Situated in a non-descript shopping center near the corner of Mills Ave. and East Colonial Drive (also known as Highway 50) is Chuan Lu Garden, which serves the best Sichuan food in Orlando and arguably the U.S. I realize that’s a bold claim, but as a self-proclaimed Chinese food junkie, I would put this place’s signature dishes up against any other in the country. The place is tiny; it might have 9 or 10 tables in all, and if you don’t know what you are looking for, is very easy to miss. It sits below a large sign for Ginza Japanese Steakhouse and the front door seems as if it’s actually an extension of Ginza, but instead of turning left into that space, you are shuttled right into Chuan Lu Garden's dining room, greeted kindly, seated and presented a staggering array of menus. They have lunch options, dinner options, specials – most of which are written in both Chinese and English – though if you haven’t eaten in many traditional Chinese restaurants – selecting something based of the English description could be a shot in the dark. The service, while extremely friendly, didn’t offer a lot of feedback when I asked a few questions about the menu. But from my meals there, I’d argue just about everything is good, if you have an open mind and palate.
Chuan Lu, like many authentic Chinese restaurants, is best experienced with a group of people. The portions are typically large and perfect for sharing. And with so many different flavor profiles, textures and types of dishes, the more the merrier. The menus here are broken down as such: Appetizers/Dumpling, Soup/Fried Noodle/Hot Pot, Entrée and Noodles. On my last visit I was also presented with a Specials menu which featured a variety of dishes not on the other four. When I approach a restaurant like this I try to order one or two dishes from each type of menu, another reason it’s best to dine with a group. Plus, the prices are very affordable, so you can go big, divide the leftovers and have a crazy-good lunch the following day.
Sichuan cuisine can be traced back more than 2,000 years, and its dishes are typically rich and spicy, often utilizing Sichuan peppercorns which add both heat and flavor to the food. If you’ve never eaten this type of food be ready for a truly different dining experience. The peppercorns, while also hot, also leave a numbing sensation throughout your entire mouth. The sensation is more tingly than hot, and if you crunch down on one it’ll be something you never forget. The dishes also feature bold uses of chopped fresh garlic, fermented beans and vegetables and a variety of other herbs and spices. One of my favorite ways to experience this food is with a traditional Hot Pot dish, which is essentially a stew filled with a variety of herbs, vegetables, tofu, meat and seafood (try their Gan Gou Lian Yang).
Other knockout dishes include the Seaweed Garlic (Appetizers/Dumplings menu), a mound of fresh seaweed tossed with soy, chili oil and a ton of minced fresh garlic. The seaweed provides a great crunch and the garlic, while extremely prominent, doesn’t over power as it’s nicely balanced with the saltiness of the soy and the silkiness of the oil. If one dish on their menu screams ‘Umami’ this is it. The Pork and Cabbage dumplings (also from this menu) are a great representation of a steamed dumpling. They are essentially prepared just like a pot-sticker, but aren’t seared on one side, so they are juicy and tender throughout. They come served with a side of traditional soy-vinegar sauce and just beg for a little additional chili oil to add a layer of spice to each bite. Lastly, I’d suggest the Kao Ya, or Roasted Duck Noodles; a gorgeous bowl of transparent stock, covering a mound of hand-pulled noodles, topped with a generous portion of chopped roast duck, baby bok choy, preserved vegetables, sliced scallion and cilantro. It’s one of those dishes that I find myself craving on an almost daily basis.
Chuan Lu Garden is located in the heart of Mills50, often called Orlando’s Chinatown, but really the heart of all Asian-based cuisine including some amazing Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.