Wan Lai Restaurant Review – Chamblee, Atlanta, GA [First Impressions]

wan lai - short ribsWan Lai on Buford Highway has hit the ground running.  In just a few short months, this Cantonese restaurant has landed on most everyone’s “must visit” list.  After missing out on Monday’s opportunity, I made the “obligatory” drive up BuHi earlier this afternoon to check out the buzz.  Joined by a good friend from the CDC, we came away with a similar impression.  While the meal was good (at times very good), I’m not ready to hand this place the keys to my Cantonese castle just yet.

I stumbled in at 12:30 and my lip quivered into what I have been told was a smile.  Wan Lai is no frills.  A flat panel TV is the only thing in here that will let you know what decade you are in.  Meanwhile, a handful of odds and ends adorn the walls, including a menu utilizing Han characters.

wan lai - the wall menu

Split into two rooms, I’d venture a guess that the restaurant seats about 50-70 people.  I didn’t peak in the back, so I don’t really know.  Regardless, finding a spot wasn’t a problem.  Only a few other tables were occupied.

Service started early and was prompt and polite throughout our stay.  Two glasses of water and a pot of complimentary tea put me in a good mood right from the get go.  In addition, the only utensils on the table were chopstick.  Joy!  As they say: “When In Rome…”

My first impression of the menu was that it was large (both figuratively and literally).  However, I had been prepped late last night, so I was ready to rock and roll.  Few minutes later, our waiter came to take the order.  Seven dishes later, he spun and walked away.  I can only assume that this gentleman was the same one who took care of Chow Down and Eat It.  He didn’t even bat an eye at the massive order we threw his way.  Chinese is the undoubted king of tastings in my book … thus … Two people … Seven dishes … and this was in our future:

wan-lai-to-go

First up was the much talked about “Three Dumpling Soup.”  Found stashed away under the “snacks” section of the menu, this is anything but a nibble.  We weren’t the first to try it and we most certainly won’t be the last.  A hot steaming bowl of broth held several large cuts of Chinensis and six dumplings (two of each varietal).  As the pictures will show, this stuff glistened in the light.  It was visually appealing and tasted even better.  The stock was clean and well flavored with salt. Meanwhile, the dumplings slapped me across the face several times over.  I tried to savor the flavor … to sit back and enjoy the dish.  Unfortunately, my innate sensibilities got the better of me.  I ravaged my dumplings. The noodles were soft and the proteins inside were perfectly responsive.  Not too tough and not too soft, the vegetable, shrimp and pork each carried their own flavor combinations and all held their ground.  Easily one of the medal winners from our culinary decathlon.

To mix it up a bit, let’s get through the dishes that didn’t knock me off my feet.  It seems like the casseroles and beef Chow Fun are required eats here.  While I thought they were good … I was not nearly as impressed with them as those that have come before me.

Speaking to the Chow Fun … what you basically have is ho fun noodles (a wide rice noodle) with beef, bean sprouts, and a few other mixins.  The dish is served up either dry-fried or wet-fried.  We opted for the dry version.  The oil in this dish can make or break it.  In our case, it did neither.  What I mean is that the chef did a mighty fine job of controlling the amount of oil used in this dish (and all the dishes for that matter).  However, something about the execution underwhelmed me.  Our beef was soft but slightly tough, though not obtrusively so.  Still, the noodles were perfect.  At first, the bite went in and my palate jumped up in anticipation for the follow through.  Unfortunately, somewhere thereafter .. it just fell flat in my mouth.  My dining bud said the same thing.  Maybe we just had too much going on.  Still, a solid dish that necessitates further exploration.

wan lai - beef chow fun up close wan lai - more conch in xo sauce wan lai - taro and pork casserole, after the smoke cleared

Next on the list of bummers was the casserole.  We opted for the pork and taro roots and it showed up in a big clay pot.  The taro roots just dominated the dish.  While this is more about our palates than about the execution, I do think the ratio of taro to pork was too high.   Consequently, the over cooked pork took a back seat to the sweetness of the taro.  From my fleeting experiences with taro … I was prepared for it to be used more as a supplement.  Oh yeah … we could have sworn there was some coconut in that dish … but maybe we’re just crazy like that.

wan lai - meet the garlic fried chicken

Last out of the detention center was the conch in XO sauce.  For more on XO sauce, you can visit about.com.  However, I haven’t bothered to actually read that link ;-).  Moving on, the sauce itself was perfectly executed, the failure here was in the conch.  As a quick aside, my friend is not a fan of seafood … so cheers to her for taking a chance!  I originally suggested the frog legs, so maybe we’ll try that next time.

Back to the dish at hand.  I’ve had conch probably two dozen times in my life.  In my experience, it is texturally similar to giant clam.  While predisposed to being tough to the bite, improper cooking can over expose this characteristic.  Guess what happened?  Though this might seem a bit irrational, I have less hope for this dish than I do for the other two I just mentioned.  The XO sauce was great, the conch will get swapped out next time.

wan lai - young chow fried riceOkay, now onto the winners.  Everyone else has already mentioned the garlic chicken, so hit them up for more details.  My take on it was that it was solid, but nothing unique enough to catch my britches on fire.  The chicken on the bone was juicy and well cooked.  As is often the case with the boneless sections of Foghorn Leghorn, it was a bit dry.  However, the jalapeño peppers and the golden garlic on top made commendable appearances while the skin was excellent.

The Young Chow Fried rice here was freaking good. Admittedly, I have a soft spot in my heart for fried rice; but still … something about this was just right.  The crispy pork bits added a nice crunch, especially when sampled with the shrimp, which were soft and flavorful.

Last but not least, the king of kings … the pork spare ribs.  This bad boys were just flat out awesome.  Covered in a hint of black bean sauce, the pork was full of flavor and as juicy as they wanna be!  The dish was perfectly fried, ideally sauced, and relied on just the right amount of savory.  I would say this should be ordered every single time!

Tucked away in one of the endless number of strip malls up yonder, Wan Lai is neighbor to Penang and Hoa Binh Supermarket.  These Atlanta fixtures help lure people to the area, so hopefully Wan Lai will get some good tag along business.  Overall, this was a strong meal and I can see why people rave about the beef Chow Fun and the casseroles, though they didn’t rock my sox.

wan lai - short ribs up closeAtlanta Foodies On Wan Lai:

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Wan Lai Restaurant Address & Information

4897 Buford Hwy Atlanta, GA 30341 // P: 770.216.8587
Wan Lai Chinese on Urbanspoon

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