Given that this fine publication lays out a decent sum of money every month for me to go out into the world and report on what I eat there, it may come as a surprise to many of you that I’m pretty awful at trying new restaurants. When something comes along that suits me, I tend to stick with it — meaning a lot of burgers and salads from Big Orange and David’s, pizza from Damgoode, and fine dining at South on Main. Chinese food generally means a stop at Mr. Chen’s, where I can either dine in for excellent prepared food or shop for ingredients to make my own. But a blog doesn’t exist from articles about only five restaurants (although I have been accused of trying to do just that), and in the interest of fresh content, I trekked out to the far outskirts of Cantrell to Forbidden Garden, a small restaurant with a huge menu that came with some pretty solid recommendations from several acquaintances. And after my meal, the fine people at Mr. Chen’s have no need to fear that they’ve been replaced.
That’s not to say that Forbidden Garden is a bad restaurant, because it isn’t. The wife and I found two bowls of soup, egg drop and hot and sour, to be among the best we’d ever eaten, and the appetizer portion of two chicken wings and an egg roll were also quite tasty. In fact, the crips-fried wings were one of the highlights of the meal, and I’d be tempted to order them as a stand-alone appetizer should I ever go back.
But the rest of the meal was pretty lackluster. A plate of pan-seared dumplings were soggy and lacked flavor, while the Four Treasure Kung Pao (the four treasures being chicken, beef, scallops, and shrimp) had no real substance to the scanty protein while being overwhelmed with the most water chestnuts I’ve ever been served, so many in fact that it should have just been called Water Chestnut Kung Pao. I have nothing against water chestnuts, mind you — they’re a find addition to many dishes — but when every spoon is heaped with them, any other texture is shouted down by their weird, spongy crunch. What little protein was present wasn’t great — gristly chicken, very fishy-tasting shrimp, limp beef, and exactly two slivers of scallop (which I must say were prepared nicely).
Service was pretty good, although a little bit scattered (we had to ask for soup spoons and other utensils), and the prices are in line with other sit-down Chinese places in Little Rock. If I worked or lived in the area, I could certainly see putting Forbidden Garden on my agenda for a take-out lunch or dinner — but the food isn’t nearly good enough to go out of my way. You win some, you lose some, and some you just call a draw. Forbidden Garden is that draw — not good enough to be great, but not bad enough to avoid.