A bite of Sichuan on the Corner
New Corner dining option Ginkgo had an official opening ceremony last week, treating their guests to authentic Sichuan food. The restaurant, named after an iconic Sichuan tree, took over the former location of Ni Hao Café on Wertland Street and started serving the Charlottesville community earlier this summer.
As a Chinese southern gourmand who is very hesitant about the so-called “Chinese food” found in the United States, this new Sichuan restaurant both satisfied my cravings for my favorite cuisine and heightened my homesickness.
The new owners’ son, Paul Chen, graduated from the University in 2010, which partially explains the restauarant’s decor — a creative blend of school spirit and Sichuan nostalgia. Chinese traditional instruments and pictures of landmarks of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, hang on University-orange walls.
Co-owner Yan Yang Chen also used to be a faculty member at the University, so the family isn’t just interested in starting a business in Charlottesville, they also have an emotional attachment to the community here.
“I want to spread Sichuan culture and Chinese culture here,” Yan Yang said. “I [also] want to build a home for Chinese students at U.Va. They used to be pearls of their parents at home, but now they would feel that no one cares for them, being thousands of thousands of miles away from home.”
To maintain the authenticity of the food, Yan Yang said she hired all of the restaurant’s cooks from the Sichuan province.
And when the opening ceremony began I could see the effects of Yan Yang’s decision. The dumpling and noodles served as appetizers lived up to expectations, as did the following performance by the a capella group the Virginia Gentlemen.
The evening’s entrées, specially chosen to create “an authentic Sichuan experience,” included crispy duck in sweet and sour sauce, spicy Sichuan beef with sweet potatoes and eggplants, Sichuan sweet and sour fish, Kung Pao chicken, boiled beef in hot and spicy chili sauce, eggplant with spicy garlic sauce, Ma Po tofu and “jumping fish”— boiled fish with rice noodles in hot and spicy sauce. The Chens also served two of co-owner Nianyong Chen’s signature dishes: Ginkgo pork platter with garlic sauce and Ginkgo steamed chicken.
All of the dishes tasted exactly like traditional Sichuan food, although not quite as spicy as you’d find in China — a nod to Americans’ palettes, Nianyong said.
“I have traveled in China for a long time and have been to many places, but southern cuisine — this kind of spicy food is my favorite,” said Parke Muth, former Associate Dean of Admissions, after dinner. “You get great food and a good atmosphere of relaxing here.”
Taking a look at the prices on the menu, you realize that, yes, Ginkgo is slightly more expensive than Ni Hao: Ginkgo’s lunch specials are about $7 per dish. But the sheer authenticity of the Sichuan cuisine and the atmosphere form a unique cultural experience right on the Corner — one which is well worth the extra dollar or two.