The best Chinese food in Dayton, Ohio is not actually in Dayton. It’s in Trotwood, a little town on the western edge of the city. Trotwood has it fair share of challenges. It was the home of the Salem Mall, in the seventies, a thriving shopping area. Then there was an awful crime involving a dead baby (turns out her mother was the perpetrator, but by then the damage was done) and roving bands of teenagers being, well , teenagers. Business fell off, stores closed, new stores opened, but of a different stripe– pawn shops, check-cashing places, little strip malls, large empty boxes that used to house Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and stores long forgotten.
One day I had a meeting with a newly re-elected Trotwood City Councilman, Bruce Kettelle. He suggested we meet at a little Chinese place in a strip mall between a check-cashing store and the Honeybaked Ham office. I had my doubts. I know the sort of place he means– they have illuminated photographs of plates of Chinese foods on the wall over the counter and everything, I mean everything is geared toward the palate of the white American.
I could not have been more wrong.
The man who runs the place, does the cooking, and occasionally makes deliveries to the immediate area came out and greeted Bruce by name. Bruce asked for whatever the man felt like cooking. I glanced down the list of lunch specials, which looked more interesting than I’d anticipated, and ordered one. My lunch was excellent. The portions were generous, the food fresh and delicious and properly presented. But Bruce’s lunch– that was truly inspired.
The place is very plain. A handful of formica topped tables on a linoleum tile floor. Yes, the illuminated menu choices. The tea is served in large styrofoam cups, but at least they bring you a pot of it. But here’s the thing. It’s the food. The food is the real deal, it is authentic traditional Chinese food. I could not wait to get home and tell my husband, who is . . . wait for it . . . Chinese American.
We’ve checked out two or three dozen Chinese places in Dayton. There was one that was our “go to”place for a couple of years, but they changed cooks and the last time we went it was so terrible we vowed not to go back. The ubiquitous Chinese Buffets are kind of sad. We like the one – China Garden Buffet on Airway, but we don’t go after 8 p.m. because they stop replenishing the dishes. They’ll make you something if you want it, but that’s a little awkward. When I discovered my favorite thing there (baked egg custard in wonton wrapper) available frozen at a Chinese grocery, my estimation of the buffet went down another notch.
Dayton’s supposed “favorite” “Chinese” restaurants are a small chain with a kind of kitschy British sort of name and people rave about the food there. My son and I visited a couple of these when we first moved here and we were shocked. Could the palates of Daytonians be so uneducated that they really thought this was Chinese food? Someone told us that if you knew somebody there, you could get more adventurous food, but that’s not really the point. Their food was tired, not fresh, not seasoned and not at all authentic. You don’t have to have Bird’s Nest Soup and Chicken Feet to have authentic Chinese, you just have to have someone who understands how to cook the Chinese way, and we have found that at the New Asian.
Now, if you go looking for the New Asian, you may not find it. The sign outside still says “New China” after the (ahem) restaurant that closed there. (And for heaven’s sake, don’t be waylaid towards the China City Buffet, that’s not the right place either.) No, you’ll know you’re at the right place when you’ve got ham to the right of you and check-cashing to the left.
Much of their business is take out, and it is steady. The proprietors recognize their repeat customers and greet them happily. Though it sometimes feels a little lonely to eat there, the service is wonderful. Friendly, attentive, generous. When my husband goes in there he likes to talk to them about the arcane things his mother used to make and the waitress (Mrs. Jung) says “Oh yes, that’s very traditional.” Last night they were talking about “steamed cakes” and Mr. Jung said yes, he liked to make them sometimes.
I’ve had a cold and last night I ordered hot and sour soup. I’ve gotten a little gun-shy about this soup because the last ten restaurants where I ordered it– well, I didn’t send it back, but I didn’t eat it either. I need not have worried. The Jungs’ soup was exquisite. Tangy and smooth, redolent but not harsh or overpowering, chock full of silky mushrooms, fresh tofu, day lily buds. It was lovely. It was perfect. And this is the secret to good Chinese food. They have to know the basics.
I care not a whit for flaming Pu-Pu platters or sizzling iron plates. I don’t need trendy or spectacular, I just want good Chinese food made by Chinese people. We ordered Moo Shu last night because our son was with us and he and I really like it. We’ve eaten Moo Shu pork all over the country, while Julian’s father crosses his arms and sighs. While it would have been really wonderful if we’d been served the real Moo Shu pancake, the tortillas (which so many Chinese restaurants use now) were fine. They were warm and soft. The black bean paste was tasty and sticky. The Moo Shu pork was full of all kinds of things– not just pork, but also some delicious Chinese sausage, wood ear mushrooms, scrambled eggs.
We also had Chinese meatballs (as big as a toddler’s fist) and what the Jungs called “Chinese cabbage” but there are so many different kinds of Chinese cabbage that we spent some time trying to figure out which one it was. Long slender leaves, bright green with a salty-sweet taste about it. It was fantastic. Dinner for the three of us, with tea all around and a Coke for Julian, soup for all, and the two dishes was $27. We all ate until we were stuffed and still took leftovers home.
Okay, it doesn’t have much ambiance (though it’s great for a cheap date) and I’m not sure that with just the two of them they’d be up to a giant Chinese banquet (but I bet they’d try) and I wouldn’t go looking for anything too trendy that you just had last week at P.F. Chang’s– (and their Peking Duck picture is inside out, I don’t know if that means they don’t have it all the time) but if you want delicious, home-style, authentic, fresh Chinese food, this is the place for you.
My husband is a Lieu— that’s one of the ancient Chinese four families– and the Jungs are one of the other families too. This is part Chinese history, part Chinese mythology and stems back some two thousand years to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It’s no wonder they greet each other like brothers.
But it doesn’t matter if you’re not Chinese– my friend Bruce could hardly be less Chinese and he too gets treated like family there. That’s the way it is in a good Chinese restaurant, where they serve the best Chinese food in Dayton, Ohio.
New Asian 5519 Salem Avenue, Trotwood, Ohio (In Consumer Square Shopping Center) (937) 854-4888 Open 10 a .m. ’till 10:30 p.m. every day but Sunday, when they’re closed. Lunch specials about $6. Dinner entries less than $10. Visa and MasterCard. No alcohol served.
Today’s target number 57. Steps measured 5887. For breakfast two hard-boiled eggs, yogurt with granola. Lunch was a leftover tortilla with moo shu pork (yum) a banana and three little chocolate eggs. Dinner a hard-boiled egg, a plain hot dog in a bun, a cup of watermelon and quarter cup of raspberries.