The Great Wall–they do ribs right!

The Great Wall–they do ribs right!

By Mike Leifheit

By Mike Leifheit

Restaurant Critic

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Norte (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit, reviews locally-owned restaurants who make it “from scratch.”

My son, the world traveler, is visiting for the holidays. He lives in Budapest. He is a freelance journalist. He has an opportunity to go to Cambodia for a journalistic seminar on free elections. I’m going to drop him off at O’Hare the Thursday after Christmas for the trip to Cambodia.

He has a regular girlfriend now—one he actually talks about seriously. He even said I might see grandchildren (finally). The girlfriend’s name is Dori. I don’t think she speaks English, but Drew is fluent in Magyar, the Hungarian language.

Drew really likes Budapest. He has become intolerant of America lately. Living outside of the country has made him more sensitive to the way the rest of the world perceives us. While he has been here, he has been trying to spend time with his old dad. So it was that he came over on Sunday morning to hang out. I hadn’t eaten, and I desperately needed to do a column, so I proposed that we go to the Great Wall. It’s one of my favorite things to do on a Sunday afternoon.

Before we leave, Drew e-mails a message to Dori’s cell phone. Then he uses a tracking program to determine whether she has received the message. His message is to call my cell phone, and on our way to the restaurant, she calls, and they talk in the Hungarian language. I am always amazed to hear my son speak in this language, and even more amazed to see him type in it as rapidly as he does in English. We arrive at the restaurant, and Drew walks in still talking on the phone in Magyar.

I have, in past columns, talked about how I like to sit at the bar to have dinner. This is one of the reasons I am so attracted to the Great Wall. They know without asking what I want to drink (a Zombie). Depending on the time of day (and whether Tommy has an emergency golf game), either he or Kelly or Kris will be behind the bar. Today we are earlier than usual, and Gene waits on us himself, that is, Gene Wang, the owner. I’ve known Gene for more than 20 years.

The Great Wall was the first Rockford restaurant to include Szechuan on the menu. I remember how excited we were to be able to get spicy Chinese food in Rockford. Before the Great Wall, there was only Midwestern Cantonese in Rockford. I say Midwestern because everything was dumbed down to Rockford taste levels—the all-too-normal stir-fried dishes with lots of cornstarch gravy. Gene was a pioneer. He did a lot to correct that.

I remember we all learned to eat Chinese at a place called Clear View in Marengo. Later, they opened one in Beloit called The Farmer In The Dell. Robin’s cousin, Brad, learned to eat Chinese there. (Robin is my lovely ex-wife and partner, mother of the aforementioned Drew.) Shrimps in lobster sauce was a big item; so was steak, Hong Kong style. We all thought we were being so adventurous. I remember it taking many trips to convince Brad to try some of the items. But Gene changed all that. Now we could burn our palates with tiny red peppers that you weren’t actually supposed to eat, but somehow always did.

On this trip in particular, I hearken back to those days by ordering a dish with tofu, green beans and chile sauce. Actually, on the menu they make this dish with pork. But at the Great Wall, as with most Chinese restaurants, they make each dish individually, from scratch. In addition, unlike American restaurants, they make one dish at a time, counting on the great speek of wok cooking to get everything out together hot and on time. This allows a great deal of customization.

Instead of the green beans being fried in oil, I request them poached, and instead of the deep-fried tofu, I request the natural soft white tofu. This cuts many of the fat calories out of the dish, and they are always happy to do it.

On the other end of the fat spectrum, we order Teriyaki chicken and ribs. This is not the low-fat selection, but we’re writing a food column here. I like the fact that they use a chicken thigh for this dish. I get sick of the ubiquitous chicken breast, and I like the taste of dark meat, especially with Teriyaki.

We ask for the ribs to come first. When they do, there are five wonderful little beef back ribs in plum sauce. These are the best ribs in the city, and they are always cooked perfectly. Ribs should not be cooked to slop. If you like ribs that way, you simply have really bad taste. I suggest you go to the baby food section where you belong. Real ribs have integrity and bite. It is much more difficult to cook ribs properly than it is to turn them into mush. Perhaps that is why there are so many overcooked ribs out there.

Then they bring the rest of our meal. The Teriyaki chicken comes with some sautéed Chinese cabbage. Drew, who eats better than anyone else I know, is devouring the tofu and green beans. I am making use of my column excuse to eat the dark meat chicken, although he did eat one more rib than I did. We finish off our meal. As usual at the Great Wall, there are leftovers. The Great Wall is one of the best values in Rockford.

We drive back to the Irish Rose. I want to write my column, but Drew needs to use the computer. His need is more pressing, so I watch television. Later, when he leaves, I walk over to the Artery with a bottle of wine, and hang out and talk with Izzy and Steve. On the way home, I notice my little flag friend atop the Faust. The direction is wrong. The air from the north is cold and feels ominous. Perhaps our long warm trend is ending. Perhaps we will get snow for Christmas.

The Great Wall is located at 4228 E. State St. Open for Lunch, Mon. through Sat., 11 a.m. to 2. p.m.; Dinner, Mon. through Thurs., 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday open all day, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Telephone: 226-0982.

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