If you weren't looking for it, you would almost certainly pass Grace Garden without giving it a second thought. Situated in a strip mall in Odenton, adjacent to a chicken-wing joint, it looks like any of the countless Chinese takeout restaurants in the area. But if you were keen enough to notice the glowing reviews in the window, or the glorious aromas pouring out of the kitchen, you might discover some of the best Chinese food in the region.
Grace Garden actually has two menus, an "Americanized" one, where you'll find standbys like beef with broccoli and General Tso's chicken, and the "Eastern-style Chinese" menu. Around lunchtime, plenty of people, presumably seeking a midday meal, stroll through the no-frills space, just blocks from the Fort Meade Army base, to pick up carryout orders from the "Americanized" menu. At the same time, the big round tables are usually filled with serious foodies, many of whom traveled from Washington and Baltimore, eager to try the more exotic plates.
There are so many diverse flavors, textures, and ingredients offered here that we highly recommend going with a group of at least four or, ideally, six or more people. Any one dish can satisfy, but we quickly found many more we were curious to try.
An essential dish is the fish noodles: handmade noodles made of ground fish and sautéed with Chinese sausage, mushrooms, green onion, and cilantro. These flat noodles are delicate and mild, yet these characteristics seem to magically deepen in the moments after you first taste them. On successive bites, the refinement only becomes clearer. Since dishes are served to order, the noodles will likely arrive early on—it takes a strong will to resist the temptation to slurp up a plateful, but resist you should. There are other temptations on their way.
On the other end of the spectrum, the braised pork belly with mui-choy is bold and hearty initially. The meat is thinly sliced and presented as a mini-brisket with mui-choy—preserved mustard greens—heaped on top. Each bite is a salty, succulent treat. On a subsequent trip, we tried the Sichuan steamed pork, this time cooked with chili paste and rice powder. It proved to be piquant with a grainy, but not unpleasant, mouth feel. On both visits, we liked to alternate bites of the pork with nips at our crispy eggplant, which was deep-fried and smothered in a sticky-sweet sauce that almost made it seem candied.
Among the most interesting items at Grace Garden is the velvety homemade tofu mousse. It has a soft, pliable consistency, somewhere between a marshmallow and an egg white. In the tofu pockets dish, the mousse is formed into ping-pong-sized balls, mixed with shrimp paste, and braised with either a spicy or brown sauce. The spicy mixture contrasted nicely with the smooth tofu and, again, created an experience that was more pleasant with every bite.
For another distinctive dish, try the Taiwanese-style fish. Cubes of tender fish are sautéed with ground pork, pickled cabbage, chili peppers, green peppers, and cilantro. Yet again, the savory flavor of the dense stew seems to transcend the distinct flavors of the elements, creating a combination that is at once new and yet as easy to eat as mac and cheese. (This was another instance when we had to force ourselves to put down the chopsticks.)
Though the task may seem impossible after this amount of food, try to save a tiny bit of room for the Chinese donut holes. The lightly-fried homemade rolls are gently coated with sugar, but are much lighter than traditional doughnuts.
No matter how many dishes you sample at Grace Garden, you're likely to be intrigued by at least a half-dozen more. After we had eaten, we heard another diner raving about the Sichuan fish fillets, which are braised in a hot chili broth with peppercorns in the Sichuan "ma-la" style. He described it as "tingly." There are also several dishes prepared in a smoker, including smoke tea duck, which has to be ordered three days in advance.
Next time, we'll be more prepared. We now understand what all the fuss is about.