There's a pot of pure chicken broth simmering on the back burner that almost never goes out - sort of like the eternal flame in Chun J. Chu's kitchen.
It was steeping until the lights went out at Four Rivers, the Chinatown standby he opened 17 years ago with his wife, Su J. Chu, then sold in March. And it's been simmering steadily ever since the lights flicked on at CHUlicious, the cheery BYOB opened in April by their daughter, Sheri Chu, in Mount Laurel.
"My dad's the best chef I know," says Sheri, 29, who dabbled with New York careers in pastry and fashion before moving home. "He said: 'I will help you!' "
And that, most simply, is how this beautiful pot of "house soup" - distilled from little more than water and whole Cornish hens - came to anchor this surprisingly distinguished menu of hard-to-find Taiwanese and Sichuan regional specialties in a little strip mall in South Jersey.
CHUlicious itself is modest, a simple but decent-enough L-shaped room, with cherry-red walls and funky lights. The service is pleasant but basic. But Chu's food is a legitimate draw. You'll taste that broth's natural purity in the house special wonton soup, its pale hue belying its power to magnify like a prism what's in the bowl: sheer-skinned wonton bundles stuffed with ground chicken softened by silken tofu, pink curls of fresh shrimp, crunchy hearts of bok choy. The yin to the broth's yang - those sublimely moist Cornish hens - is on display in the "CHUlicious chicken."
Actually, you'll get the hen only if you order it "authentic-style" - the default American-style brings a boneless breast over mixed veggies. The Chinese way is better, though, even if it's whole and chilled, simply chopped, and splayed beneath a tuft of cilantro and rich, chili-colored CHUlicious sauce. The hen's flesh, moist and velvety from its gentle, daylong bath in broth, is worth the fuss of stripping morsel by morsel from the bony carcass. The cool temp allows it to soak in the complexity of that splendid sauce, a rust-orange elixir tingling with the slow burn of Chu's three-day chili oil and a house sesame paste that coats the lips with creamy richness.
That CHUlicious offers both American and Chinese menus speaks to a more complicated storyline. This is essentially the reverse-commute version of a story I wrote this year about the dynamic growth of Philly's Chinatown from a recent influx of entrepreneurial mainland Chinese. This second generation of a more established Chinatown restaurateur has gone suburban, coming home to South Jersey, where Sheri graduated from Lenape High, and where many Taiwanese now live.
The menu still ranges wide for broad appeal, and respectably so, with a General Tso's chicken that's among the best, fried fresh and always crisp, the sauce a hint less sweet and rounded by citrus and chilies.
But the real reason to come are the genuine Taiwanese and Sichuan dishes that earned Chu (a Taiwanese native trained under Sichuan chefs) his well-deserved reputation. Sichuan food, of course, has found mainstream popularity in the region, and CHUlicious serves excellent renditions of familiar bellwethers: Chu's vegetarian ma po tofu is my favorite, the bean curd cubes patiently infused with the fruity heat of a sauce made with three different chilies, then dusted with a finely ground haze of Sichuan peppercorns that numbs the lips. The crystal wontons are another must, the same chicken dumplings as in the soup, but mounded over a bull's-eye of earthy chili sauce and spotted with garlicky sweet black soy.
Taiwanese specialties are much harder to find locally, and well-wrought here, their common baseline of a dark, brooding sweetness (sweet soy, hoisin, oyster sauce) angled in Chu's kitchen by pepper heat and the herbal undertone of a Taipei spice box that includes various barks, herbs, and dried fruits. Take the handsome steel crock of basil chicken, for example, a dish otherwise known as "three cup chicken." Its dark sweetness is cut just short of cloying by malty Tsingtao beer and the herbaceous lift of fresh basil.
The street food "small eats" stirred childhood memories in my Taiwanese-born guest, in particular the minced pork over rice (lu ròu fan), a Bolognese-like ragu with black mushrooms infused with anise and soy that is pure comfort. Chu makes his own sesame-seeded bun here for the CHUlicious sandwich, a crispy, puffier variation on scallion pancake dough that gets folded hoagie-style around thin slices of fragrant spiced beef, fresh cilantro, and crunchy greens. A soft pita pocket stuffed with sriracha mayo-slicked beef hums with cumin spice. The "burger" brings a soft puff of a steamed white "mantou" bun crowned with a glossy slab of pork belly that was unctuous perfection.
I wish the slow-braised hunk of fresh pork that is Chu's "sweet ham" had been as tender. The salt-baked squid were also too chewy, the aromatic seasoning too sweet for me. But there was no disappointment with the Wu-Shi ribs, first marinated in "secret" spices imported from Taiwan, then steamed so soft they melted from their tangy-sweet sauce off the bone.
With all that sweetness, a little Sichuan spice is welcome. But so are some lighter, fresher flavors - like the steamed bok choy ringing a mound of meaty black mushrooms. The most memorable dish at CHUlicious, though, was a pristine two-pound striped bass special, crusted in a deep brown crust I've never encountered made from a paste of house-ground mung beans, soy, wheat, and corn cooked beneath a searing drizzle of hot oil. It melds with natural juices and spices below for an extraordinary sauce, at once earthy and light atop such fresh fish.
CHUlicious had made its case: With master chef Chu and his pot of magic broth simmering in CHUlicious' kitchen, this reverse commute from Chinatown to South Jersey is an adventure of Taiwanese discovery worth the trip.
Village Two Shoppe, 1200 S. Church St., Mount Laurel, 856-780-5240; chuliciousrestaurant.com
The Chu family has taken its woks from Chinatown to Mount Laurel, where daughter Sheri is now the owner and dining-room host, and her chef-dad, Chun, creates the same excellent Taiwanese and Sichuan flavors that earned him a loyal following at Four Rivers, which they recently sold. Don't let the modest strip-mall locale (and excellent General Tso's chicken) fool you: This is a worthy destination for well-wrought and authentic regional cooking - especially the Taipei street foods - that can be very hard to find.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Crystal wontons; scallion pancakes; house special wonton soup; CHUlicious sandwich; CHUlicious burger; cumin beef pita sandwiches; minced pork over rice; Wu-Shi ribs; basil chicken; ma po tofu; sweet ham; whole striped bass with Taiwanese bean crust; CHUlicious chicken (whole "authentic style"); General Tso's chicken; black mushrooms and bok choy hearts; taro fritter dessert stuffed with red bean paste (fritters).
BYOB Lager is the traditional drink, but both bottles we brought - a funky, tart Saison-Brett ale from newly available Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, and a minerally crisp 2012 Grüner-Veltliner from Lehigh Valley's Galen Glen - complemented the meal's spicy and fermented flavors perfectly.
WEEKEND NOISE A lively but reasonable 82 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, until 10:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Entrees, $9.95-$25.95 (whole fish.)
All major cards.
Reservations suggested for parties of four or more.
Free parking lot.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Charlie was a sinner.