'Ah, General Tso, you were a bloodthirsty foe, but your chicken is delectable.'
The utter delectability of General Tso's Chicken is often overshadowed by its reputation as a dish for the huddled masses. It's a mainstay on the menu of every cheap Americanized Chinese restaurant--always nestled between the Egg Foo Young and Sweet and Sour Chicken $4 combo platters. But General Tso's Chicken, in many ways, is the Steven Spielberg of Chinese cuisine. Its extreme popularity and ubiquity leave it labeled as too "commercial" a dish, and although everyone has eaten it, its tasteful subtleties and merits are often overlooked come awards season.
Pigeonholing General Tso's into the same category as those lesser Americanized dishes is a direct affront to the man himself. Considering its namesake, this dish has quite a reputation to live up to. Tso Tsungtang was a general for the Qing Dynasty during the Taiping Rebellion of the 19th century. Millions died during this civil war, and General Tso was an unflinchingly ruthless commander. If Kill Bill Vol. 2 taught me anything, it's that we must pay tribute to our fallen foes, no matter how cold-blooded their reign. So to honor the memory of General Tso Tsungtang, I conducted a taste test to determine who cooks up the best General Tso's Chicken in the Columbia area.
Generally, the dish consists of boneless chunks of dark meat chicken deep-fried in a spicy yet sweet brown sauce. There's a stereotype that all General Tso's Chicken looks and tastes the same, but I am here to prove that theory wrong. The level of Tso's quality in the Morningside area runs quite a gamut, and one should not presume that a higher price guarantees a tastier chicken. For my test, I ordered General Tso's from four area restaurants--two mid-priced establishments and two cheapo joints.
My first stop was Columbia Cottage. Their General Tso's derivative is called General Ching's Chicken (I could find nothing in the history books about this lesser-known wartime leader). I don't understand the need for this nom de poulet, considering the Cottage does offer a General Tso's Shrimp. I guess Ching does not eat shellfish. In terms of quality of ingredients and texture, the Cottage's offering was above average. The chicken was crispy and not too heavy on batter. There were also plenty of crisp vegetables--something usually lacking in the cheaper dishes. But unfortunately, like much of the Cottage's food, I found the sauce disappointingly bland and under-spiced--it was neither sweet nor spicy, just brown. I cannot recommend the Cottage's offering to those who want to stimulate their tastebuds.
The next two competitors are both cheap takeout places on Amsterdam Avenue: Wai Lee and Concord Garden. They have indistinguishable menus (so much so that I often see their delivery people hide the menus of their competitor behind stacks of newspapers in the dorm lobbies). But are their General Tso's indistinguishable? For around $5, either restaurant will serve you a heaping helping with a side of pork fried rice. Both places have small chunks of chicken and are too heavy on the fluffy batter (which in case you don't know, is purchased in large industrial vats and resembles Crisco). I wish the chicken had a crispier bite to it. Concord Garden's sauce is too sweet; Wai Lee has a better balance between sweetness and spiciness. Don't expect any vegetables except for a few orphan pieces of broccoli.
If you want the best General Tso's Chicken in Morningside, you don't need to venture any farther than 116th and Broadway. Yes, scoff if you may, but Ollie's serves up the best. The chicken chunks are even larger than those at the Cottage and are coated with the perfect amount of batter. More vegetables are served with this dish than at any other restaurant, and it comes absolutely submerged in a deliciously spicy, tangy sauce. What? You think it's too greasy? This isn't the diet menu, kids; this is war. And don't go complain to the General--he would slaughter your ass before you could say "No MSG, please."