Jul 18, 2017

A commoner dines at the Chinese Tea Garden, Decatur, Ill.

If you’re looking for the Chinese version of classic comfort food, look no further than Decatur Illinois’ prototypical old-school Asian restaurant, the Chinese Tea Garden.

You won’t struggle finding it in downtown Decatur, either.  Just head to Main Street and look for the otherwise out of place storefront that looks like something out of a Chinatown movie scene.

If a trip to the Chinese Tea Garden seems a little like going back in time, that’s because in so many ways it really is.  In fact, for Punky -- who grew up in Decatur -- the restaurant has been a Decatur landmark for as long as she can remember.  The decorations -- inside and out -- haven’t changed in decades.  And the same family continues to run the place the same way after all these years.  So, going there for someone like her is a hometown tradition.

Speaking of the decor, the first time you visit you may think you’ve walked onto a Hollywood movie set for a Chinatown dive.  

Between the general lack of crowds, quaint setting and kitschy Oriental-style decorations, you almost can’t help it.  

As fate would have it, the Chinese Tea Garden has been featured in one movie scene for “The Informant” featuring Matt Damon and based on true events surrounding Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland’s price-fixing scheme in the 1990s.  See, in a film noir sort of way, the Chinese Tea Garden is the perfect place to not be seen.

Once you’re seated at the Chinese Tea Garden for the first time, don’t even think about ordering anything else to drink but tea.  Seriously, what else would you drink at a restaurant named “Tea Garden?”  Besides, it’s good.  Really good.  It also accentuates the experience.

Even if it’s dinner time, you’re probably going to order off of the lunch menu, which is available anytime.  The Luncheon Special is always a major bargain.  Most entrees are still less than $5 and come with fried rice, an egg roll (perfectly crisp) and soup (usually egg drop).  

You’ll also find most “traditional” Chinese entrees on the menu.  Again think Chinese comfort food.  Nothing here is too spicy or too daring.  Personally, I figured I couldn’t go wrong with the beef and Chinese vegetables.  

While Punky went with a similar choice, I was impressed with The Kiddo’s decision to try the shrimp with broccoli, served in a traditional light sauce.   The Kiddo does love her shrimp, and for what it’s worth they were very well prepared … it’s easy to get rubber shrimp at restaurants that don’t focus on seafood, but they got it right here.  

I was so pleased with our overall dining experience that I even let the fam take a picture of me stuffing my face.  

The Chinese Tea Garden isn’t fancy.  It isn’t trendy.  But it does give you feel-good food in a classic setting.  Give it a try.  You’ll probably leave a … umm … fan.

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