More Chinese restaurants than ever before are opening near universities around the country. They’re not serving General Tso’s chicken, nor are they offering Asian fusion fare. Instead, they’re dishing out unapologetically regional Chinese cuisine.
Here’s the root of the trend: Every year for the past decade, there’s been at least a 10 percent rise in the number of Chinese students in the United States, the BBC reported. And according to the Institute of International Education, students from China now make up around 30 percent of international students in the United States.
If you love Chinese food, this news bears special interest. Near Stony Brook University in particular, strip malls and stand-alone spots are filling in with Chinese restaurants. A few miles from Stony Brook you’ll find one of the newest and most interesting places, memorable at first sight for its whimsical name.
LOL Kitchen & Grill is a reference to the acronym “laugh out loud,’’ the online game League of Legends and “a Chinese reference to eating food on skewers,” says Yang Liu, the 26-year-old owner.
Liu grew up in Miami eating “hamburgers and typical foods that American kids grow up on,’” he said. But he kept tabs on his homeland and became more committed to his heritage. His family hails from Shenyang, a city in the Liaoning province, where the cuisine displays Mongolian and Korean influence.
By the time Liu graduated from Stony Brook, he loved this regional cuisine so much that he opened a restaurant that caters to Chinese students and diners willing to expand their repertoire.
Student or not, you should visit this modest-yet-stylish spot serving Shenyang-inspired fare. There are many rewards on a menu of boldly seasoned vegetables, cumin-laced meats, Northern Chinese hot pots and skewered foods cooked on the grill.
If you’re lucky, when you arrive the kitchen will be simmering lamb for stock. Not only does it smell heavenly, but your server may bring out a cup, which makes for a fabulous first sip.
Propped on a ledge against the glass of the windowed open kitchen, a chalkboard reads, “New @LOL,” followed by a list of specials written in Chinese. If you, too, cannot read it, be sure to ask your server, since it offers some unusual dishes. One visit, I ordered a plate of fried sardines that were very fresh, extremely crunchy if a little bland. Another visit, fried squid was perfectly tender, seasoned with cumin and tossed with a plate of carrots, peppers, chilies and Chinese celery cut like batons. If it’s available, this dish is a must-order.
Among vegetables on the menu, do not be afraid to get the cabbage that arrives slightly wilted with oil and black vinegar and spiked with chilies for an addictive spicy-sour combination. Otherwise, get the green beans blistered from the very hot wok, garnished with a ladle’s worth of ground pork.
Shredded potatoes — not particularly regional — show care in the matchstick cut. The dish also reveals the skill of a kitchen, with the texture a barometer of how well a cook controls the heat.
Don’t skip the grilled stuff, since it’s among the most compelling food on the menu. Start with barbecued chives, several skewered in a row, like streamers on the handlebars of a child’s bike, bright green, dusted with sesame and cumin. Taiwanese sausage will please a more conservative diner. A little snap of the skin delivers pork seasoned with star anise and Chinese rice wine.
Have I mentioned the chicken wings? Two or three to an order, they are bold, juicy and fragrant. And while they’re not served in as generous a portion as Buffalo wings you’d order as bar food elsewhere, they could be a contender for best wings around. Chicken hearts are for the more adventurous, a savory, juicy little bite.
Maybe it’s overkill if you’ve followed advice and racked up all these dishes on the table. But the Northern hot pot is a regional favorite, a display of rich pork broth that becomes more complex as it cools. Stocked with braised pork belly, slippery tofu skins, blistered green beans and slivers of eggplant, it’s definitively of a place: the Northern province of China, far from Centereach, but close to Liu’s heart.