Remember “The Secret Garden”? Written by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1909, it was a favorite book of my childhood. It's the story of Mary Lennox, a young girl who discovers the joys of hard work, determination and friendship as she tends a long-neglected garden.
I was reminded of that book recently when I walked through the door at Asian Garden restaurant in Cramerton to speak with Linda Zhao, who owns the place with her husband, chef Feng Lou.
In the novel, Mary is shown the door to the garden by a robin; in my case, it was my dear friend Henry Howe, who has steered me to a number of wonderful restaurants, including this one.
First, a little background.
Linda and Feng came to America about 13 years ago. Feng's sister and her husband were living in Gastonia, and invited the couple to settle here as well.
“Feng graduated from chef's college in China, and all he wanted to do was cook here,” she told me, “and his sister always had the idea of opening a restaurant.” So they worked in a number of restaurants for a few years, and in 1998 the three of them opened China Express in the same location. But around 2006, Feng's sister began having health problems, and asked the couple to take a more active role in the business.
“We decided to change the whole thing,” Linda said. “We remodeled and redid the whole menu,” and the immaculate, peaceful Asian Garden opened in January 2007.
Every dish I've tasted has been fresh, remarkably flavorful and distinctive. The hot and sour soup is the best I've ever had.
For starters, you can't go wrong with crab Rangoons ($3.29 for six): Light and crispy fried wontons are stuffed with a delicious mixture of crab, cream cheese and scallions and served with homemade dipping sauce. The Thai Sweet Spicy Chicken ($7.49) boasts golden fried white meat with fresh basil, carrots, onions and water chestnuts with just enough sauce to bring it all together.
The Sa Cha Seafood ($9.99) features scallops, jumbo shrimp, crab, carrots, mushrooms, broccoli, water chestnuts and onions sautéed in a lovely sauce that is spicy without being overly hot.
When Linda and Feng first came to this country, she spoke little English. So how did she learn?
“By talking to my customers,” she explained. “I love the people and they're so nice to talk to. You get to know their family and they get to know your family and then you don't feel like you're so far away from China.”
I was so struck by those words. Like Mary Lennox, Linda has found a way to create something beautiful despite the uphill battles she's faced. And like Mary Lennox, I now better understand the joys of hard work, determination and friendship.