I was toiling away on Excel spreadsheets at work Friday when my friends texted me. Spicy Chinese food? My stomach rumbled in agreement. Count me in.
We pulled into the parking lot of a deserted strip mall on Buford Highway around 7. The only other cars in the parking lot all clustered around the same destination: Gu’s Bistro. We had called the restaurant on our way there and they had a table ready for us when we walked in. The hostess led our party of 5 to a round table. The lack of a lazy Susan called for the need to pass out-of-reach dishes to each other, but more exercise = more calories burned = more calories to replenish.
We ordered 4 dishes to share and settled down to wait. All of the other tables were filled with customers ranging from old Asian grandmothers to young Asian students, a fair indication of the authenticity of an Asian restaurant. I tried to pick out the renovations the restaurant had apparently undergone last month: a handful of new tables, a few new paintings and decorations, maybe new paint – everything else appeared unchanged. And then my friend returned from the bathroom and, rubbing his hands together excitedly, proclaimed, “The bathroom is amazing!”
What had once been a closet with a toilet and sink had morphed into a clean, elegant restroom that belonged in a modern house, not a Chinese restaurant in an abandoned strip mall. I fought the urge to run back to the table to grab my camera as I washed my hands. After all, a photo of a bathroom lurking amongst the photos of our meal may not be very appetizing, so take my (and my friend’s) word for the amazing change.
Our first dish, Sautéed Pea Shoots, came out after about fifteen minutes of waiting. That was the sole non-spicy dish ordered so we waited for a spicy dish to come out before we ate the pea shoots. Five minutes dragged by before our resolutions crumbled (the aromas floating over from other tables didn’t help very much either) and we began to nibble on the greens. The sautéed pea shoots contained too much oil and too little salt. One of my friends remarked how surprisingly similar the greens tasted to bacon, if bacon were saltless. Regardless, we were hungry enough to consume the saltless bacon leaves as we waited for our other dishes to come out.
By the time the next dish, Szechuan Style Spicy Tofu Skin, came out, only a few bites of the pea shoots remained. We politely waited for the waiter’s hand to get out of chopstick range before we attacked the newcomer. The spiciness of the dish contrasted so sharply with the pea shoots that it bowled me over. After stuffing my mouth with some rice, I found that the dish had a decent amount of spice – enough to bring the blood to your cheeks, but not enough to kill your taste buds. The spicy tofu skin was one of the favorites of the night. However, there wasn’t a lot of tofu skin in the dish. I managed to snatch two bites before only lonely strands of celery, onions, and zucchini were left.
The Chongqing Spicy Chicken arrived as the last strands of tofu skin were snapped up. The dish bristled with red chili peppers and pepper seeds clung to every bite. Still, it was the blandest dish besides the pea shoots – who says sheep don’t wear wolf’s clothing? Along with the lack of mouth-tingling peppercorns, the diced chicken was dry and chewy, making this dish my least favorite of the night.
Our last dish, Cumin Lamb, arrived shortly after the chicken did and promptly blew all five of us away. Despite being the last to arrive, the cumin lamb left the other dishes in the dust in terms of flavor. The earthy cumin intermingled with the numbing Szechuan peppercorns perfectly. The lamb slices were the polar opposite of the stringy chicken and (dare I say it?) too soft. I felt like I was chewing mouthfuls of (delicious) cottonballs. If the lamb had more bite to it, it would have been perfect. However, like the tofu skin, I wish the portion had been larger.
We finished our Atlanta Szechuan experience with Osmanthus Flavored Sticky Congee (桂花酒釀), a hot sweet congee of fermented glutinous rice and scented with the floral apricot flavor of osmanthus. The osmanthus permeated each spoonful without being overpowering floral. My friends promptly attacked the bowl as the waiter set it down and I fought for my own bowlful rather than for a photo. It was the perfect end to a spicy meal.
With servers fluent in both Chinese and English alongside authentic Chinese food, Gu’s Bistro shines brightly even amongst the many hidden gems that stud Buford Highway. If you crave the mouth-numbing dishes found in Szechuan cuisine and can’t afford a plane ticket to China, try out Gu’s Bistro. If you order the right dishes, this little restaurant will fill the empty void in your stomach with mouth-watering spicy food (and water ).
5750 Buford Hwy NE, Suite A
Doraville, GA 30340