Restaurant Review

Bringing the Fire From Home: Joyce Chinese in River Edge

Regular visits to his native China convinced Leo Le to turn up the heat and authenticity on China’s most popular and influential cuisine—spicy, potent, complex Szechuan.

Spicy, aromatic flounder fillet, a classic dish hard to find on local Szechuan menus, superbly executed here.
Spicy, aromatic flounder fillet, a classic dish hard to find on local Szechuan menus, superbly executed here.
Photo by Morgan Ione Yeager

It is dangerous, I have discovered, to live just a 15-minute drive from the restaurant I am reviewing—at least, if it is Chinese, does lickety-split takeout and is as all-around authentic and superb as Joyce Chinese in River Edge.

After my visits, I was sitting at my keyboard recalling the intense flavors and aromas of Joyce’s Szechuan food when atavistic cravings drove all sentience, let alone sentences, from my rational brain.

There was no recourse but to call, order (under a different name) and jump in the car. Soon I was back at my desk, tasting, swooning, typing.

Among many dishes I can’t get out of my head, the four I brought back were, in ascending order of spiciness, kimchi fried rice, dan dan noodles, hot and sour soup, and mapo tofu. I’m happy to tell you about them, though if you had been there in person, I would have shared them grudgingly.

Kimchi fried rice (R8 in the alphanumeric listing, which makes ordering easier) is about the unlikely kinship of fog and lightning. Chunks of smoky Chinese bacon announce themselves to your nostrils before your first bite. Their enveloping flavor delivers on the promise, while flashes of acidity and crunch from Chinese cabbage, pickled in house, keep the dish afloat. “We call it kimchi,” explains owner Leo Le, “because it is easier for the customer to understand.” By any name, it’s terrific.

In a nanosecond, most of us can summon a taste memory of hot and sour soup, which arrived with the first Szechuan restaurants in New York in the 1970s. What makes Joyce’s special is, again, a matter of balance. Your first sense is of Szechuan peppercorn heat, then of refreshing sourness from white Chinese rice vinegar. The center is held by house-made soy sauce, flavored with a bit of what Le calls oyster paste. Unlike most hot and sours, this one (T7) has a surprisingly floral finish.

My palate was now armed and ready for dan dan noodles (E4), the signature street snack of Chengdu, Szechuan’s huge capital city (population 14.4 million). The soft, white noodles come under a mahogany cap of spicy minced pork. Stir them together with the house-made red chili oil at the bottom of the bowl and, yes, there’s moderate heat, but also blissful sensations of salt and pickle.

Mapo tofu is another classic. You should know that ma is the word for the numbing sensation of long, red chili peppers, prized in Szechuan cooking. Although the sauce involves sweet soybean paste and hot pepper paste, the cubes of moist tofu seem to float in a thick sea of deep-red oil. That is how it should be.

“We don’t adapt dishes,” says Le, referring to his Chengdu-native chef, Xiu (pronounced shoo) Wu. “Szechuan food has the heaviest flavors in China. Strong seasoning and big oil bring out the flavor.” You don’t consume the oil; it permeates the tofu, scallions and minced pork that complete the dish. (It can be ordered in a vegetarian version as well.)

The takeout dishes, which I had had earlier at the restaurant, confirmed my longstanding impression of Joyce Chinese (which Le named for his wife). Since it opened in 2014, I have eaten there at least seven times, and the cooking is consistently good.

Le, 42, was born and raised in Shanghai, known for its delicate seafood. He studied hospitality management in China, and in 1998 emigrated to Los Angeles. There he met his wife. After four years working as a manager in the Panda Express Chinese food chain, Le relocated with Joyce to Fort Lee, where he opened a simple takeout and delivery place called Oversea Chinese Restaurant.

In 2007, he changed the name to Joyce Chinese. It’s still there and still doing the same old thing. Meanwhile, Le was returning to China about once a year to keep tabs on what he calls the “amazing” rebirth of the restaurant business following the punishing austerity of the Cultural Revolution years.

“I realized,” he says, “that Chinese restaurants in America were falling behind China, not only in the food, but in the presentation and atmosphere.”

Having met his future chef in Chengdu, Le began looking for a large space and found it in a nondescript strip mall on busy Kinderkamack Road.

“There is a popular and busy Chinese market down the street,” he notes. “I knew I would draw diners from there.”

Le says he invested $1 million “from my own investments” in the design and build-out of the new place, which has 120 seats, including two private rooms. The lighting, chairs, table dividers, floor and wall materials, curtains and art all bespeak quality. Servers are attentive and helpful. The only ragged note is the clatter of busboys loading empty plates onto trolleys and pushing them down the aisles.

The joy of Joyce, though, is the food. One of the 23 distinct flavors of Szechuan identified by author Fuchsia Dunlop in her authoritative cookbook, Land of Plenty, is “fish-fragrant flavor.” You will find it on Joyce’s menu under the heading, “Sautéed Spicy and Aromatic.” We had the fish fillet (X1). The bite-size pieces of flounder were crackly crisp outside and moist inside, and the pungent aroma of the pickled red chilies had us salivating at once. The spice bloomed on our palates, led by a delicious saltiness.

Joyce’s well-organized menu, replete with sharp, professionally lit photographs of many dishes, is easy to navigate. Heat levels are indicated with one, two or three little red chili symbols, not always reliable. Our fiercest encounter with eye-watering heat was spicy lamb with cumin flavor (Z2), rated two chilies. Not for the faint of heart. But Le says requests for moderation are honored.

Chinese food, as everyone knows, comes out of the kitchen fast, and servers want you to order everything at once. That works when there’s a large group at the table, but my advice is to tell the server you will order in stages. That way, you can eat at a leisurely pace.

Another tip is to ramp up to the hottest dishes slowly. And at each course, offset a spicy dish with a mild one. Fortunately, there are some excellent ones on the menu. Fried scallion pancakes (E10) were crisp, flavorful and smoky, even better dipped into the rich, house-made, dark soy sauce. Snow pea leaves (V6) were lush and lovely. Chunks of cool, par-cooked cucumber in chili and garlic sauce (C11) were delicious and hardly spicy at all. Most novel and sweetly soothing was chef Wu’s creation, braised chestnut and bok choy in pumpkin sauce (a continuing special).

Le’s first name, it turns out, is not the Americanized Leo, but Le. “Le in Chinese means joy,” he says. “My first name and last name are the same. I guess my parents wanted me to be double happy.” He is passing that joy on to his guests.

Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Asian - Chinese - Szechuan
  • Price Range:
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, fried rice, noodles, cold dishes, soup, $5-$12; main dishes, $12-$30.95; whole fish, $30-$45; desserts, $3-$4.
  • Ambience:
    Elegant, relaxed, comfortable.
  • Service:
    Prompt and pleasant.
  • Wine list:
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