NE Chinese Restaurant offers an exciting look at Dongbei delicacies.
Welcome to a Columbus restaurant that you might expect to find in Queens, New York—NE Chinese Restaurant, serving authentic cuisine from the northeast region of China. Sometimes called Manchuria or Dongbei, the region consists of the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang. Naturally, the food is a mix from the cultures and conquerors of the place—Mongols, Russians, Japanese and Manchus among them.
NE Chinese is housed in the Old North space formerly occupied by Secret Vessel, and to call the restaurant's décor unprepossessing would be kind—it's school-cafeteria plain. Service is casual and friendly, and the food comes out fast, even when the place is busy. With a menu of more than 100 items, the restaurant has a number of interesting dishes not seen in these parts.
Cumin Potato ($9.95) is a plate of crisply fried disks of russet potato showered with a pungent mix of dried chilies, garlic, ground cumin seed and perfumy Sichuan peppercorn. It has a powerful, addictive quality. Also crave-worthy is the appetizer of Beef Shin ($10.95). Served cold, the almost paper-thin slices of the braised, but still chewy, cuts of shin meat come covered with a delicious mixture of chili oil, minced chilies and garlic.
You would perhaps not leap to order an appetizer called Pig's Ear ($7.95), but you would be missing out. This dish hits every flavor receptor—a sweet, salty, sour and spicy salad of crunchy cucumber, cilantro, carrot and bean sprouts with slivers of braised pig's ear. The meat is a bit chewy and gummy (textures pleasing to some), adding a rich meatiness to the vegetables. Meanwhile, the Mixed Vegetables Salad ($7.95) might not sound exciting, but the composition of clear bean sprout noodles, cucumber, carrot, scallion and cilantro in a sharp and slightly sweet rice vinegar dressing is refreshing.
Soups come in portions meant for sharing. Dough Drop with Veg & Egg ($13.95) could serve six as a first course. It might have been something served to the cold and hungry masses on the steppes—a hearty chicken broth with bits of carrot, tomato and onion, plus loads of spätzle-like little dumplings cooked in the broth. The flavor profile is Asian, with ginger and garlic and a bit of sesame oil, but the style is Russian.
Spicy Twice-Cooked Fish ($14.95) consists of cod nuggets coated with seasoned rice flour and fried. The white fish serves as the perfect carrier for a pungent blizzard of chopped dried red chilies, salt and aromatic vegetables (onion, garlic and scallion). Fried Pork Chop with Ginger Sweet Sauce ($15.95) is a tonkatsu-like dish of pork slices lightly breaded and fried—with an unremarkable and too-sweet sauce, it was one of the few misses.
If in a group, opt instead for the Chef's Recommendations. These dishes are meant for two or more and they include various hot pots. Pork Belly, Dried Tofu, Egg Noodles with Pancake ($29.95) is a good one, with plenty of crisp fresh vegetables for cooking in the hot broth. With a couple of appetizers, it might be enough for four hearty eaters.