Chengxiu Zhou moved from the Sichuan capital of Chengdu in 1987, to be with her husband, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in linguistics at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. After finding work in a Chinese restaurant, “she very quickly became a good cook,” said her husband, Yujian Zhao.
By 2018, the couple had owned a half-dozen restaurants — in Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio — and they were ready to retire to California, to be with their daughter and granddaughter, until an Atlanta friend told them about the vacant space on Medlock Bridge Road in Johns Creek.
Zhou was too intrigued by the possibility to let the opportunity slide.
In February, 2019, the owners debuted Great Sichuan in the old Cafe Q property. The couple’s seventh restaurant, it’s a classic mom-and-pop, showcasing the fiery hot dishes of their native Sichuan (fragrant cumin lamb, spicy maocai stew, Chongqing mala chicken) alongside tamer Chinese-American fare (sesame chicken, Mongolian beef, fried rice).
In March, just as the pandemic paralyzed restaurants, I was preparing to give Great Sichuan a glowing critique — a tribute to Zhou’s stellar cooking and Zhao’s sweetly accommodating front-of-house skills. (He’s the one who answers the phone, waits on tables, and makes suggestions from the expansive menu.)
After The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suspended dining reviews, I checked in with Zhao a couple of times about featuring Great Sichuan in Atlanta Orders In. Because business was slow, and hours had been scaled back significantly, he urged me to hold off until the dining room reopened, which it did, on June 12.
On Saturday, just as a Saharan dust cloud blanketed Atlanta and the city issued a boil-water advisory after a water-main rupture, I placed an online order, and drove to Johns Creek to pick it up. Zhao, wearing a mask, was behind the front counter, while Zhou and their sole employee worked the woks. Happily, the food was just as remarkable as it was on my previous three visits.
On Sunday morning, I chatted by phone with Zhao, who was parked outside an Asian market on Pleasant Hill Road while Zhou shopped for ingredients.
Great Sichuan most likely will be the swan song of the couple, who opened their first restaurant, in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1991. Zhou is 66; Zhao turns 73 in November. When they struck out on their own, Zhou’s old boss told her she’d never succeed. She proved him wrong.
And, yet, she might still be cooking sweet-and-sour shrimp and orange-flavored beef, if a group of Chinese expats visiting her Indianapolis restaurant hadn’t asked her to make them some authentic Sichuan. The response was so enthusiastic that the couple devised their two-menu, something-for-everyone concept, which has become their calling card. (Sichuan Bistro in Cincinnati, which they ran from 2007 until moving to Johns Creek, was praised by critics and made Chinese Restaurant News magazine’s top 100 list.)
None of that amounts to a hill of beans in Atlanta, where Great Sichuan was just starting to build a name for itself when COVID-19 hit. Zhao told me they’d been hanging on by a thread, and hoping I’d make good on my promise to feature Great Sichuan in the AJC. “Carryout is still pretty bad,” he said.
I wouldn’t be much of a critic if I recommended a place because I felt sorry for the owners; I endorse Great Sichuan because its food is exceptional. It’s a humble spot that deserves to be a destination restaurant.
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Menu: offers familiar Chinese-American dishes, but the authentic Chinese is the star
What I ordered: tea-smoked duck, spicy boiled fish fillets, pork with chive flowers, salt and pepper shrimp, zhajiangmian. Everything was good, but I was blown away by the zhajiangmian (noodles with fermented soybean, ground pork and cucumber) and the fish in fiery chili oil. From previous visits, I recommend: pot stickers, cold Sichuan noodles, cumin lamb, Chongqing mala beef, dry pot cauliflower, red dry chili fish, mapo tofu and Mongolian beef.
Service options: dine-in; order by phone or online for pickup; delivery via DoorDash, UberEats, Grubhub
Safety protocols: follows standard government recommendations; staff wears masks, gloves, and sanitizes surfaces frequently
Address, phone: 10475 Medlock Bridge Road, Johns Creek; 770-417-8862
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
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