Cheap Eats - Wan Lai

Cravable Cantonese on Buford Highway

Tuesday May 5, 2009 09:00 am EDT

My friend Kit Fenton is an admitted snob when it comes to Cantonese food, which he grew up eating in Hong Kong. So, my interest was piqued when I got an exclamation-point-riddled text about his new find, Wan Lai (4897 Buford Highway, Chamblee, 678-530-0633). Kit called the food “real Cantonese” and said it was “some of the best” he’d had in Atlanta. I naturally accepted his invitation when he told me he was organizing a large group for a family-style lunch — is there a better kind of meal?

The lunch was on a Sunday when every table restaurant was packed. I like to think I’m a seasoned eater, but the massive menu left me in a frantic state of indecision. What had I never had before? What “litmus dishes” should I have? “Why don’t you just order for everyone, Kit?” I found myself saying. He looked shocked that I’d actually relinquished control over ordering then rattled off our order to the waiter in a mix of his native tongue and English.

A long parade of dishes started rolling in and the Lazy Susan was soon full and in constant rotation as greedy chopsticks darted from platter to plate. A small dish of tender beef brisket and glutinous tendon infused with five-spice powder fared well against the tang of the scallion-laced sweet soy sauce concoction that arrived with most dishes. The mix of sliced pork and preserved egg added depth to the otherwise bland congee (rice porridge). A dash of soy is a quick fix, but there is better congee elsewhere. Kit and I have a mutual noodle fetish; dry-fried beef chow fun in particular. While Ming’s is my old reliable, Wan Lai’s chow fun is crave-worthy. The noodles are slightly narrower than Ming’s, the beef just as tender and fatty, and there is the perfect amount of oil slickness necessary for slurping. The noodles were so good, I requested a second helping toward the end of the meal. It was quickly devoured.

Dishes came and went, but the casseroles and casserole rice — hard-to-find dishes that take 20 minutes to prepare — left everyone wowed. An off-the-menu sweet pork belly casserole got its intrigue from sticky, thick slices of taro root, the pork so tender it fell apart as I lifted it from the fiercely hot clay dish. The black mushroom and eel casserole rice is cooked in a similar vessel, but the layer of rice underneath the contents leaves a thin crust of aromatic toasted rice on the surface of the clay pot, much like the coveted soccarat in well-made paella. A dash of the accompanying sweet soy sauce wasn’t needed, but it enhanced the flavor and helped dislodge the crispy rice morsels.

Days later, I found myself craving the casseroles and returned with another friend to order what I am sure looked like an obscene amount of food for two women. Some instant favorites: the “three kind dumpling,” a bowl of clear, clean broth dotted with tiny bunches of al dente bok choy and an assortment of succulent homemade shrimp, pork and vegetable dumplings; and the garlic flavor chicken, a plate of hacked-up crispy fried chicken covered in fried garlic, jalapeños, scallions and shallots. After reporting back to Kit about our enormous banquet for two, he laughed and informed me that Wan Lai loosely translates to “Fat Boy Shop.” A fitting name for the absolute lack of self-control the restaurant’s broad menu evokes. And there’s still so much more to explore.

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