A large group of white Americans sat behind us. A waitress (yes, Great Wall now has waitstaff, both Chinese and white) promptly served us chrysanthemum tea that was bitter and grating, pointing to its low quality. Gongbao jiding, a stir-fry of chicken red chilies, and fried peanuts tasted generic, greasy and bland, not fiery and energetic as it should. Mapo tofu was seriously lacking in “ma,” the peppery numbing spice that gives the dish its name. Fortunately, the tofu was both silky and able to retain its shape. But no tofu dish of this quality merits $9.95. In fact, on the whole, menu prices are not that cheap. Some dishes reach into the $15 range.
Carted around in steel trolleys, the dim sum looked pathetic and unappetizing. One of them, a Cannelloni-like meat-stuffed pancake, appeared as if it had just been shuttled through a car wash. I aptly ordered the BBQ pork steamed buns instead. They were light and sweet, but perhaps not the freshest.
The fish-flavored Chinese eggplant (yuxiang qiezi), deep-fried and coated in a garlicky bean sauce (the name is misleading: There is no fish in the dish; it is merely prepared in the style of fish) for $7.95 was tasty as usual.
As before, the buffet has both items catering to Americans, such as General Tso’s, and more adventuresome dishes. When we went after the remodel, they were serving deep fried prawns and vinegar lotus root. And four choices with rice for $6.99 is still one of the best lunch deals in the area. But as with any food kept warm by chafing dishes and heat lamps, proceed with caution (see Gourmet Heaven, 12:00 a.m.).
Maybe the food was never good. Maybe the old Great Wall’s unrefined allure — that special feeling of eating in its most genuine form, now lost — blinded me to the food’s mediocrity. Sadly, I don’t think I will find myself eating at Great Wall much more in the future.