First thing every morning, the chef at Peng’s Asian Cuisine toasts a batch of peanuts. It’s a humble task for a chef whose 30 years of experience includes a stint as head chef at the venerable Crystal Palace on Capital Boulevard before that restaurant closed a few years ago.
But the kitchen at Peng’s is small, and the staff is minimal. And the peanuts are, you might say, a command performance. Peng Jian and his wife, Niya, who opened Peng’s in May, decided to offer a small dish of warm, salted peanuts as a complimentary welcome when guests are seated. The simple dish also serves as a token of the owners’ primary aim: to share the rustic, home-style Chinese cooking they grew up with, and that is seldom seen in restaurants.
Home, in this case, is the owners’ native Hunan province, though Szechwan – China’s other famously spicy cuisine – is also well-represented. The menu includes a smattering of typically milder Cantonese dishes as well, and lives up to the restaurant’s broader “Asian” claim with an occasional foray abroad for the likes of Thai style seafood fried rice.
Edward Jia, a friend of the family who serves as the restaurant’s unofficial English-speaking PR representative, attributes the menu’s breadth to the chef’s early years of cooking in Thailand and Vietnam as well as China. He’ll go on to tell you that the Singapore noodles at Peng’s are the best around.
Jia doesn’t know the chef’s name (he pays witty tribute to his culinary skills by calling him Master Shifu, a reference to the character in the movie “Kung Fu Panda”), but he is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide to the menu. With a nod of thanks to Edward Jia, then (and with his proviso that some dishes as rendered at Peng’s show mixed influences of more than one region), here’s a whirlwind tour of the menu, with my tasting notes and Jia’s comments on provenance.
▪ Fried whole fish in hot chile sauce: Tilapia in a translucent golden crust, absolutely slathered with crushed red chiles and fresh cilantro. A fish filet version is also available. Jia highly recommends the steamed whole fish, which I didn’t sample.
▪ Cumin lamb: Exceptionally tender petals of lean lamb stir-fried with onions, glazed in a sauce whose spice level and cumin notes are more restrained than others I’ve had – because, according to Jia, Peng’s home-style version is a blend of spicy Southern and milder Northern flavor profiles.
▪ Salted cucumbers: Delightful starter salad of sweet Persian cucumbers, thickly sliced and tossed with Chinese black mushrooms and just enough chiles to rev up your taste buds. “A Southern dish,” Jia says, that both Hunan and Szechuan cuisines can claim.
▪ Spicy beef tendons: Translucent-thin ribbons, with a surprisingly tender texture similar to that of al dente noodles. Like many Szechwan starters, the dish is served cold in an oily glaze amped up with chiles and Szechwan peppercorns.
▪ Twice cooked pork: Pork belly that is first simmered and then sliced thin and stir-fried with peppers and onions in a mere sheen of a spicy sauce. Emphatically not your standard Chinese-American takeout version.
▪ Fish tofu with hot chili and black bean sauce: Chopsticks-manageable morsels of grouper filet and cubes of tofu in a chile-reddened brew punctuated with black beans and Szechwan peppercorns.
▪ String bean Szechwan style: Wok-blistered in a moderately spicy dry stir-fry. Peng’s version is seasoned with bits of minced pork, though the dish can be made vegetarian on request.
▪ Three cups chicken: So named, the story goes, because the original recipe called for one cup each of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. And so popular in Taiwan that it’s often attributed to that country’s cuisine. In fact, the dish originated in Jiangxi, a neighboring province of Hunan – which explains why Peng’s chile-riddled rendition is the spiciest I’ve ever come across. A rustic stew of chicken cut into bite-size pieces – but still on the bone and with the skin on – served in the ceramic dish it was baked in, this take on the classic is a prime example of what the owners mean by “home style.”
▪ Stir-fried Chinese okra: AKA luffa, with an appearance and flavor reminiscent of cucumber but with lots of seeds (which are nearly as tender as the flesh); in a pale sauce whose flavor compliments the delicate sweetness of the okra.
▪ Salt and (white) pepper fried squid: A classic dish expertly rendered with tender squid in a light, non-greasy crust.
▪ Fried dumplings: The pork filling is classic, but the surface of the dumplings was so pale when I had them that, if it weren’t for the sheen of oil that coated them, they could have been mistaken for steamed.
The dumplings would prove to be the only notable kitchen miscue I encountered over the course of two visits. The Szechwan string beans had cooled somewhat by the time they made it to our table, but I chalk that one up to service – which otherwise was unfailingly welcoming and attentive.
That said, you may have to ask specifically for the traditional Chinese menu. By default, you’ll be given the menu of Chinese-American fare that’s still obligatory in these parts. But if you’ve made it a point to seek out this unassuming strip mall eatery in its off-the-beaten path location (adjacent to an erstwhile outlet mall whose conversion into a Chinese cultural center has been stalled for several years now), then surely you’ve come for adventure. Peng’s supplemental menu of authentic home-style fare is what you want, and the offering is extensive and varied. Feel free to think of these notes as just a point of departure.
108-A Factory Shops Road, Morrisville; 919-678-5313
Atmosphere: small dining room, simple but attractive in muted jewel tones
Noise level: low
Service: friendly and attentive
Recommended: salted cucumbers, salt and pepper squid, fish tofu, cumin lamb
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Reservations: accepted for large parties
Other: beer only; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.