The must-try scallion pancakes at Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen
Last month was Chinese New Year, which in our family really is just a glorified reason to eat and party (although honestly, we don't even need a real excuse to do either). We started our celebrations this year at Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen, which had recently opened in the Hampton Park area.
I bought this Chinese New Year's lion in Kuala Lumpur before the Gravy Baby was born; now he's finally old enough to enjoy it
Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen is helmed by chef Lily Lei, who hails from Seattle, a development I fully support. My grandmother and aunt have lived in Seattle for 40+ years, and even now every time I visit I spend at least one meal inside a sticky, dimly-lit Chinese restaurant, inhaling amazingly delicious dishes that we just can't get in the South. (Actually, as an adult I've also spent a fair amount of time ferrying my aunt to and from her favorite casino, but that's another story for another time.)
Punchy modern decor and sichuan eggplant make Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen a must-try
The benefit of venturing to a Chinese restaurant with a group is that we can order a banquet-worthy amount of food and get to taste a smattering of dishes. As a kid, any time we visited a Chinese restaurant my parents would cluck disapprovingly at the American diners who sat quietly across from each other, picking at their own individual portion of foods with a fork and a knife. The biggest offense to my dad -- as a Chinese person and a human -- would be whenever he saw a couple ordering the exact same dish. "What a wasted opportunity," my dad would say. I totally agree. Chinese food is meant to be just like its people -- loud, messy, crammed into small spaces and, in the cases of the really good stuff, fought over.
Fresh, hip decor in a crowded little space makes Lee Lee's a fun place to eat, too
What Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen has going for it is its incredible scallion pancake, a dish that's really hard to consistently make delicious. Flaky, flavorful and served with a perfect traditional garlic and soy dipping sauce, I can easily imagine myself making a detour through the Park just to grab a couple of these pancakes for an afternoon snack.
Top: salt and pepper calamari; middle: cashew chicken; bottom: Shanghai noodles
Other standouts included an amazingly tangy and spicy sichuan eggplant (one of my favorites to order at Chinese restaurants whenever it's available, just because good Chinese eggplant stir-fries are so hard to prepare) and the Shanghai noodles, a stir-fried noodle that was chewy in the way a good hand-pulled noodle should be. Unfortunately, a few other dishes tended to err on the too-salty or too-sweet side. The braising liquid used to make the hong sho ro, for example, needed a lot less soy sauce so that after hours of cooking the pork belly wouldn't be reduced to a salt bomb. The walnut shrimp, however, had the opposite problem. The presentation of the dish was brilliant in that it was served with a pile of steamed broccoli. The dish's creamy sauce, which coated caramelized walnuts and huge white shrimp, was meant to be cut with the broccoli , but the sticky cloyness of the sauce was just too much for even crisp, otherwise-unadulterated broccoli to handle, and the dish felt much richer than it should have been.
Still, I can honestly say that I'm pretty excited to see a fresh, modern Chinese restaurant in Charleston, and I hope it sticks around for a long time. I've joked that South Carolina isn't exactly an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quality Asian dining, but recent developments such as Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen give me hope for the marriage of Southern and Asian food. It's been a lifelong dream of mine that one day there'll be a place where I can get grits topped with pickled cucumbers and dried shredded pork, a la Chinese porridge style. Maybe even some crullers for dipping?
Man, that'll be the day.