There's no mistaking that Little Chinatown's building along Williams Boulevard was once a Pizza Hut. The distinctively boxy roof design makes its franchise precursor plain enough, despite the new name and Chinese lantern decor around the doors. It's just as obvious, however, that Little Chinatown is something quite different from your everyday Chinese restaurant.
A banner outside proclaims "We Believe in Authentic Taste," and upon entering, this promise is endorsed by a specials board marked by Chinese characters and brief but arresting translations like "snails with black beans" and "salt and pepper frog legs." Then there are the steaming clay pots making the rounds at large tables populated by Chinese families and the steady stream of young people arriving after 9 p.m., even on weeknights, who banter in Chinese with the waiters and slurp endless strands of noodles between glugs of beer.
Little Chinatown is the inverse of restaurants where a few authentic dishes lurk amid the standard Americanized fare. Here, it's the sweet and sour pork and crab Rangoon that seem out of place, and they're greatly outnumbered by dishes like whole steamed fish lashed with ginger or bowls of congee, a soupy rice porridge bolstered by bits of duck and pickled egg.
The Cheng family, transplants from Hong Kong by way of New York City, opened Little Chinatown late in 2010 to showcase traditional Cantonese cooking. It's fun to explore the menu, but it does require some decoding.
Dishes described as "salt toasted" turn out to be fried and practically tiled with minced garlic, green onions and jalapenos, and this also is true of the "salt and pepper" dishes. This robust seasoning mix is good when applied to large, shell-on shrimp or chicken wings, but better on squid and soft-shell crab, and it's superlative on crisp quail, hacked into chunks and drizzled with lemon. In the same vein, dishes described as "blackened" aren't cooked Cajun-style, but they are liberally flecked with black pepper, as in the case of a hot pot of beef short ribs in thick gravy sown with garlic.
Soups are another specialty, and most are large enough to ladle out around the table. Roasted duck, tender pork dumplings, springy egg noodles, greens and a rich golden broth make up one particularly good example. Goat stew is full of flavor but also pretty crowded with bones and cartilage. One light vegetarian soup was served with puffed rice crackers, which are floated on top but fall apart in the broth as they get soggy.
The menu is large and varied, and vegetarians will find a section all for themselves. Look at the specials board and you may also get the singular experience of sucking tiny, bean-sized snails from their shells — dozens and dozens to a plate — or twirling watercress from a salty pork broth. Non-Chinese guests sometimes have to ask for chopsticks here, but it would be hard to ask for a more satisfying spin through Cantonese cooking this close to home.