Located in an unassuming shopping center along Valley Avenue in the outskirts of West Homewood, The Great Wall Chinese Restaurant has been serving three generations of loyal customers. But, for the majority of their 40-year history, they’ve been keeping a secret — a secret Szechuan menu, that is. Chinese patrons knew about the secret and regularly requested authentic Szechuan dishes from this clandestine card. And, oh, how their American counterparts were missing out!
While many classic “American Chinese” dishes are essentially milder versions of Szechuan cuisine, the real thing blossoms with a dizzying and tantalizing complexity. China’s Sichuan Province is colloquially dubbed the “heavenly country,” because of its abundance of food and natural resources. UNESCO declared Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, a “city of gastronomy” in 2011, recognizing the sophistication of its cooking. Often bold and spicy, due to the common use of garlic and chili peppers, Szechuan cuisine’s flavors run the gamut of sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic and salty, and are usually paired with non-spicy dishes to cool the palate. Sichuan peppercorns are perhaps the most memorable ingredient. The intensely fragrant pepper creates a tingly, numbing sensation that, when combined with savory spices and sumptuous texture, is simply divine. Needless to say, authentic Szechuan cuisine is a foodie’s dream.
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“Chinese people like real Chinese food, so we had this menu for them,” explains Jing Hu, a server at The Great Wall. “Then, every now and then, an American would request it.” More and more people began requesting the covert card. Adds Jing with a smile, “Eventually, it wasn’t a secret anymore!”
Great Wall owner, Sunny Lin, recently wooed a talented chef away from New York City to helm the kitchen. A native of Sichuan Province himself, Chef Lee is enriching and adding to the beloved, not-so-secret-anymore menu. For instance, a newly added, oft-ordered darling is the Golden Soup with Beef — a warming, savory golden broth with white and enoki mushrooms, tofu, cabbage, peppercorn and chili peppers, topped with beef. Or try the whole fish, a gorgeously presented dish with lotus, mushrooms, cabbage, mixed vegetables and peanuts that serves two to three.
“American people are not too familiar with real Chinese food, and I wish they could open their minds and try it. I love to show American people what authentic Chinese tastes like,” says Sunny. “After you try it, you’ll know the real difference between real Chinese and ‘American Chinese.’ And we can do spicy and not spicy.”
Timid diners should try the crowd-favorite, Dan Dan noodle, an appetizer served with a spicy sauce of preserved vegetables, chili oil, Sichuan pepper, minced pork and scallions served over noodles. “My favorites are the garlic fish ball and the wonton in spicy peanut sauce,” says Sunny of her favorite appetizers. The flaming pan chicken is a popular entrée that Sunny recommends for beginners, and you can also choose beef, shrimp, tofu, squid, crab or veggies to anchor this dish. Ribs are a Szechuan specialty. Great Wall offers fried baby ribs with garlic or salted egg yolk, sweet and sour baby ribs, the ever-popular cumin spare ribs, or Jing’s preference, the Szechuan-style spare ribs with a spicy dry rub of chili and peppers. For a not-so-spicy delight, try the Shanghai-style meatballs — four large meatballs served with mushrooms, bok choy and a special sauce.
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If you’re looking for a really fun, hands-on experience that the whole family can enjoy, order a “hot pot.” It’s a boiling soup served with raw vegetables and your proteins of choice. You cook it yourself at the table, putting the meat and vegetables into the simmering broth. Each person can tailor their bowl to their own tastes, adding the savory dipping sauce and spicy sauce as desired. For adventurous eaters looking to treat their taste buds to something new, Chef Lee recommends the hot pot with stir-fried spicy intestine.
The veggie dishes are just as creative. For instance, you can try the corn kernels with salted egg yolk — corn kernels stir-fried with flour and egg yolks for a crispy, savory spin on corn-off-the-cob. The garlic cucumber salad is a mashup of cooling, chopped mini cucumber with spicy jalapeños, chili pepper and chili oil, topped with crunchy salted peanuts.
“Because we’ve been here for 40 years, we get a lot of neighborhood regulars,” says Sunny. “We appreciate them and are glad to serve their three generations of families — grandma, grandpa, mother, father and children. Lots of kids grew up here, and I’m so proud and happy to serve them.”
The Great Wall Chinese Restaurant is located at 706 Valley Ave, Birmingham, AL 35209. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call (205) 945-1465 or visit greatwallbirmingham.com, where you can also order online.
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