The best Chinese food in Baltimore isn’t really in Baltimore. It’s housed in a nondescript strip mall, sandwiched between a beauty salon and a Cluck-U chicken wings franchise. Because parking at the North Odenton Plaza is in a rear lot, we enter the restaurant, Grace Garden (1690 Annapolis Road, Odenton,  672-3581, gracegardenchinese.com), through its back door—a memorable first impression.
You can’t miss the entrance, marked by some kind of shiny metallic tank that sits outside the door. After walking down a long hallway lined with fake brickwork, fluorescent lighting, and a dirty, gray floor, a sign directs us to the right. To the left is the open door of another business—a T-shirt printing place—where rap music blares from a radio. Turning the corner, we also happen to pass the open delivery door to Grace Garden’s kitchen where the diminutive chef is working his industrial-sized wok with the dexterity of a juggler. Scooping up various sauces and ingredients with a long, stainless-steel spoon, he throws them into the wok with plenty of banging and clanking, conjuring a burst of flames. Then he casually flips the contents of the wok into the air with his other hand.
Hailing from Hong Kong, chef Chun Keung Li, 54, began his culinary apprenticeship at the age of 13. He didn’t have a particular passion for cooking at that time, but says, “When I was a child, I was hungry. No money to eat, and it was not easy to fill my stomach, so I thought working in a kitchen is a good choice to fill up my stomach.” By the age of 25, he had worked his way up to a position at a five-star hotel. “At the hotel, they got different stations,” he continues in his thick accent. “When you’re a sauce cook, you’re always a sauce cook—just do that only. Nothing I could learn anymore, so I quit.” Around the same time, Li’s mother, who had already immigrated to America with both his younger sister and brother, told him to join them in the U.S. He arrived in 1989, when he was 28. Li’s first job here was cooking at a Chinese restaurant on Reisterstown Road, before joining Hunan Manor in Columbia. He worked there for 13 years, eventually becoming executive chef. Then, in 2005, he decided to venture out on his own, opening Grace Garden at the urging of his wife, Xiu Mei, who presides over the front of the house. Ten years later, it’s still consistently the best Chinese food around.
There are two menus at Grace Garden, and thankfully Xiu Mei gives us the Chinese one as we sit down at one of the round banquet tables covered with a red, polyester tablecloth. This version is bound and laminated, while the American menu is a single sheet of paper folded into four featuring such “standards” as General Tso’s chicken and beef with broccoli. The dining room has a worn-in but comfortable look and feel, and an entire wall to the right of the real entrance proudly displays reviews from The Washington Post, City Paper, and Zagat Guide as well as wood-framed portraits of some of their dishes.
Because it’s our first time here, we pore over the substantial offerings, ordering much more food than two people could possibly eat in order to sample a good cross section of the menu. Chef Li has mastered many styles of regional cooking—including Cantonese, Hunanese, and Sichuan—so our expectations are high.
As it’s not very busy on this Saturday afternoon, the dishes start coming out in quick succession. First up is the hot and spicy smoky shrimp ($16.95), served lightly fried with the head on, and sauteed with whole chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. The chef doesn’t skimp on the shrimp, whose heads are loaded with a flavorful cocktail that I suck out with satisfaction, but he is even more generous with the blackened chilies, which dominate the plate. They are not as spicy as one might imagine because the Sichuan peppercorns help numb your mouth to the heat.
The chili pepper chicken ($14.95) arrives next—chunks of breast meat that have also been lightly fried before being tossed in a spicy sauce—and this dish is equally delicious. The crispy eggplant ($11.95), which features thick slices coated with batter, deep-fried, and smothered in a sweet sauce—either plum or hoisin—lives up to its name with an audible crunch. Its sweetness is oddly addictive, perhaps because the other dishes are on the spicier side.
I’ve never eaten a dish like the braised pork belly with mui choy ($14.95), which has been slow-cooked as to practically melt in your mouth, with the mustard greens providing a natural complement. The Sichuan spicy beef ($14.95), embellished with red bell peppers and leeks, is the only dish that bears any resemblance to Chinese food I have eaten before. It’s also the only dish of the meal that is slightly greasy, though the thin strips of beef are incredibly tender. Finally, we are treated to the chef’s own creation, fish noodles ($22.95), which have a light, springy consistency and delicate flavor. They are hand-formed and made with only fish, egg, and some kind of binding agent, which the chef refuses to disclose when I ask him about it after the meal.
Because the portions are substantial, we wind up with plenty for the following day’s dinner. As his wife packs up some take-home containers for us, the chef comes out for a chat. I ask him why he has chosen such an out-of-the-way location for his restaurant.
“Because this place is close to my house,” he responds. “And here the lease is cheaper,” adds his wife. That also explains whey they never advertise or have expanded, says his wife, “Because only him can cook, so we cannot do too much business. This kind of menu you must have 10 years experience cooking.”
“Doesn’t matter how long the chef they working,” says Li, who wears a camouflage baseball cap and glasses. “When a guy is doing something from the heart it’s different. You always have to cook from the heart,” says Li, touching his chest. With a philosophy as admirable as that, and food to match, it’s no wonder his customers keep coming back. We certainly will be.
Grace Garden is open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.