Pembina may be a nightmare if you're looking for an address, but when it comes to great Chinese food it's the gift that keeps on giving.
Its latest gift is Golden Loong, which specializes in the cuisine of Xi'an in Northwest China, a city famous for its fabulous terra cotta warriors. It's less well known in these parts for its fabulous cuisine.
The menu isn't long, as Chinese menus go, but it's such a fascinating read that deciding what to order can be maddening. The occasional dish may turn up on other menus, but this is the first one I've seen that is devoted almost entirely to Xi'an-style cooking, featuring dishes you're unlikely to find anywhere else. Not even on Pembina.
The place oozes authenticity (on two visits my bunch were the only non-Chinese in the place). For the adventurous there are such exotica as pork heart and tongue in chili sauce, griddled pork intestines in spicy sauce or spicy pork tripe with green chili. I wish I could have eaten my way through the entire menu but I stayed in more familiar territory (so much to try, so little time). In any case you don't need to be adventurous to eat here; the names of some dishes may seem unfamiliar, but none of the flavours will be.
Prices are standard Chinese, ranging from $4.95 (cold noodles with shredded chicken) to $14.95 (sliced beef in chili oil), but the portions they buy are truly enormous. Many dishes are very spicy -- three peppers spicy -- but can be toned down on request. However, some that were symbolized by a single pepper were nowhere near searing -- possibly (a guess) because we had inquired about the degree of heat. My spice tolerance isn't that high, but on a return visit I found two-pepper dishes to be quite bearable. Fire-seekers should probably let them know how much heat they can handle.
A long list of wheat noodle dishes are among the stars, with at least 15 on the menu, plus another 20 to 30 (I lost count) on a table card. That card is where the Xi'an style cold noodles are listed -- a superb dish that was moderately spiced with chili oil, and garnished with strips of cucumber, bean sprouts and squares of something that looked like tripe but turned out to be thin lacy squares of wheat gluten. It's also where we found the cold vinegar-seasoned vermicelli-like noodles with strips of chicken, punctuated by peanuts and tiny salty black beans.
All the noodles are freshly made here, but the big showpiece is the hand-ripped noodles which -- if you are seated near the open kitchen -- you might see the process of being hand-stretched and ripped. The result is inch-wide, al dente but still tender noodles, so incredibly long and twisty they are challenge to both chopsticks and forks (I finally resorted to thumb and forefinger for more manageable lengths). They were dotted with little nuggets of fried pork and onions, and the sweetish zing of what might have been Szechuan peppercorns.
I wish there were more descriptions or (even better) pictures of the dishes. Saut©ed Chicken in Iron Wok, for instance, in no way prepared us for that stunning dish, with hints of cumin and star anise in the bone-in, crackly-skinned little chunks of chicken, tossed with slippery-crunchy whole black cloud ear mushrooms, slices of garlic-infused potato and strips of deep-fried dough.
Another surprise was the drama and textural beauty of Shredded Pork With Crispy Rice, i.e. rice cakes that sizzled when doused at table with a hot mixture of sliced pork, cucumber julienne, cloud ears and slices of perfectly ripe tomatoes. Even the simple-sounding Omelet With Pork came adorned with cucumbers and cloud ears. Tender slices of lamb with cumin were also particularly good, and pretty much what we'd expected, and so was pork with pickled (if not quite pickled enough for me) cabbage.
Don't miss the Stewed Pork Burger -- not to be confused with any other kind of burger. Chewy-crispy buns that look like a cross between flatbread and an English muffin are folded around an addictive pulled pork filling with a salty-sweet flavour oddly reminiscent of French rillettes ($3.98). They're small, and it would take two to make a lunch.
Other dishes that might sound ho-humish are anything but. Despite a slightly peppery undertone, the beautiful winter melon soup with pork meat balls offers delicate but full-flavoured comfort. Saut©ed thinly shredded potatoes are coated with oil and quickly stir-fried with, perhaps, a splash of vinegar, resulting in a texture akin to raw potatoes but with a much nicer taste. The even simpler-sounding deep-fried green beans (Chinese long beans, I suspect), sprinkled with bits of peppery pork, were outstanding.
The restaurant is tucked in at the northern end of a strip mall near Markham Road. Entry is into a narrow, diner-like room with comfortably padded four-seater booths, and lovely antique artifacts on dusty pink walls. An inner dining room is spacious and more elegant, with bigger tables and ornate Chinese chairs. It's a trade-off though -- the tables hold more dishes than those with the booths but, on the other hand, those ornate chairs are low in relation to the tables, and the unpadded seats are hard.
Despite problems with communication, the service was uncommonly warm and attentive. We were greeted with smiles and the servers were particularly patient and helpful once they understood that we were really interested in their fascinating cuisine.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.