Joy Luck Club
Central Avenue's newest eatery pleases the tastebuds I hear it a lot
: folks, especially recently relocated ones, complaining about the lack of "good" ethnic restaurants in Charlotte. I usually ask if they've ever visited the 4800-4900 block of Central Avenue. In that one block area they would find my favorite Thai restaurant, a large Asian grocery store and fresh market, a Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist, a Middle Eastern snack bar with groceries, a Dominican Republican restaurant with wedding hall, a Vietnamese restaurant, a separate Vietnamese soup shop, an El Salvador pupusaria, and now a new Cantonese restaurant. All in one city block. The newest kid on that block is Joy Lucky Chinese Restaurant
, located in the old Mr. Paul's spot. Joy is a labor of love by proprietors Judy and Chef Eddy Zhang, who opened last May. "This is our dream," remarked Judy Zhang. "We're from a family of restaurateurs. My husband's parents have a restaurant in Guangzhou (Canton) and his uncles own restaurants in Virginia and Chapel Hill." Chef Zhang, who apprenticed and trained in China, is not new to Charlotte. In the 1990s, he worked in the kitchen of Dim Sum on Central Avenue. When Tony Koos, one of the owners, left that restaurant to open Dragon Court on North Tryon, he asked Chef Zhang to go with him. Zhang worked there for three years. With Zhang in Joy's kitchen is brother-in-law Shu Chen who also trained in Canton. The Zhangs are from Canton in southern China. Of all the regional cuisines in China, Cantonese is the one considered haute cuisine. As an old Chinese proverb says, "If you want good food, go to Canton." There's another proverb: "People of Canton will eat anything with four legs, except chairs," but we won't go there. Cantonese cuisine is not the mouth-searing dishes of Hunan, the overly sweet sauces of Shanghai, nor the Americanized bastardization of Chinese cuisine we often find at the Cha-Ching corporate food halls. Cantonese cooking requires time, expertise, and heart. Because of the subtropical climate, the growing season in Canton, only 100 miles from Hong Kong, is year round, which allows chefs to depend on the freshest ingredients. Cantonese chefs are known for their light touch and foods that are slightly undercooked, stressing the natural flavors. "Cantonese is the highest form of cooking," Judy Zhang opined. "Some people think Chinese food is very easy. But Cantonese dishes are not easy. Every order is made fresh after the customer orders it. Nothing is pre-made in the Cantonese kitchen," she added. Joy Lucky has two gigantic menus and a dim sum list. One menu is filled with American-styled Chinese food and is written in English and Spanish (how cosmopolitan is that?): Sa Cha Chicken/Pollo Sa Cha. The other menu, which you may have to request, is in Chinese and English. Most items on this menu are well described so do not hesitate to explore. Zhang makes dim sum, those savory Cantonese bite-sized treats, a wondrous treat. Loosely translated as "touching or dotting the heart," dim sum originated in tea houses during the Sung Dynasty a millennium ago. In Hong Kong, the variety of dim sum is staggering: over 2,000 varieties. Anyone who has visited Hong Kong is acquainted with multi-tiered trolleys brimming edge to edge with these delicacies and where the final bill is calculated by counting plates. At Joy Lucky the trolley comes out for Saturday lunch. "It's a tradition from my country. After working hard all week, we come to a restaurant with friends for some dim sum and tea. We relax, talk, and enjoy ourselves after working hard," said Judy Zhang. But if you can't be there for the trolley, a 37 item list is available at other times. We scored with a trio of dumplings: steamed shrimp in gossamer wrappings, juicy pan-fried Cantonese dumplings, and steamed pork sui mai. The latter evoked memories of eating sui mai in a Hong Kong park, watching bird walkers (the birds are in cages) and T'ai Chi devotees. You will need to order lots of dim sum, even double order your favorite dishes, or you are liable to be left pouting unattractively while waiting for your entree. Cantonese entrees take time. The Cantonese menu ranges from bitter melon and beef hot pot, and chicken curry, to items with off-putting names such as deep fried intestines. Hey, those are chitterlings. I guess Canton is southern, after all. Not one to explore offal on an initial visit, I opted instead for Chef Zhang's pan-fried filleted whole flounder. The delicate flesh is expertly cut away, gently tossed with flour hinted with ginger, quickly fried, and then, in brilliant harmony, mixed with scallions, snow peas, and thinly sliced oriental vegetables and placed atop the fish shell. This is a first rate dish. A stir fry dish of crispy egg noodles laden with shredded chicken, black mushrooms, and vegetables in a finely composed garlicky sauce was another standout. You'll want to come back to sample the congee (rice) soup and the barbecued duck which you may, in fact, devour whole. The interior of Joy Lucky is not a match for Zhang's finely crafted food. If pomp and plush ambience is what you need, opt to take out. In either case, you probably will take home something since the servings are enormous. Real Chinese isn't your thing either? Zhang's wife said her husband can make General Tso dance with the rest of them. But if you stick to the dim sum and "Chinese" Chinese, you'll see that Joy is a lucky find.