Scene in South Bend: JW Chen’s
Kathy Minko | Thursday, February 4, 2016
From the outside looking in, JW Chen’s seems like the perfect late night take-out spot. Sharing a strip and parking lot with Papa John’s pizzeria, this Chinese restaurant would be the perfect location for post-Thursday, Friday or Saturday night grub. Why not, right? Pizza and Chinese food? While this may be many people’s first assumption based on its appearance, JW Chen’s atmosphere and food offer so much more.
A mere one mile beyond campus grounds, JW Chen’s stands as one of the best Chinese places I have ever experienced. Rated four stars on Yelp, this restaurant has many different options for its customers. Jean—the restaurant’s owner through its 10 years of operation — prides herself on the service, the food and the authenticity.
“We have no MSG in our products,” Jean said. “And I ask everyone before ordering if they are gluten free or have any allergies.”
Upon customers’ arrival, Jean takes a seat aside each table, asks them questions like these and makes recommendations for each person based on their food preferences and phobias.
“I want to know a little bit about [each customer] and ask what they normally order when going to a Chinese restaurant,” she said. “And from there, I will guess whether I think they can order on their own, or if I can surprise them or help them.”
This unique, one-on-one interaction with Jean is mutually beneficial. It gives her a chance to meet and interact with others, while simultaneously providing customers with the best options according to their tastes. When she began asking my friends and me questions, we immediately fell into a comfortable conversation about school, life and — most importantly — food.
Side note: I also realized my friends had quite different tastes from my own.
After describing my sweet tooth, she recommended and brought out JW Chen’s Honey Chicken — a fantastic meal of grilled chicken with sesame and a honey glaze. Likewise, she recommended the lo mein and beef green bean to accommodate my friends’ tastes for chicken, noodles, beef and veggies. She also encouraged us to share, which was the best choice we made.
JW Chen’s MSG-free food complements its fresh atmosphere. College students — athletes included, as Jean liked pointing out — gather in an enclosed yet cozy space and all come together through the kitchen’s offerings. Even during an early 5 p.m. dinner on a Wednesday, I ran into and conversed with a few people I knew. Aside from the twentysomethings scattered about the restaurant, grandparents, parents, children, girlfriends and guy friends all ate Jean’s recommended courses.
As with any solid local joint, JW Chen’s brings in its fair amount of regular customers. It prides itself on the relationships it has built thus far and hopes to continue developing strong connections with the community — specifically, with Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross.
“I love when the students come in,” said Jean. “I feel like they are all my children. I’ve done this for 10 years, and the more I have done it, the more passion I have. This is my career.”
A loving atmosphere and caringly prepared traditional food make JW Chen’s a hot South Bend spot. People with all sorts of tastes can find a flavorful, yet not overwhelming, meal suitable to them.
Jean’s advice? “Just come over, eat and try it.” Surely, she has something in mind for you.