Great Wall Chinese Restaurant

by Kristen Wilmer, CISA Program Assistant

Published in CISA’s August 2012 enews

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I first heard of the Great Wall when I received an email from a long lost high school friend who had heard I’d just moved to the Pioneer Valley.  Among the few carefully worded paragraphs, designed to neatly encapsulate his life during the decade we had been out of touch, was the following admonition: “If you haven’t already, you should absolutely try The Great Wall in Florence.  I especially recommend going on a weekend morning/afternoon for the Dim Sum.”

Great Wall Chinese Restaurant seems to attract such devotion with regularity among those who discover it.  Of course, you might well overlook it if you’re not paying attention.  Tucked away in a small shopping center a couple blocks from the center of Florence, one might live in the area for quite a while without coming across it.  “If it’s not visibly on your radar you don’t tend to stop,” says Lisa Baskin, one of the most devoted customers of Great Wall.  “When they come in they know, but you have to get them to come.  And the quality of the food – people come for it.”

Clara Li and her husband Ken Cheung have owned Great Wall going on 17 years. “We like food!” laughs Clara.  Food is clearly linked in her mind to hospitality and friendship – she describes fondly big meals she and her husband used to prepare for friends at New Years.  Both Clara and Ken had extensive restaurant experience in Hong Kong and Massachusetts before starting Great Wall.  Using fresh, locally grown produce whenever possible is a cornerstone of their philosophy.  They get baby bok choy, Chinese water spinach, pea shoots and more from Jiang Farm in Montague, sweet corn from Golonka Farm in Whately, and fish and lobster from Bekshore at the Tuesday Farmers’ Market in Northampton, to start with.

Food at the restaurant is cooked the way Chinese food is cooked in Clara and Ken’s home province in South China – it’s a far cry from traditional American-style Chinese food. Everything is cooked from scratch with the freshest ingredients, Clara says.  “My style – I like to use as much as we can from the local.”  Local produce, she says, “tastes much better and you don’t use much seasoning.”  Clara and Ken have converted more than one would-be vegetable hater with their cooking.  Lisa’s friend Lois, for one, thought she hated eggplant until she tasted a delicious eggplant dish at Great Wall.   The secret is in the ingredients – fresh local “eggplant by itself is very sweet,” says Clara.

Lisa Baskin stumbled on Great Wall during a stormy winter night in 2002.  She was immediately sold – having ordered what she describes as “the most fantastic tofu you can imagine – it knocks out every pre-conceived notion of tofu!”  After returning a second and third night, she began to spread the word, first to her son and then to anyone else she could find to tell about the restaurant.  “You want to share when you find something this good.”

Great Wall fare ranges from familiar to exotic, and from simple to gourmet.  You can find traditional Chinese fare like egg rolls and wonton soup on their regular menu, while the gourmet menu has offerings like scallion pancakes with ginger dipping sauce, braised duck, and pan-fried flounder fillet (in which all parts of the fish are used and cooked to perfection, says Lisa).  Dishes come both mild and spicy, and all dishes can be ordered either for eating at the restaurant or for take out.  And yes, true to my friend’s suggestion, dim sum is a specialty – a wide variety of different types are made fresh by Clara’s cousin every Saturday.

Clara and Ken both work tirelessly to improve their restaurant.  “Restaurant is day and night, says Clara.  “It’s a lot of work, no ending.  If you love it you will do it.”  It’s a good thing, she says, smiling, that she started the restaurant while she was young and had a lot of energy.

Clara believes in staying open-minded and she actively welcomes suggestions.  She agreed to incorporate sweet corn into the menu – pan-fried with chili peppers – on Lisa’s suggestion, even though sweet corn isn’t traditionally used in her home province in China.  “I like to talk to people,” Clara says. “To learn from them and to see what they need… It’s good to understand more and get better each time.”

Clara’s interactions with customers are a large part of what motivate her, along with a passion for cooking fresh wholesome food, and a desire to please.  Most importantly, says Clara, is the fact that it is “from your heart.  The work you do is from your heart.”

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