Eating companions can make a huge difference in the quality of your meal, especially friends who can help you pick fantastic dishes out of the stack of possibilities.
At Gin Gin Restaurant, one of the area's oldest traditional Chinese restaurants, going in blind is particularly frustrating. Gin Gin Ren, the proprietress, has 352 listed dishes on her regular menu, including 39 house specials, 101 rice dishes, and 12 flavors of rice porridge.
But wait, there’s more. Some off-menu dishes are listed in a wall of posters. Others you just have to know about.
Recently I had the chance to visit with a team of regulars, and lean on their insights. Now it is my pleasure to pass on these insights to you, as islands of excellence amid a blizzard of choices.
Gin Gin is a family restaurant, run by Gin Gin Ren and her husband Tung Hsun since at least 2005. I had stopped going there because of uneven cooking, unpredictable wait times for takeout orders, and a 5 percent surcharge for credit card use that is not well posted. (Prices cited here, and listed in the menu, are cash prices.) But the regulars brought me back.
It’s an inexpensive family restaurant, as seen in the 26 choices of special combinations. At $7.59 for lunch, $9.39 for dinner, that’s a dish like pepper steak, General Tso’s chicken, or rib tips, on white or pork fried rice, with a pork egg roll or a cup of soup.
These platters are filling, and mostly bland, reminiscent of the vast majority of indistinguished takeout Chinese establishments. These are not where Gin Gin rocks the hardest.
Go for the deep cuts. Some of my favorites were so deep they’re not on the printed menu, like char siu ($12.99), red-lacquered barbecued pork. This was a classic example, toothsome slices, crisped under a broiler.
Another was oxtail soup ($11.99). Choose your noodle type, and what arrived was a two-handed vat of deeply brown, slightly sweet broth aromatic with star anise. It holds Chinese broccoli, pasta and plentiful chunks of beef, including some oxtails and beef, cooked until soft and pliant.
Lamb curry with rice ($11.99) was another long-simmered success, offering potatoes, carrots and bone-in chunks of lamb in a piquant sauce whose liveliness made it a pleasure, not a chore, to linger over separating tender meat from inedible bones.
The No. 1 rice dish, house special chicken chop ($9.99), is a chicken breast that’s been flattened, breaded, fried, then hacked into strips. Perched on white rice, it’s covered with a ground pork sauce, glossy with corn starch and redolent of five-spice powder.
Chicken chop with salt pepper on rice ($9.99) is its racier cousin. The hacked fried chicken strips get re-fired in a wok with more seasoning and aromatics like scallion and dried chile peppers. The result isn’t as fiery as a Chonqing-style chicken dish but can start a glow.
Hong Kong dumplings ($7.39) were plum-sized dough purses, filled with seasoned ground pork crunchy with water chestnut. Some were singed instead of just browned, but it didn’t ruin them.
Hot spicy beef with scramble egg on rice ($10.99) is a breakfast-dinner crossover dish than hides fluffy eggs with a sliced beef saute with dark, almost molasses-like gravy spiked with sneaky little red chile peppers.
Spicy pork belly ($11.99) was a crunchy tangle of sliced cabbage and poached pork that had been seasoned and crisped in the wok. Another lively combination was Szechuan pickled vegetable and pork with dried bean curd ($9.99).
Dried bean curd has the texture of firm cheese and takes seasonings well. Spicy pork belly ($11.99) was a crunchy tangle of sliced cabbage and poached pork that had been seasoned and crisped in the wok.
Another winner was Phoenix wings ($10.59). This appetizer is twin jumbo chicken wings deboned, stuffed with pork, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and noodles, then deep-fried to a resounding crunchiness, and served in slices.
Chicken feet, bitter melon, and pig’s ear are on the menu, but the funkiest dish was a plate of salty fish with pork fried rice ($17.99), ordered spicy. The pong of fermented fish, intensified by the wok’s heat, perfumed every bite. If you like anchovies, this was a can’t miss. It was pretty stinking good.
Even with guidance, some dishes disappointed. Squid chop with salt pepper ($12.99) brought a plate of chewy squid, some in a tough fried coating, others bare. Our meal concluded with steamed yellow croaker ($17.99), arriving in a soy-based sauce covered in matchsticked ginger and chopped scallions. Its flavors were muted, not as aromatic as the best versions.
If you have a chance to gather friends and fill a table with dishes to share, I’d suggest ordering ones you know you’ll like and one new choice per visit. With the breadth of its offerings, it will be years before you run out of new dishes to try. If you go in knowing what you want, every trip to Gin Gin can be a win win.
Gin Gin Restaurant – 7 plates (out of 10)
3381 Sheridan Drive, Amherst (836-2600)
Hours: 4:30 to 11 p.m. Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 11 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: appetizers, $1.59-$19.99; combinations, $7.59-$9.39; entrees, $6.29-$17.99.
Atmosphere: sleepy family restaurant
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: none offered