55 Crosspoint Pkwy # 118, Getzville, NY 14068
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Amherst Chinese Delivery Getzville Thai
"Sadly, what once was a little-known Getzville gem has given way to 'yet another Chinese takeout place,' leaving us with one less destination-quality restaurant for Chinese fare."
Updated! In late February 2009, Sun Garden changed management and chefs, so we've stripped our original 3.5-star rating and updated this review briefly at the bottom. Though we preserve the text and photography from our original review below for your reference, the new Sun Garden isn't the same as its predecessor, save for the menu; the appearance of its dishes remains virtually identical, but they've changed for the worse in taste. We have downgraded its rating and removed it from our list of local favorites.
The Prior Story (2008): The difference between good and great Chinese food is not, by any means, a trivial one. Years ago, discerning Western New Yorkers became accustomed to suffering through Peace Bridge delays and Customs interrogations solely for the purpose of dining at Ming Teh, a small but utterly classy riverfront restaurant in Fort Erie; today, its closest suburban approximation - Chang's Garden - is gone, lost to a fire. If you consider ambience the critical factor in a Chinese meal, you'll still want to cross the Canadian border, but if the food's what you're after, you'll find virtually all of Chang's culinary charm at Sun Garden, located on Crosspoint Parkway in Getzville. Designed primarily as a takeout restaurant, and utterly lacking in visual charm, Sun Garden is currently the area's best place to get an authentic Chinese meal. Delivery is offered locally, and recommended.
Part of the classical disconnect between Asian restaurants and their American patrons is merely an issue of surroundings: even if the food is better at, say, a strip mall Chinese restaurant than at a Burger King, some people would pick the Burger King or a more expensive alternative based solely on the fact that it looks nicer inside. Small Chinese restaurants tend to suffer more from this phenomenon than others; they often put more money into their kitchens than their decor, and cater to clientele that would sooner take food home than dine in. Sun Garden almost exemplifies this trend, though its seating area is a little cleaner, and a lot less cramped, than the norm. At lunchtime, a line forms in front of a large counter where the owner places menus, takes orders, and hands over food. Near the entrance is a refrigerator loaded sparsely with drinks - generally, few in variety and quantity - which we typically avoid in favor of a quick stop at the same plaza's well-stocked deli. One might guess from this that Sun Garden has no ambition to be a full-service restaurant, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
Highs: Having eaten our way through Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, say nothing of Chinese restaurants elsewhere outside and inside the United States, we feel very comfortable saying that the food Sun Garden serves is as close to the real thing as you'll find locally - or elsewhere. Unlike many aesthetically similar Chinese restaurants, Sun Garden's ingredient proportions, preparation, and portion sizes are right on: dishes such as the Happy Family ($10.50), which combines chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, scallops, lobster tail and vegetables, are equal parts meat and broccoli, snowpeas, and baby corn; this is an amazing feat. They're also delicious, whether served on the spot or delivered, as they come out hot and coated, not soaked, with brown sauce. Homemade pork or vegetable dumplings, served steamed or fried, are decidedly more delicious than the frozen ones sold by most restaurants; their thick skins hide fresh, tasty fillings that go perfectly with the included vinegared soy sauce.
Other dishes, such as the always vegetable-heavy Moo Shu Pork, Beef, or Chicken, arrive just as expected: flavorful, loaded with cabbage, and offset with thin pancakes and dark brown soy and sugar Hoisin sauce. These side items are textbook, not stunning, but combine with the Moo Shu to fulfill exactly the vision that was in your mind's eye before ordering.
Sun Garden even does wonderfully when it's catering to the Western palate. General Tso's Chicken, an American favorite that combines battered, wok fried chicken with a spicy chili tomato sauce, is high in chicken and low in batter - the correct combination, and one that far too many places abuse in the name of cutting costs. Its dish is garnished by steamed broccoli, rather than overwhelmed or padded by it, another trick that far too often results in Tso disappointment. Similarly, its renditions of simple noodle dishes, fried appetizers such as imitation crab and cream cheese wantons, and egg rolls emerge properly cooked, but not dripping with grease. Achieving the right balance for fried foods is not easy, as China's actual restaurants seem as comfortable with grease as they do with choking pollution, but Sun Garden gets the flavors just right. Despite this, the prices are aggressive - most likely because there's so little staff and decor overhead.
As a side note, Sun Garden offers a comparatively limited menu of Thai dishes that aren't quite as authentic as its Chinese fare, but otherwise do just fine on taste. We wouldn't dissuade anyone from trying these items - they're a bonus rather than a drag on the menu, offering a handful of options to change up your order - but unlike the Chinese food, the Thai items are unlikely to win any awards.
Lows: There's no doubt that Sun Garden's seating is at best forgettable, and at worst off-putting - assuming you're looking for a nice dine-in experience, or just to avoid walking out of a restaurant with the smell of a wok on your clothes. While it's not the shabbiest Chinese dining area we've seen locally by a long shot, the lack of a wait staff, silverware, and real beverages could easily be remedied in a larger, more complete version of this restaurant; they're only tolerable because the owner and his delivery/cooking-focused staff are so friendly.
On a separate note, while Sun Garden's menu is classic in the sense that most patrons will find whatever they want on the list, you won't find a special regional menu a la Chang's old Northern Specialties menu, say nothing of the Hong Kong, Mongolian, Dim Sum, or Taiwanese menus we have seen floating around at other places. This is a shame only in that Sun Garden does so many things well that we'd love to see risky options, too; if there's any local place we'd trust to do dim sum justice, it's this one.
The Verdict: As a take-out or delivery Chinese restaurant, Sun Garden so exceeds our expectations for the dollar that we'd be tempted to give it our very highest rating; the food is so consistently great that we actually do show up to eat there on nights when we just can't wait for delivery. But environment counts for something, and here, Sun Garden comes across as a seriously overachieving take-out restaurant with a little space for people to eat in a rush. So, until this place grows too big for its current space, order delivery or bring it home, crack it open, and savor it - you'll be hard-pressed to find better Chinese food locally.
Updated March 2009: As readers initially noted in tips, the once great Sun Garden has changed management, telling customers that its prior owner has gone on an extended "vacation." Although the new managers claimed to be using the prior recipes, we ordered a number of our earlier favorite dishes in an effort to ascertain how much of a difference there was between the past and current food. The results weren't bad, but also weren't anything special: the Hot and Sour soup was thinner and less spicy, the Steamed Dumplings weaker in meat flavor, the Happy Family higher in vegetable content and lower in meats and seafood, and the General Tso's Chicken less crispy than before. While none of the changes is profound, and we'd still class the items as fine to good, each of the items we ordered was below par given the prior restaurant's performance, closer to a China King than a local standout.
In any case, Sun Garden is no longer worthy of a special drive, and as it has narrowed its delivery radius, we don't expect that we'll be ordering much from the place any more. Sadly, what once was a little-known Getzville gem has given way to "yet another Chinese takeout place," leaving Western New York with one less destination-quality restaurant for Chinese fare. Our updated 2.5-star rating and removal of Sun Garden from our list of local favorites says everything that needs to be said; thanks to our readers for keeping us up to date with the change in management.