When you first walk through the doors of Lapple, you have no idea of the culinary delights that wait.
The old Panda Garden space at Grace and Harrison streets maintains the slightly dingy and sparsely decorated interior of its predecessor, as well as what looks like a sushi bar from, I’m guessing, a few restaurant incarnations ago, plus an alarmingly miniscule kitchen. Crooked paper lettering on the windows reinforces the impression that you’ve stumbled into another run-down Chinese delivery joint. Your sole clue to the wonders hiding inside is the word “authentic” pasted on the window.
Lapple owes its existence to alumni of Peter Chang’s restaurant empire. Distressed that Richmond was bereft of authentic Chinese food besides Chang’s restaurant in Short Pump, husband-and-wife team Apple Gao and Adrian Liu decided to add another option.
Fans of Chang will find a few familiar dishes, such as the deep-fried diced eggplant appetizer ($6) with scallions, cilantro and a dusting of spicy peppers. The impossibly creamy interior with a crispy light coating is straight out of the Peter Chang playbook, a welcome culinary intrusion from the suburbs into the city.
Liu, Chang’s former sous chef, adds options of his own to the fairly extensive menu at Lapple. Hot pots take up a great deal of space. Fans of the cook-your-own meat-and-vegetables style may be disappointed to discover that Lapple’s hot pots come already cooked. But don’t fret, you’re eating out at least in part to avoid cooking, right? The combination hot pot ($14), served with a mix of fish, meat and vegetables in a hot and numbing sauce, clearly demonstrates the difference between Lapple and, say, the Panda Express franchise on the other end of the block. Instead of sauces overpowered by syrupy sweetness and thick with cornstarch, Lapple uses subtle flavors that reveal an underlying complexity. The heat in the hot and numbing sauce doesn’t immediately smack you in the face — it sneaks up on you, each taste laced with a mere hint of spice. A few bites in, though, and the Sichuan chilies make themselves known.
The cumin vegetables ($13) are more food than can reasonably be finished in one sitting. All of the portions are large — I take leftovers home every time I visit. And like most other dishes, the flavoring is subtle and, in this case, a little underwhelming. The freshness of the vegetables shines through, though, and they are — refreshingly — truly the star of the show.
The selections at Lapple clearly are meant to please a wide audience. Those who mourn the loss of the vegan buffet at Panda Garden will be pleased to find a two-page menu supplement of vegan options. If you’re a fan of more Americanized dishes, such as General Tso’s chicken, they’re on the menu too. In fact, lunch specials conform to the American-Chinese tradition, with a main dish served with steamed or fried rice and a spring roll (starting at $7.50). Orange, sesame and kung pao chicken all are options, as is a beef with onions that flavors improbably tender beef slices with soft, stir-fried onions.
But this leads us back to the claim of “authenticity.” What is it? How would the casual diner who hasn’t traveled extensively through China know whether Lapple’s food is authentic? And, perhaps, more to the point, does it matter?
I bring a Chinese friend along on one visit to help me ascertain Lapple’s claim to authenticity, but she’s from a different region than the owners. I should have suspected — China has more than a billion people. A documentary, “The Search for General Tso,” illuminates the difficulty of isolating food’s exact history — in this case, General Tso’s chicken. Chinese restaurant owners’ culinary adaptations were designed to hasten the cuisine’s spread across our frequently xenophobic nation.
In the end, Lapple’s diners will decide for themselves. Both familiar and new is aplenty — ever had a Chinese bloody Henry? — to make Lapple a worthwhile destination whether or not you fancy expanding your culinary experience. Everything isn’t perfect, and Gao and Liu need to continue to refine the menu and décor. Both will go a long way to ensure the deserved longevity of Lapple. S
948 W. Grace St.
Mondays, Wednesdays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m.-9 p.m.