Can American Chinese Food Be Healthy?

Your cravings for greasy Chinese takeout—the indisputable hangover remedy—don't exactly coincide with beach season. But that doesn't mean it's time to put down the chopsticks. At Chow Down Grill in the Miami-area city of Surfside (9517 Harding Ave., Surfside, 305-397-8494), chef Joshua Marcus is innovating waistline-wreaking Chinese-American classics into health options that won't leave you sated this season.

Making Chinese hearty and healthy wasn't always easy. For Marcus, the biggest obstacle is sourcing the right ingredients. "A lot of the time you'll go to 10 Chinese restaurants and the dumplings will always taste the same; they're buying prepackaged dumplings and stuffing them with cabbage for volume and consistency," he says. Mitigating the mass-production of ingredients is a nationwide problem, especially when there are an estimated 46,000 Chinese food restaurants across the United States—more than McDonald's (with 12,000-plus) or any other fast food chains combined.

Chow Down achieves quality control by keeping production small, and growing and making as many of the ingredients on the premises as possible. Seasonal produce is grown in the restaurant's rooftop garden, which was initially just a small patch out back behind the restaurant. It now holds nine types of heirloom tomatoes, baby eggplant, seven types of chilies—including ghost chili and Jamaican coffee chili—French sorrel, and chives.

The natural ingredients are then used to make all of the sauces and broths on the menu. Soy sauce is fermented over a period of four months and stored in barrels until ready to use. The chef eschews all the typical additives, such as sugar and caramel for color, in favor of honey, which attributes to "the fruitiness and salinity," he says.

The more control they have over the foundation of each dish, the more they can ensure the quality of the product, he adds. Vegetarian dishes use vegan broth made from whey derived from the housemade tofu, so diners can be sure dishes are, in fact, 100-percent vegan. Orange chicken is made from fresh-squeezed orange juice that's been reduced and spiced, rather than the typical orange juice concentrate and cornstarch combination you find elsewhere, which contributes to the overwhelming feeling of fullness you get after eating Chinese.

Ultimately, Chef Marcus' mission is to produce food that's authentic but still palatable. "I'm taking Chinese cuisine as the skeleton but utilizing other techniques that I've learned so that it's more developed," he explains. "I'm still using the same flavors but updating them for the palate of today's 'food enjoyer.'" Foodies or not (Chef Marcus deliberately avoids using the term), both health-conscious diners in search of true Asian flavors and Chinese food fanatics who may not be counting calories will find something worth digging into at Chow Down Grill. "We focus on quality ingredients, serving freshly prepared foods with bright and vibrant flavors that's a bang for your buck," says Marcus. "That's a combination that works."

Would you eat more Chinese if it were made like this, or do you like your Kung Pow Chicken the way it is? Discuss it in the comments.