An elusive, authentic Chinese experience at Jasmine

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Many of us foodies are obsessed with the notion that the better Chinese restaurants have two menus. One is for Westerners — the usual pedestrian fare like sweet and sour chicken and vegetable fried rice. The other, the holy grail of Asian cuisine, is the elusive “Chinese Menu.” It is full of mysterious, exotic delicacies, and reserved for people of Chinese descent. (If this were a radio broadcast, at this point the sound effects technician would insert the resonant sound of a large gong.)

Catch us in our bitter moments and we’ll start complaining of culinary apartheid, invoking the 1964 Civil Rights Act and comparing the “Chinese Menu” conspiracy [gong] to Bush’s Operation Iraqi Deception or Operation Social Security Scam.

One way to get hold of the “Chinese Menu” [gong] is to have an inside source. Thus it was that my wife Mary asked her Tai Chi instructor, Yong You, who teaches at the Crane House, to recomm/files/storyimages/a Chinese restaurant. Not only did Yong You recomm/files/storyimages/Jasmine, a cheery little spot in a commercial development near the intersection of Shelbyville Road and the Gene Snyder, he also jotted down some Chinese characters that would gain us entree to the “Chinese Menu” [gong].

Well, it worked. But I’m pretty sure the enthusiastic owner of Jasmine, Lan Zhang (who also owns Wang’s Wok in Middletown), will give you the Chinese menu just for the asking. In fact, an insert in the regular menu highlights some of the rarer Chinese dishes (a commendably democratic gesture, to be sure, though for foodies it robs the experience of its enticing exclusivity).

I have to confess, some items on that menu don’t appeal to me. For instance, there’s pig ear Szechuan style — frankly, I prefer Hunan pig ear. Then there’s sauteed spicy intestines, another dish I passed over.

But apart from those, both the “Chinese Menu” [gong] and the regular Western menu are the gateway to some distinguished cooking that more than justify the drive (a mere 17 miles from my Old Louisville home).

On a recent visit, Mary, our fri/files/storyimages/Iris and I worked through a bunch of delightful dishes with nary a hitch in service or food quality. In fact, despite the humble atmosphere, the food was distinctive enough to earn the restaurant a place among the best Louisville restaurants.

We started with cold sesame noodles ($4.50) and Szechuan won tons ($4.95). Iris asserts that it’s impossible to find bad cold sesame noodles. Having eaten too many clumpy, chilly, generally inedible examples, I disagree. Regardless, the Jasmine version belongs at the top of any list. Lan Zhang took a couple of moments to mix up our noodles at the table, patiently distributing the rust-colored sauce (Iris called it burnt umber) through the nicely tempered, barely cool noodles. This was a dish full of textural contrast and spicy heat, tender noodles combining with crisp sprouts to delight the mouth.

The Szechuan won tons looked as wonderful as they tasted; they were served on a thick bed of Chinese cabbage adorned with dried chilis. (All chilis referred to looked like Sichuan peppercorns to me, but as you may have heard, there is currently a federal ban on importation of these peppercorns, and since I’m not a botanist, I can’t say for sure.) The won tons were warmly spiced with a hot sauce that lingered near the bottom of the assembly, but rewarded a bit of searching.

We chose two of our entrees from Yong You’s recommendations. Spicy chili chunk ($7.95) can be had with the chicken on or off the bone, and after some discussion we opted for on, based on Iris’ theory that chicken on the bone must be more flavorful. Man, what an addictive dish! Bite-sized chunks of crispy chicken were served on a platter littered with gleaming red chilis, shards of green onions and crisp, little wafers that turned out to be furtive chunks of charred ginger and garlic.

Another dish, sliced pork with bean curd ($7.95), was commendable in every respect. Slightly sweet (along the lines of Mongolian beef, but with more intricate nuance than the typical Mongolian beef), it featured slender strips of tofu, more scallions and judicious quantities of sauteed pork.

Another intriguing dish (especially for vegetarians) is simply called “Chinese greens stir fried” ($7.50). Here, a gorgeous mess of greens (Iris dubbed this color “sap green”) and scattered red chilis create a Christmasy glow. The greens, cong xin cai, or “empty heart” (because they’re shaped like a hollow tube), are sometimes referred to as water spinach. Jasmine’s version is a full-flavored, satisfying concoction that gives off a rich, garlicky juice and is as scrumptious as the meat dishes.

A license to serve alcoholic beverages is pending for this 3-month-old restaurant. In the meantime, there are soft drinks and tea.

Jasmine is located at 13823 English Villa Drive (from the Gene Snyder, it’s about a half mile farther away from town, in a strip on the right side anchored by a Walgreen’s, a couple of doors down from a Graeter’s). The restaurant appeared to be fully accessible for people using wheelchairs and it is smoke-free. Major credit cards are accepted. Hours are Sunday 12-9:30 p.m.; Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Call 244-8896 for more info.

Jasmine
13823 English Villa Drive
244-8896
Ranking: 4
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