The All-New Great China Restaurant
One of the things I enjoy most these days are the occasional dinners where many close friends get together. Amidst busy lives and commitments, after spending our twenties and much of our thirties together inseparably many days per week, it’s becoming harder and harder to gather as a large group for dinner. So when we do, that is a treat in and of itself.
The other Saturday, a group of 15 got together for a dinner that a friend organized. There was no occasion except that Great China Restaurant was now open in a new location in Berkeley, and many of us had not been. Most intriguing to me is that Great China Restaurant offers Shandong cuisine — which means that I’d be continuing my quest for great Korean-Chinese cooking.
In Korea, this Korean-Chinese cooking is easy to come by. You have access to some amazing dishes even as home delivery items, with one of Korea’s most popular dishes being “jja jang myun” — a black bean sauce over hand-pulled noodles dish that both children and adults love. Oddly, I have such a hard time finding a really outstanding bowl of jja jang myun outside of Korea, so my quest has continued to this day.
The new space for Great China Restaurant is actually quite stunning. It’s an architecturally interesting space with a live-work loft-like feel with somewhat bright lighting and big windows. In contrast to the modern feel where one might excpect Hakkasan or a Chinese restaurant of similiar staffing with an Americanized feel, the staff at Great China Restaurant is actually quite typical of any other Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area — quite authentic, if nothing else.
The Food at Great China Restaurant
First up: Double Skin Salad at Great China Restaurant
This is a must when you visit Great China Restaurant. It’s basically identical to Chinese-Korean “yang jang pi” (양장피 잡채). There’s a truly Korean jap-chae where you have the glass noodles and beef with vegetables — and the Korean-Chinese version of this is yang-jang-pi, or double skin, as it’s called at Great China Restaurant. My personal preference is for the Korean-Chinese version which is less fried and mustard-based, versus the wholly Korean version which is wholly based on soy sauce.
The double skin salad at Great China Restaurant is perhaps the best I’ve tasted in the Bay Area. Los Angeles has some outstanding examples of this dish, but in the SF Bay Area, I haven’t had better than this. The mung bean noodles are slightly moist and slightly warm, contrasting wonderfully to slightly cold and raw vegetables and a plethora of other ingredients. The mustard-soy sauce covers each portion of this dish, which is mixed tableside, and enhances the flavors of each. The addition of cucumbers keeps it very salad-like, but its substantial enough to serve as a nice meal instead of the usual appetizer role it takes. The meat and egg gives the dish some substance, and all in all, Great China Restaurant makes an outstanding Double Skin Salad.
Second: Winter Melon and Seafood Soup
Next up was the winter melon and seafood soup that a friend had ordered for the table. Good thing, too, because left to me, I’d have opted for one of the more typical fares just to see how it compared to other restaurants’ soups. What was served was a gelatinous white soup that was a glorious mix of savory and hearty flavors. The winter melon, or white gourd as some call it, is gently boiled in a meat broth (I feel like it was pork but I didn’t ask, so I’m not certain) with seafood, and what results is exemplary of comfort soup. Strangely, despite its more gelatinous texture and big flavors, the soup remains light and fresh, thanks to the taste of the winter melons. I’d order this time and again at Great China Restaurant.
Third: Peking Duck at Great China Restaurant
I recall some extraordinary Peking Duck in Hong Kong — but as far as I recollect, I dont’ believe it was as good as the Peking Duck I had at Great China Restaurant. I remember needing to call restaurants a day in advance to inform them that I’d be ordering Peking Duck, and it was worth it. Not having been to mainland China, I’m sure there are far more outstanding Peking Duck examples there. That said, of all the Peking Duck I’ve had from coast to coast, and in various parts of Asia — this one stands out.
At Great China Restaurant, the separation of the skin from the meat was exemplary. You almost believe it was cooked separately because to get a skin this thin and crispy with a meat retaining this much of its moistness is improbable for anyone who has cooked duck before. You either opt for a really crispy skin and juiceless meat, or a juicy meat with a moist skin that has great flavor but no crispness. At Great China Restaurant, the Peking Duck rules.
Unlike other Peking Duck restaurants, Great China Restaurant serves this dish with a thin crepe. I especially love this because with the typical puffy white pancake that Peking Duck is served with, you need a lot of meat and sauce for it to stand out against the “doughiness” of the wrap. At Great China Restaurant, this problem is eradicated, and the thin perfectly shaped crepe adds just a little bit of a base to the creation. Put a little of the hoisin sauce on the crepe, toss in a crispy skin, a piece of meat, top with scallions and wrap it up to plop in the mouth. Really, it’s quite extraordinary. Our table of fifteen people ordered three of these dishes and we finished every last bit of it.
Fourth: Walnut Prawns at Great China Restaurant
Ordinarily, I’m not one to order walnut prawns, as much as I love prawns. In most American Chinese restaurant, this dish is a blasphemy to prawns in general, as I am certain there was no prawn in the world that wanted to be a piece of candy. And that is usually how sweet this dish is — slathered in sauce and caramelized to the point of being candy; it always feels more like a dessert than an entree! At Great China Restaurant, though, it was actually quite spectacular. It was, indeed, sweet, but just enough to bring out the sweetness of the deep-fried prawn itself, and none of it was drowning in sauce. The breading offered a slight crunch into the outside of the prawn and the prawn meat was cooked perfectly — moist and flavorful. If I hadn’t been so full by this point, I’d have taken a whole plate to myself.
Fifth: Green Onion….Lamb?
I trust my taste buds. At a table of fifteen, if fourteen other people disagreed with me – I would still trust my own taste buds. I may shut up about it, but if I taste something to be a certain way, I wouldn’t change my mind just because everyone disagreed with my assessment.
That said — if all the people who tasted it agree with me — then you can imagine how much more certain I become. And while the Green Onion “Lamb” served by Great China Restaurant was GOOD — the portion that our end of the table received from the three orders we placed —–
WAS NOT LAMB.
This was most definitely beef, through and through. The texture, the flavor and back-end taste of it was all beef. Good beef, at that — and tenderized like you wouldn’t believe. However, it was beef, not lamb. A friend at the table said as much to our server, who flat out told us we’re wrong. I can’t stand it when servers insist something is not a certain way when they haven’t tasted the food, but a beef dish was not worth making the evening news for, so we dropped it.
A friend at the other of the table said it does taste like lamb, so we tasted their plate.
And THAT was lamb. OURS, I kid you not, was not lamb.
But all things are forgivable if it’s delicious and this dish was really good. It was just a beef dish, that’s all.
Sixth and Seventh: Chinese String Beans and Garlic Fried Rice
Some side dishes ordered were the Chinese String Beans and the Garlic Fried Rice. There was some strange business going on where if we pay in cash, then a free fried rice was offered. Since the majority of us were intending on paying in cash anyway, we took them up on the offer. While no other type of fried rice was part of this deal, the garlic fried rice was really good. For a Chinese fried rice, it was a stickier short-grained rice, which I love — and all of the seasoning was with salt — which I also love.
The string beans were string beans — nicely seasoned and perfectly flash-cooked. But I don’t have much more to say about it except that it’s a good choice for a side dish if you are wanting to order vegetables.
Eighth: JJA JANG MYUN
Now, stop the presses, because I’m about to make a declaration.
Great China Restaurant just may have the best jja jang myun I have found this side of California (meaning in Northern California).
There was one place in South San Jose where I had an amazing bowl of jja jang myun (짜장면) many, many years ago but I can’t remember the name. Other than that place, I have yet to find any bowl of jja jang myun that was comparable to jja jang myun found in Korea.
Until Great China Restaurant.
The meat to vegetable ratio in the black bean sauce is spot-on. The texture of the sauce is just watery enough and not dense or clumping on top like some places offer, but it’s also not leaking through the individual pieces of noodles either. Perfect.
The noodles are cooked fresh and are still mixable in the bowl, and the sauce to noodle ratio is wonderful. Additionally, the portion served was outstanding — where no less than five of us got a small serving from one bowl, though I could easily down the whole bowl if it was the only thing we ordered.
Altogether, there’s a very subtle flavor that I can’t put my finger on at this moment (probably because I was so full by the time this came out) that makes it ever-so-slightly different from the typical Korean-Chinese Jja Jang Myun, but I intend to go back to figure out what that was.
DEFINITELY try the jja jang myun at Great China Restaurant.
Ninth: Steamed Surf Clams (Giant Clams)
Our final order for the night was the “giant clams” at Great China Restaurant. These really are big, though I think my photos don’t quite reflect that accurately. The clams themselves are sliced underneath the bed of scallions shown, and each shell has a nice amount of soupy goodness — the juice the clams are cooked in.
On this evening, this was the one dish I can’t say was outstanding. It came highly recommended by a friend who loves Great China Restaurant, and it could have been great but I found the clams to be overcooked and chewy. I’d have much preferred the whole clam and perhaps then, it wouldn’t have overcooked. As a huge fan of clams in general, I was a tad disappointed with this dish at Great China Restaurant.
Summary of Great China Restaurant
After a huge fire in 2012, Great China Restaurant was closed for over a year before they reopened at this location. While it’s a new restaurant, it’s an old establishment that offers proven recipes that make for amazing Chinese cuisine with a heavy Korean influence. As mentioned, the jja jang myun is truly delicious, and the Double Skin Salad and Peking Duck are not to be missed. Despite the quantity we ordered, this is but a mere fraction of what’s on the menu at Great China Restaurant. Based on the taste of the majority of the dishes, I’d be overjoyed to go back at any time to try more dishes.
For reasons unknown, Korean-Chinese restaurants that are so prevalent in all of Korea are hard to come by here in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s a real treat to have Great China Restaurant just across the Bay in Berkeley.
Great China Restaurant is located at 2190 Bancroft Way in Berkeley, close to campus, and is open daily for lunch and dinner. You can find their hours on their website and I would highly recommend making reservations as the line will form outside the door before the doors even open. You can make reservations HERE as they are not on Opentable.
It’s a great place for group dinners as well as dinner for two, and some of their more popular dishes are offered in smaller servings for smaller parties.
Addictive Factor: 9.4/10
Overall Rating: 8.8/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.