Taste the tofu

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Rating: Exquisite

“Don’t lean into your soup,” Jesse, 11, instructed his sister Steph, 13. “Bring the food to your mouth.”

He slurped up a large spoonful of egg flower soup. Steph, stubbornly not heeding Jesse’s advice (gleaned from repeated viewings of the movie Tortilla Soup), leaned dramatically over her bowl.

“What are the white chunks?” Steph asked me.


“What’s tofu?”

“It’s bean curd. You know how if you add the right stuff to milk, you get cheese curds?”

“So this is made from beans?”

“Yeah. Soybeans.”

“I’ve never had tofu before,” Steph said. “I wondered what it tasted like.”

“It doesn’t taste like much of anything by itself,” I said. “It takes on the flavors of the dish.”

Jesse, obviously feeling left out of this conversation, chimed in.

“So, what are the white chunks?” he asked with a perfectly straight face.

Jesse enjoys driving me over the edge.

My kids are huge Asian food fans, but they’ve latched on to a couple of Chinese food restaurants over the past few years and aren’t always thrilled about trying new places. We ate at a more authentic Chinese restaurant in Monterey, Calif., earlier this year, and the kids were less than thrilled. The restaurant didn’t serve anything called “general chicken,” for one thing, and for my young’uns, there’s just no joy like the breaded, fried, sauced bits o’ poultry with a side of fried rice.

Good news. A trip to China Garden, which opened in February near Sports West on South Virginia Street, added an option to our family’s dining-out possibilities. Steph gave the Garden’s version of general chicken a big thumb’s up, and Jesse gave his cashew chicken an “A-plus"—but he picked out the celery.

“I hate this stuff,” he said.

China Garden’s lunch specials—a choice of 30 entrees including all the usual Szechuans, Kung Paos and bok choys—run $4.25, and that includes fried rice, soup, an egg roll and a healthy scoop of chicken chow mein. Having the lunch special advertised on a big banner outside the building, actually, almost made me pass over China Garden. A $4 lunch sounds like fast food to me, so on my first trip a few months ago, I expected cafeteria clutter and lousy service. I was wrong on both counts. The interior is tidy, with attractive, comfortable tables and chairs. (When asked to describe his surroundings, Jesse pursed his lips and snootily dubbed the restaurant “exquisite.” Steph was succinct. “It’s pink,” she said.)

My glass of ice water with a lemon slice never seemed to get empty. And both of my kids noticed the speed at which we were served.

“Usually the food doesn’t come for five or six minutes after you finish your soup,” Steph said.

“Yeah, and you have to sit around and get bored,” Jesse said.

Our lunch tab for three came to $15, and that’s only because I ordered a spendy sesame shrimp noodle bowl ($5.50). The shrimp was heavily breaded, and the sauce was spicy enough to make me appreciate that full glass of ice water.

China Garden also has dinner specials ($6.25) and family dinners for two or more people ($7.95 to $12.95 per person). Besides that, there are a whopping 70 a la carte dishes—10 of them vegetarian, such as snow peas with water chestnuts, Szechuan vegetables and curry tofu, all of which sound tempting. I’m thinking the tofu with black bean sauce sounds intriguing. After all, the soy milk from which tofu is made contains eight essential amino acids and “is truly a gift from God,” according to content at the Web site Tofu.com.

But my kids will probably stick with the general chicken.