The Americanized Chinese mom-and-pop food you grew up with is not likely to earn a stamp of approval from culinary purists. That’s OK. You love it anyway: the takeout containers of General Tso’s chicken and shrimp egg foo young; the egg rolls and wonton soup.
And if you’re a curious person, an adventurous eater willing to explore Atlanta’s remarkable and far-reaching international food scene, you know the city’s Chinese options have exploded recently. From Buford Highway to Duluth to Kennesaw to Johns Creek, you can luxuriate in elegant Cantonese dim sum, hand-pulled noodles from Lanzhou, hot-and-numbing dishes from Sichuan, soup dumplings from Jiangnan.
Hai Authentic Chinese, in Decatur’s redeveloped Suburban Plaza, is in its way the best of both worlds, a place that will suit connoisseurs of traditional Chinese as well as the sesame chicken and orange chicken crowd. (No offense intended; I play on both teams.)
Better yet: If you are Changian — a follower of peripatetic Sichuan chef Peter Chang and his minions — you’ll definitely want to seek out Hai. Like chef Wen-Qiang Huang at Fire Stone Chinese in Kennesaw, Haibin Wang, the chef, owner and namesake of Hai, is a former partner of the masterful Chang, and it shows in the Liaoning native’s mostly solid, occasionally extraordinary cooking.
To be honest, though, it took me a minute (make that four visits) to find my groove at Hai, especially on evenings when the dining room was busy and service a little slack. Yet in the end, I walked away a fan. In particular, I’m impressed by the dumplings and noodles (created by chef Qin Yinghua, who is married to Wang); the tofu dishes; and one bowl-size pork knuckle that’s a favorite discovery of 2019. (All the squeals for that one.)
Right away, I was delighted to see xiao long bao (soup dumplings) on the menu. Pork filled and juicy with chicken broth, they were perfectly fine, though by the time they arrived at my table, I was finishing up two other dishes and ready for the check. Meanwhile, I fully endorse the Sichuan chile wontons, stuffed with plump little shrimp-and-pork meatballs and doused with red hot oil. (They’re possibly better than a similar version at Gu’s Kitchen on Buford, and we all know how I love Gu’s.)
I was also pretty smitten with the Wuhan Sesame Noodles. From the central Chinese province of Hubei, these thin wheat noodles are served hot, with an evocative sauce of chile and sesame, plus tiny bits of crunchy pickle and scallion. (Just be sure to toss them up from the bottom to incorporate the various components). Grandma’s Noodles were even better: long and ribbony, and perked up with a bit of tangy vinegar to balance the chile oil. These noods get an A-plus.
Among the small plates, dry-fried eggplant was wonderfully silken, but the “pepper salt calamari” was a bit of a yawner: julienned bits of squid with sauteed sweet onion and red pepper, plus a cloying sweet-and-sour sauce for dipping.
Now let’s talk tofu.
The mapo (good-size cubes in a prickly but not ridiculous hot-pepper bath) was a pretty average version of the classic. (It would be better with the traditional flavoring agent of ground pork.) On the other hand, a chef’s special of Spicy Tofu with Fish Fillet (actually tender flakes of fish dispersed in the stew) was terrific. And a garlicky vegetarian stir-fry of bok choy and tofu skin was a welcome, palate-centering contrast to the hot dishes — say the Chongqing fried chicken, a Sichuan-pepper-spiked tingler that frankly turned out to be a little dry. (You’re likely to have better Chongqing at Gu’s.)
If, after all these temptations, you still have your heart set on more familiar plates like kung pao chicken or shrimp with snow peas, Hai will provide. (We tried the sesame chicken and approved.)
But as my server pointed out, you can find these dishes at Chinese restaurants all over America. Not so the Spicy Pork Knuckle. Just when I was about to pronounce Hai a solid alternative to OTP Chinese but not a superstar, this beauty soared into view. Essentially a fat-encased ham hock fried to a crisp, then braised to falling-apart tenderness with aromatics and fermented black beans, it knocked me off my hooves. Here in a single dish is proof that chef Wang is a highly talented and capable chef.
Like a meek little rabbit trying to blend into the urban jungle, Hai has slipped into a rather secluded corner of Suburban Plaza. I’m happy to clap my hands, make some noise, and call your attention to it.
HAI AUTHENTIC CHINESE
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. 2641 N. Decatur Road, Decatur. 470-225-7172, haieat.com.
Recommended dishes: Sichuan chile wontons. Grandma’s Noodles. Wuhan Sesame Noodles. Dry-fried eggplant. Spicy Pork Knuckle. Stir-fried bok choy with tofu skin. Spicy Tofu with Fish Fillet.