Review: Tasty China

Comfortably numb in Marietta

When Atlanta foodies first discovered Tasty China in 2006, the restaurant developed mythic status in a matter of weeks. This was no fluke, no matter of hype or bandwagon-jumping — chef Peter Chang's food was revelatory. Then, just as quickly as he appeared, Chang left town. Owner Yang Da He and powerhouse hostess Phuong remained, but since Chang’s departure, Tasty China’s food has gone through some major changes.

Many of the dishes Chang made so well — hot and numbing beef rolls, sharp pepper fish, wontons in hot oil — were still being served but lacked the finesse and balance he gave them. Over time, chefs came and went, some of them better than others. In the two years since I originally reviewed the restaurant, I’ve had great meals at Tasty China and some severely disappointing ones.

Just over a year ago, two new chefs took over the kitchen. It's taken them some time to hit their stride, but these days chef Liu and chef Wong are cooking in a way that revives Tasty China's reputation as Atlanta's best Chinese restaurant. Their style differs from Chang’s, yet they do some of his signature dishes justice. But where Chang’s food was often a study in flavors ramped up to mind-blowing, nuclear levels, the new dishes deal more in balance.

"Slice fish and sour cabbage soup" boasts a masterful milky broth that hums with brightness — vinegar tempered by puckery, soothing greens and crunchy cilantro. Perfectly cooked white fish grounds the dish before another mouthful of broth sends your taste buds soaring again.

A new, off-the-menu salad, known to the staff simply as Chinese salad, is like a flavor-bomb coleslaw, combining julienned cabbage, tofu, pork and chiles with nuts and heaps of cilantro and other fresh herbs. The result is a sweet, bitter and spicy medley set against a foundation of crunchy and soft textures.

Some of the most fun here is still of the nuclear variety. Sichuan wonton soup in hot chili oil is the color of Lucifer’s jammies. The clear ruby-red broth swims with chili flakes, smoky scallions and wontons stuffed with a rich pork filling. This is spice to coat your soul.

That same red oil invades every morsel of the braised fish with soft tofu in hot chili oil. The textural play of silky tofu and almost syrupy sauce against the soft resistance of the fish is plenty seductive, but it’s the complexity of flavor that makes this dish astounding. Every aspect of hot peppers is represented: spice, yes, but also smoke, piquancy, and the soothing hum of burn that won’t quit.

At a recent meal, I stepped out of the ring of fire long enough to try the pork soup dumplings (the appetizer dumplings take 20 minutes to make and often arrive after the entrees). While not as ethereal as other soup dumplings — the wrappers not as lightweight, the contents not as vibrant — I found the savory broth and sweet pork filling to be a palate purifier after the intensity of the other dishes. “Damn,” I said to my dining companion, “you know you’re eating some serious food when pork seems cleansing.”

Then a plate of Shan City shrimp arrived, a jumble of shrimp and dried red chilies, and it was back to tongue-scorching fun. The dish's layers of flavor work tremendously well together: first fiery, then salty, and finally breaking through to the sweet pop of shrimp. The dish also comes in a chicken version, the fried nubs of meat encased in a crunchy exterior that tastes of smoky chicken fat — the good kind of chicken fat, the kind you want to spoon off the bottom of your roasting pan.

Some old standbys still delight. The dry fried eggplant has gotten crispier over time and is still a must-order. It blazes with Sichuan peppercorns, those tingly little beasts that make the water you’re gulping down taste like seltzer. Fish and coriander rolls have good days and bad days. The cigar-shaped snacks stuffed with outrageous amounts of fresh cilantro can be bright and revelatory as ever, or dull and flat.

A few other changes of note: The menu is cleaned up and easier to understand. In recent weeks, Phuong, the polarizing hostess who's at turns outrageously blunt (“No. You can’t have that. Too spicy.”) and extremely helpful, has been missing from the dining room. The staff says she’s on vacation and will return in a couple of weeks. I’m a Phuong fan and I hope she does return. If she’s turned you off in the past, maybe now is the time to visit. You won’t meet any resistance from the diminutive servers when you order.

Another major change from Chang's days is the amount of MSG the kitchen uses. Chang was, uh, liberal in his use, something that didn’t bother me until halfway through the drive home when I’d start to feel as though I’d inadvertently smoked a bunch of crack. I’m not able to detect any MSG in the food these days.

What is detectable is flavor upon flavor upon flavor. The layering of ingredients in these dishes is so masterful it’s astounding. There’s no telling when another change will take place in the kitchen here, or what will come next. So visit now, while the food is as spectacular as it ever was.