Your mama told you right: you can't judge anything by appearances.
Jade Garden has as unpromising a facade as you could hope to see. A converted convenience store, with leaky ceiling tiles, vinyl booths, cheap tables, and chairs--this place has absolutely no drive-up, and the inside is no more encouraging than the neighborhood.
Nevertheless, the night we ate at Jade Garden, there was pretty steady traffic, and with the exception of the young men lounging near the kitchen, I'd bet many customers are not from the neighborhood.
It's not only ugly, it's intimidating to non-Asians. Is this a Chinese place? Is it Vietnamese? Life is like this; nothing is clear-cut. "A little bit of both" is nearly always the right answer. So it is at Jade Garden.
Much of the menu is Chinese, but the specials are listed in Vietnamese only. It was difficult for our smiling waiter to explain them to us, and even if he knew the words, it was hard for us to understand them.
Of course, the menu is pages long, so how can you tell what's the best thing to order? Point and shoot is one way, and for us it worked out very well. Nothing is very expensive, anyway, so if you don't like what turns up, you can always point at something else.
Our waiter brought cold glasses for the beer and tumblers for the wine we'd brought, and we started exploring. We ended up with shrimp rolls, which turned out to be a new kind of shrimp toast, a seasoned paste of shrimp spread on a piece of what appeared to be French bread and fried, so they were sort of chewy and crisp with a sweet, slightly oceanic fragrance. Fried dumplings weren't a bit like Chinese ones, except in shape. They meant what they said and had been really fried, not just cooked till they stuck to the pot. I'd never had anything quite like them before, and they were good.
We were tempted by mysterious items like the "duck web fire pot," but we ate crispy shrimp, listed with the Chinese seafood--they reminded me of New Orleans barbecued shrimp, marinated and fried, legs and all, and they came with "Chinese cole slaw," a tangy salad of vinegared cabbage leaves and carrots.
We shared a dish of Vietnamese noodles, tangled up with seafood and vegetables, and the "happy family," a kitchen sink stir-fry with a little of everything thrown in--pork, shrimp, chicken, beef, and vegetables.
So--not a pretty face, but the cooking was good.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Jade Garden Restaurant, 4800 Bryan (at Fitzhugh), 821-0675. Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Fried dumplings $3.50
Shrimp rolls $6.50
Crispy shrimp $7.
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