“It’s been less than a year
since I became a convert.” So
said Lois Ahrens, a local social-justice activist, when she called me in
January and invited me to join her for dinner at the restaurant to which
she had “converted”: GREAT WALL, in Florence.
I didn’t need much convincing. People tend to be passionate
about their favorite restaurants, but it isn’t everyday that they
express their passion using the vocabulary of religious evangelism.
In describing Great Wall to me,
Ahrens was honest about its shortcomings. It’s located in a strip mall
between a liquor store and a diary mart, she said, and it “fails in
the atmosphere category” (a
keno machine is among the highlights of its décor).
But what it lacks in character it more than makes up for it in
food, Ahrens said. As long
as you order from the new gourmet menu rather than the old boilerplate
one, she said, you’re guaranteed to get “the best Chinese food
anywhere around here.”
Pretty high praise, that, so I
accepted her invitation, and my partner and I arranged to meet her at
Great Wall one evening last month. We
would be joined by Ahrens’ partner, Ellen Miller-Mack, a
nurse-practitioner and radio-show host (“Blame It on the Blues,” on
WMUA); and Ahrens’ friend Lisa Baskin, a local historian, publisher
and activist – not to mention foodie – whom Ahrens and Miller-Mack
credit with their “conversion.”
On the appointed day, Baskin was the
first to arrive. She was
sporting buttons that read “Beat Bush” and “Impeach,” and she
carried two bottles of red wine. She
seemed to know every employee at the restaurant by name, and without so
much as a glance at the menu, she ordered a seaweed salad and a scallion
pancake to get us started. The
$2 seaweed salad was like that served at Japanese restaurants –
pleasantly crunchy, and garnished with sesame seeds; the $3.75 scallion
pancake was sliced like pizza and served with a zippy dipping sauce of
vinegar, soy sauce, ginger and garlic.
When the rest of our dining
companions arrived, the real feeding frenzy began.
Never mind that there were only five of us; we ordered enough
food to feed 10. Baskin, Ahrens, and Miller-Mack each had a host of
dishes that my partner and I,
the Great Wall virgins, simply had
to try, and before we knew it, our large round table was overflowing
with food. The dinner is a
bit of a blur for that reason, but plenty of dishes still stand out in
Like the $16 Savory Aromatic Roasted
Chicken , whose flesh was impossibly moist and tender because , as
Baskin explained, it had been simultaneously steamed and roasted.
Or the $11.95 seafood hot pot, with shrimp and scallops layered
on top of vegetables, glass noodles and homemade stock.
Or the $8.95 Dragon Skin, which went a long way toward persuading
me that tofu is indeed worth eating (the dish consists of dried tofu
skin wrapped around shrimp, chicken and black mushrooms, then lightly
fried and served on a bed of greens).
Or perhaps most memorably, the market-priced flounder, a
sophisticated banquet-style dish served on an oval platter, with lightly
sautéed chunks of fish surrounded by deep-fried pieces of its skeleton
– fins, bones and the like, all very much edible.
Was this Chinese food?
Not like I’d ever had before.
Like lots of Americans, I grew up eating egg rolls, wonton soup
and moo goo gai pan. I
never lived near a Chinatown, so I didn’t know what I was missing. That a restaurant in Florence could , when asked, serve
authentic Chinese food using only fresh ingredients – no icky baby
corn, no canned bamboo shoots – was a revelation.
So why doesn’t everybody know
about Great Wall, which had been in business since 1996?
Well, they will if Ahrens and Baskin have their way.
The women are so fond of the restaurant and its hardworking
husband-and-wife owners, Hong Kong natives Ken Cheung and Clara Li,
that, being activists, they did what came naturally: took it on as a
Ahrens and Miller-Mack eat out at
Great Wall at least once a week, and they are forever recruiting the
initiated to accompany them. “There’s
nobody I brought or told to go that hasn’t gone back,” Ahren claims.
“It really is this one-tells-one kind of thing.” In
particular, she enjoys bringing the restaurant to the attention of
transplanted New Yorkers like herself who have been jonesing for some
food - not that hackneyed
One of her many conquests is Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins, a
former Brooklynite. According
to Ahrens, Higgins initially had to be “dragged” to Great Wall, but
has since become a familiar face at the restaurant.
If Ahrens is waging a grassroots
campaign, Baskin is intent on bringing the restaurant to the masses.
Baskin discovered Great Wall in 2002 and has long since
befriended its owners; these days, she can be found at the restaurant as
often as three times a week. As
a regular, she learned early on that the key to getting great food at
Great Wall is to avoid ordering from the standard menu.
“Clara and Kenny get deliveries quite a number of times a week
from Boston and New York,” Baskin told me, “and what I soon learned
was, just come in and talk to Clara
and see what has come in and what’s fresh.”
Like Ahrens, Baskin has introduced
countless people to Great Wall (“I’ve got a big network,” she
says), but she hated the notion that only insiders were getting access
to the type of off-the-menu dishes that kept her coming back to the
restaurant. So she
suggested creating a second “gourmet” menu.
The owners loved the idea (Baskin, Clara Li says, is “wonderful.
She’s just like my mom; she help me so much”), and then spent
months writing the menu with Baskin, who designed it and paid to have it
Of course, gourmet menus aren’t
for everyone, and Great Wall won’t be getting rid of its old menu
anytime soon. “There’s still and entire take-away world that calls in
and orders fried rice and chicken fingers – and is happy with that,”
Baskin says. “You know
the saying ‘The Earth has room for all’?
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