Jan’s Chinese isn’t exactly new. It used to be called “Casual Wok and Grille” and it’s still tucked into the same unassuming, half-empty strip mall off Montgomery Road.
The name change honors new head chef HJ Jan, a picture of whom dominates the entry vestibule like a broadly grinning Iron Chef.
In the next area, a full bar (from which we’ll later order a very stiff Mai Tai and two Virgin Coladas) sits across from a red wall that’s all but obliterated by Chef Jan’s many awards, including a prestigious Gold Medal from the 2008 IKA/Culinary Olympics.
While these plaques aren’t really attractive, the sheer number is impressive, and I guess they’re better than those back-lit close-ups of Kung Pao Chicken and Sweet & Sour Pork.
As we sit down, our server, Susan, hands us two menus. A big, colorful, tri-fold lists familiar sounding selections: Chop Suey, Moo Shu, Lo Mein. As a reviewer, I start to worry if I’ll be able to discern any significant difference between Jan’s versions and what’s found in other stripmall Chinese. (I also question how this kind of food could win “10 gold medals since 1983!”)
Then my son points to an apparent typo in the pork section of the other menu — a laminated one-pager that seems like an afterthought. He laughingly asks why a blank line says it costs $7.95. I can’t figure it out — and we notice several other such “typos.” So we ask and Susan explains the second menu lists only “real” Chinese food. Apparently, certain dishes are only written in Chinese since non-Asians “don’t order them.” We persist, so she translates: “This one is pig stomach; this is intestine. This is pig stomach and intestine …”
Now we’re motoring!
Unfortunately, we aren’t all in the mood for organ meats, but we still ask for Susan’s help in choosing truly authentic Chinese dishes to share. So when my daughter asks for an eggroll, Susan suggests the scallion pancake ($5.25). Hot, moist and oniony, it reminds me of paratha (Indian flatbread). Cut into triangles, one can see why legend identifies this dish as the inspiration for pizza, after Marco Polo brought it home from his travels.
When my son mentions wonton soup, he’s steered to the pickled vegetable and flounder soup ($6). The pickled veggies really impart a wonderful intensity to the light broth and gently simmered, not-fishytasting fish. Another winner!
By now we have completely put our trust in our server, who, sensing our enthusiasm, is intent on assembling a broad variety of authentic dishes: hot and cold; spicy and savory; meatless and … meatful.
Two simple but perfectly conceived vegetarian dishes appear. Cold cucumber wedges ($3) are tossed in a light, spicy chili sauce. The cooling vegetable and hot peppers prove an irresistible combination; I can’t stop eating them. A comforting mound of Chinese broccoli ($5) has been quickly stir fried with oil and sliced garlic. Maybe this is another dish Marco Polo introduced to Italy, because I grew up eating something remarkably similar called broccoli rabe.
Next up is a large Hot Pot ($15.95) loaded with goodies — shrimp and scallops, fish and squid, silken tofu and vegetables. The thickened broth is fragrant and floral, though maybe too delicate. Served over rice, the dish is good, but a touch bland.
A platter of beautifully sliced Fried Squid (or, to Marco Polo, calamari fritto) ($8) is gently tossed with sweet bell pepper and scallions. It’s tender, colorful and perfectly fried, but could use a drizzle of sauce and a sprinkle of salt.
I see Peking Duck on the menu and groan because we hadn’t known to order 24 hours in advance. Susan scoffs and says Jan sells a lot of this signature dish, so you can get a full ($40) or partial order ($21) to your table in only about 30 minutes. Soon, she’s donning surgical gloves to helpfully wrap our pancakes with juicy breast meat and crispy skin, slices of cucumber, scallion and slightly sweet bean sauce. Luscious and greaseless, this is some deliciousass duck. Everybody enjoys it — even my wife, who doesn’t normally eat “game.”
We finish with chewy coconut pastries filled with macerated peanuts and think our meal is done. But Susan brings some fortune cookies with our bill. We’re all shocked: We didn’t think these were authentically Chinese!
“They’re not,” she agrees with a wink. “But the kids like them.”
While I haven’t yet tried the pig intestine or beef tendon, I will. And we’ll also be back for the Cantonese-style Dim Sum served on weekends. While Jan’s isn’t terribly convenient to our home, Chef Jan’s passion for authentic cooking and pristine ingredients has earned it a regular spot in our family dining rotation. (It may not be a gold medal, but Jan has enough of those anyway.)
Go: 10000 Montgomery Road, Montgomery
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Sunday; Dim Sum 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays
Entrée Prices: $6.95-$40 (full order of Peking Duck)
Red Meat Alternatives: Loads
Accessibility: Easily accessible