The double-skin setup. All photos: © tablehopper.com.
The double-skin dish after mixing.
The exquisite Peking duck.
Thrice-cooked pork belly (mei cai ko ro).
Sautéed crabmeat and steamed buns.
King oyster mushrooms with golden chives and cabbage.
A look into the dining room.
When I was researching places to include in my guidebook some years ago, my fab publicist pal Birdie—a longtime Berkeley resident—introduced me to ~GREAT CHINA~. She was surprised I hadn’t been yet, especially considering what a knockout yet crazy-affordable wine list they had (she’s my Champagne wingwoman). With one bite of the famed double-skin noodles, followed by their superlative Peking duck, I was face-palming myself for not knowing about the place sooner. Complete tablehopper fail.
Fast-forward to a tragic fire they had in 2012 (DO NOT THINK ABOUT ALL THE AMAZING WINE THEY LOST), a long insurance, relocation, and construction process, and Great China rose from the ashes in some new and very spacious digs on Bancroft at the very end of 2013.
Co-owner James Yu and his brother are taking over more of the business from their parents, who opened Great China in 1985. This new location has really given the next generation the opportunity to pick up the mantle and stretch their wings (although trust, Pop is still around to keep an eye on things and greet the longtime regulars). It’s quite a family affair in the kitchen: Dad is in charge of all hires, Mom runs the dumplings, brother Tai is the kitchen manager, and James oversees the plating and expediting on the hot line.
James’s brother, Tai, is also an architect and is behind the minimalist and industrial design of the new location, complete with concrete floors and cinder block walls, tall windows and an open ceiling, with some pieces of colorful art that pop over the stark walls. There’s an ever-packed dining room with 150 seats (complete with many round tables for family-style dining), a bar and lounge area in the front with high-top tables, and a semi-private VIP table for 14. The plan is to eventually have full liquor (they’re applying this fall), so the sparse bar shelves should have a different appearance soon.
The place has some funny contrasts: while it has a clean and contemporary look, there are some service stations along the sides that overflow with takeout boxes and linens. (Just one example of the ways this place “keeps it real.”)
But then there’s this: know any midlevel Chinese restaurants pouring Gosset Grande Reserve for $10 by the glass? I didn’t think so.
Here’s the move: reserve a table for six, that way you don’t have to deal with the long wait that will assuredly be happening (you’ll probably wait at lunch, you’ll definitely wait at dinner). With six, you can have James do wine pairings for your dinner and knock your socks off. Want to go deeper into the cellar? Let him know ahead of time what your wallet can bear, because homie has some quality juice stashed away, I’m just saying. (Although his ever-rotating by-the-glass selections are always gratuitously good, and some of the best deals in town.)
I hope you kind of like, no, love the horseradishy prickle of Chinese hot mustard, because it’s the dominant flavor in the famed double-skin (liang zhang pi) dish. It comes in three sizes ($14.95-$24.95); go bigger than you think because you are going to eat way too much of it, just trust me on this.
You server will present a platter of julienned carrots, cucumber, egg crêpe, calamari, shrimp, and sea cucumber, plus a side bowl of cooked pork, onion, and black fungus/wood ear mushrooms, and will then dump the bowls of vinegar and soy sauce and hot mustard over the top of it all and give everything a good toss. Then you get to slurp those cold and quivery housemade mung bean noodles mixed with all the toppings and coated in the mustardy dressing. This dish is bonkers. One of my top 100 dishes of all time. It’s the ultimate refreshing-on-a-hot day dish, but it could be 40 degrees out and I’d still order it. I keep teasing James I want him to make a soigné version, with king crab and salmon roe and God knows what. Make it rain!
The other dish Great China is equally famous for is Peking duck ($34.95), and for good reason: it has some of the best skin anywhere—it’s exquisitely crisp. A mound of tender (and deboned) duck meat is artfully presented, and your table will quickly start disassembling it as you peel off a thin-yet-sturdy housemade pancake and start making your little duck roll-up with a piece of meat and a piece of skin, along with plum sauce and scallion inside. (There’s also a tea-smoked duck, $15.95, that comes in a half portion with steamed buns.)
Pork lovers need to veer to the mei cai ko ro ($14.95), thin slices of thrice-cooked pork belly served over chopped up pieces of preserved mustard greens, the perfect foil to the rich, tender, and aromatic pork, with notes of ginger and star anise.
The menu features a concentration of excellent seafood dishes—the Yu family originally hails from Shandong, a coastal region, which accounts for the fresher, cleaner flavors of the cuisine here—although the grandparents had to relocate to Busan (in Korea), which is where James’s father was born. Interestingly, James tells me many Chinese restaurant owners in the Bay Area who specialize in Shandong cuisine are often from Busan, and even know each other’s families and businesses there.
A favorite is the surf clams ($7.95/pound): the steamed meat is served all chopped up in an enormous half shell with scallion on top. I found the presentation to be a touch too oily for my taste, so I scooped a big spoonful of seafood fried rice on it, and the dish went next-level. Now a good friend of mine, a die-hard regular, always orders the clams and fried rice together.
One of the sultriest dishes is the sautéed crabmeat ($24.95), given a quick turn with egg whites and scallions in the wok, and then the tender and fluffy mountain, crowned with a raw egg yolk, is brought to the table. Your server will mix it all together with a sauce of ginger-scallion purée and a sweet soy vinaigrette, and then you scoop it into the soft, steamed buns. The pillowy filling is silky and elegant, enlivened with a zip of ginger. It’s gorgeous.
There’s plenty more damage to be done on the menu, including their dumplings, duck bone soup, ants climbing on a tree, and a number of vegetable dishes, like the meaty king oyster mushrooms with cabbage, and lots of fresh greens—ask to see if there are any seasonal specials too. (You’ll see some Cantonese dishes on there, too, but they’re mostly there to please their customers.)
There is an elegance to so many of the dishes here, a level of finesse you just don’t find in many local Chinese restaurants. The team cares so much about consistency—partly because they have so many regulars who will immediately know (and will tell them) if something is off.
Longtime Great China fans will notice the service has ramped up from the previous location—James worked at Rivoli and Revival Bar and Kitchen during the restaurant’s closure, and was inspired to integrate a friendly and efficient style of service once Great China reopened. Although you have to love how servers will remind your table to pay with cash, and you’ll get a free dessert in the deal (green tea ice cream with rice puffs). Again, keeping it real.
Great China is easily a place where I’d bring my parents, where I’d love to host a birthday banquet, or assemble a posse of wine-loving pals and do it up—although I’d need to figure out a safe way to get home after a night with assuredly too much of James’s incredible wines. Because I’ll be honest—the Berkeley address (and crossing the bridge) are the only things that keep me from eating there all the damn time.
This review was based on two visits.