Kai Garden is yet another Ann Arbor Chinese restaurant with a second menu full of authentic dishes – but only for those who know to ask for it. Kai “Dan” Tus worked at a number of local Chinese restaurants before opening Kai Garden in 1996. Because of its location on a less-traveled block of Main Street, and because it’s been there so long, Kai Garden could be overlooked despite its bright yellow awning.
That would be a mistake. Their Chinese menu is solid, featuring specialties from Hong Kong and Taiwan. There’s some menu items which are similar to those at other local restaurants, but there are also dishes unique (in this area) to Kai Garden. And you find excellence in some surprising places here. For example, Kai blends his own soy sauce, and he makes his own
Vegetable Dumplings (potstickers): A table favorite. The steamed ones in particular are delicate and showcase the vegetable filling, but both versions are good.
Scallion Pancakes: fried crisp and flaky, served with a peanut-based sauce — these were another favorite.
South China Sea Salad: A fun mix of salad greens, fruit, and seafood tossed in a slightly sweet, slightly sour vinegar dressing. Well balanced flavors of cool and sweet and tang. Enough to share with multiple people.
Egg Rolls: One of those surprising areas of excellence; we tried these because one of our crew recommended them. The wrapper was perfectly fried and crispy, and the vegetable filling is freshly-made with a hint of
Crab cheese: Another surprise. This is what Crab Cheese wontons ought to be! Extraordinarily light and flaky, with a succulent and rich interior. The house-made plum sauce elevates these to a new level, making the wontons sing.
Chicken with Blue Tofu: You won’t find this elsewhere in the area, and you have to special order it here, but it’s worth it. "Blue tofu" is a fermented tofu that has a taste reminiscent of fine cheeses. With chilies and preserved vegetables, it has a flavor with a hint of mustiness, like you would get in a blue cheese.
Salted Pepper Shrimp: These come with the shells on, but you'd hardly know it. Coated in a light crispy batter, the shells provide a nice crunch and yet are soft and thin enough to eat with the rest of the shrimp. Tossed with a spicy salt, garlic, chili, and scallion "coating" and served on a bed of lettuce.
Roast Pork with To Fu in Hot Pot: A great winter dish, it is warming and succulent, with chunks of pork belly, tofu skin, and wilted napa cabbage in a luscious, savory sauce with a hint of sweetness, served in a hot pot topped with fresh scallion. Some of our group adored this dish and even named it their favorite of the evening, while others found it too rich.
Sauteed Beef with Water Spinach: thin slices of tender beef and chopped water spinach stir-fried with shacha-flavored sauce (aka “Chinese barbecue sauce,” a savory and slightly spicy sauce that includes garlic, shallots, chilis, and some seafood extracts). Tangy and a little sweet with a hint of 5 spice.
Pi Fa Tofu: we’re delighted that we have two local restaurants which serve this unusual dish! (The other is Middle Kingdom, see our previous review.) Kai Garden uses Chinese sausage instead of shrimp. The tofu mixture with Chinese sausage and mushrooms is shaped into lute (pi fa) shapes, fried, then served on a hot plate. Light and slightly sweet, with a rich, dark, clinging gravy that some of us scooped up by the spoonful even after all the tofu pieces were gone. So good that even our pork-avoiding reviewer had to eat more.
Long-Life Noodles: named for their length, which is considered good luck for longevity, these are surprisingly light wheat noodles with mushrooms and pork, with just enough sauce to coat the noodles. Another group favorite. Normally, they serve it as a banquet dish, but if you're lucky they'll have the noodles in house, so you can get it. We recommend calling in advance. Portion size is huge, so come with a large group or be prepared to have plenty of delicious leftovers.
Fried Banana: very basic, but unusually well executed. The coating was thin and flaky, and the banana soft and melting.
Eight Treasure Rice Pudding: a traditional Chinese New Year dessert. A large mound of sweet glutinous rice with the eight treasures (dried fruits, nuts, and red bean paste) served covered with a delicious thick rice wine flavored sauce.
Sugared Walnuts: when obtained fresh, these caramelized nuts are supposed to be stunning. Ours, which had sat for a while, were good but not stellar. We’d ask about freshness, and order if they are.
116 S. Main Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48104