There is a doctrine in our human condition that perhaps enjoys universal application: The closer to the source a thing is, the better. As a history major, which I happen to be, one learns that primary sources almost always offer better data than do secondary ones. One “hears it from the horse’s mouth,” so to say. Well, there is a corollary in the restaurant biz, according to Frank Shi, owner/operator of Johnny Chan 2 in the Harper’s Point center at Montgomery and Kemper Roads in Symmes Township.
“We make all sauces by self, by hand. We don’t buy any kind of sauces (pre-packaged),” he stated with conviction. Why is this “by-self, by-hand” approach important to Shi? Because, he says, that is where the flavor is in a Chinese entrée. If the sauce is not fresh and vibrant with flavor, then the entrée it seasons will fall flat, or at least lack in the distinctive notes that should be in its taste profile.
Sauces in Chinese cuisine are every bit as important as they are in French or Italian cuisines, and perhaps more so, because entrées are defined by their sauces in many cases. Chinese kitchens rely on several basic flavor profiles achieved through sauces. There are seven (or eight, depending on how one counts) primary sauces used to flavor the myriad dishes found on typical Chinese menus: brown, white, Szechuan, Yu Hsiang, Hunan, a spicy sauce used in General Tao’s chicken and other dishes, and two varieties of sweet and sour. “For instance, brown sauce, we make it by self. Not easy to get to be just right; have to know how to get flavor right; I know the flavor, so we make by hand, just right. Not from pre-pack, but fresh every time. Make big difference in taste when sauce is fresh,” Shi said.
For me, a couple sauces stand out above the rest, but obviously, all have their place. My favorite likely is Yu Hsiang sauce, which features garlic as a central flavor component. In my book, Yu Hsiang sauce is packed with flavor. Two of my favorite dishes with that sauce are the Yu Hsiang eggplant and Yu Hsiang asparagus. Both tasty and delicious! If diners-out want to try that flavor profile with animal protein, there are beef, chicken and fish entrée dishes featuring Yu Hsiang sauce. Next would be Szechuan sauce, which is spicier than Yu Hsiang, but the spiciness level may be controlled by the diner. If you are a novice in the spicy department, experiment, starting at the mild end of the spectrum, and you might find a Szechuan level that you enjoy. Szechuan sauce brightens every dish, for sure.
“We do all by hand, even egg roll, we do by hand. Other (Chinese) restaurant, they don’t do it. They buy already made and then they just cook. Not as good. Not fresh. I buy all vegetables myself, put together (egg rolls) by self, by hand — every time. Other restaurant, they no make by hand. Pot stickers? They buy already made from store (foodservice suppliers of pre-made, pre-pack foods) and cook. We hand make pot stickers, just like egg rolls, and it’s way better. It’s different; better taste, better flavor. Scallion pancakes—we make, by hand, by self; pan fried noodle dish—we make, pan-fry by self!” he stated.
Realities of the new Covid world in which we live have changed at least one aspect of Johnny Chan 2 going forward. “Business getting better again. People returning to dining in, but we don’t do buffet anymore. Buffet cost too much. Food (to put on buffet) cost too much now,” Shi stated. “So, people order off menu. We have special every day at lunch but order off menu only.” Asked if the decision on the buffet was permanent, Shi said it likely was. “Too expensive, and food better off menu, fresh every time, made by hand, by self when order comes to kitchen,” he said.
While Johnny Chan 2 has not suffered the same staff shortages that many restaurants have in these pandemic times, Shi says supplies can be hard or impossible to get. “Tsingtao beer — cannot get! For half year, cannot get. Chinese restaurant, we should have some kind of Chinese beer. We cannot get it — it’s crazy!” he stated, lamenting other supplies his restaurant either must work around or can only purchase in small quantities. Diners-out must be tired of hearing of the shortages and out-of-stock situations by now, but everything Johnny Chan 2 is able to offer is still the best quality — made by hand on the premises.
See you at Johnny Chan 2!
Johnny Chan 2
11296 Montgomery Road
Cincinnati, OH 45249