Great Wall going strong at 30 years in Elkhart

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By: Marshall V. King
mking@flavor574.com

J.Tyler Klassen/Flavor 574

Walls and restaurants don’t just stay standing.

The Great Wall of China, now more than 2,000 years old, might be falling down in spots, but the Great Wall Chinese Restaurant in Elkhart is doing just fine. And it actually has some youthful shine thanks to new owners.

Jack Yang started the restaurant at 610 N. Nappanee St., Elkhart, in 1985. It became a beloved spot that was a cross between a Chinese restaurant and an American supper club. He had regulars and a special on the menu named for himself. People came to love the comfortable flavors in the Szechwan dishes.

He retired and his daughter Minyi took over for a few years. Several years ago, another family approached Yang and he sold them the restaurant.

How do you take over a beloved institution? In this case, you send your young son, who loves business, to figure out how to build it back — to repair the holes in the wall, so to speak. Sometimes you make a big change.

Tony Yu is 24. He left town pursuing a college business degree to run the business in Elkhart. “I’m here most of the time. That’s very important. I watch the quality of the food and the service,” he said.

He and his family took over in July 2011 when the economy still hadn’t recovered. Longtime staff member Cory Zhang stayed on and helped with the transition.

Lunch business is strong. “We’re really busy and we have to make sure we can handle it,” Yu said.

Lunch accounts for about 40 percent of sales at the restaurant, though more customers visit when lunch specials range from $4.95 to $9.50. At dinner, prices are $8.95 to $15.95.

About 10 percent of customers were asking for dishes without monosodium glutamate. The ingredient in many Asian and processed foods adds a depth of flavor often called umami. (Think about the rich flavor of a sauteed mushroom. That’s umami.)

Medical studies will tell you there’s little evidence that people are allergic to the ingredient, but many people will tell you they can feel it when they ingest MSG.

I’ve learned not to question when people say that. Arguing with someone who believes he has a food-induced headache is rarely a good idea.

At lunch in particular, preparing some dishes with MSG and some without was causing issues in the kitchen. Yu made the decision to scrap MSG altogether and use a chicken base.

“We tried to make it easier, healthier for the customer. We’re more efficient that way,” he said. Great Wall made the change in early 2014 and few customers have missed it.

The food is delicious. The sauces don’t miss a beat and I didn’t miss the MSG.

The menu is full of what you’d expect at a Chinese restaurant that isn’t in an urban Chinatown. The classic dishes named for that mysterious empress and general are there, alongside the happy family and triple delight.

The Jack special of beef, jumbo shrimp, imitation crab meat, mushrooms and broccoli is on the menu, as is a second special named for him.

Here’s a secret you should know. The Szechwan chicken, shrimp and beef come with peanuts but not vegetables. If you want them, the restaurant will add them at no charge, Yu said.

The new almond shrimp on the menu with broccoli is a nice dish with a hearty sauce. It’s not as magical as the version at J.W. Chen’s Chinese Cuisine, but it’s good.

The aforementioned Szechwan chicken was surprisingly mild, but I’ll chalk that up to a clientele that may have less fiery preferences than mine. You can always ask for more heat, but it’s hard to battle too much at the outset.

The dishes come out of the kitchen quickly and are fresh. The flavors are full. Great Wall is tasting good these days.

Yu’s passion for the place is evident. He’s proud of being the No. 2-ranked restaurant in the Elkhart area on tripadvisor.com. Iechyd Da Brewing Co. is first, but Yu wants that ranking.

Yu is thinking about updating the dining room. “I love this place,” he said.

The life of a restaurant is never guaranteed. So what happens when someone younger than the restaurant itself takes over?

In the case of Great Wall Chinese Restaurant, it’s injected new life. Business has grown. The food and service are solid. A beloved place has some new swagger as it approaches its 30th anniversary.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

For more restaurant news and commentary from Marshall V. King, subscribe to the Dining A La King email newsletter. You can reach King at 574-296-5805, mking@flavor574.com, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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