You won't find people eating dessert at most Chinese restaurants. Somehow we rarely find room for it after stuffing our faces with fried rice, wontons, and Kung Pao chicken. And yet for years, Kelly Chu of Red Orchids has been tempting diners with an increasingly creative array of ice cream flavors.
"I figured a lot of Chinese restaurants don't have desserts because you just overeat and no one really wanted dessert after a meal," she says. "But I wanted to make something different, and it kind of took its own course, which was really fun."
That something different is ice cream with an Asian twist. Chu, who makes other delectable desserts for the restaurant as well, taught herself to make ice cream just by "playing around" in the kitchen. A couple of years after she and husband Tony opened Red Orchids in a West Ashley shopping center, she introduced five core flavors: green tea, jasmine tea, coconut, lychee, and ginger. Made from all-natural, high-quality ingredients, those options kept their customers satisfied for close to six years, until Chu got the urge to add more.
"I got really stressed one day and I thought, I'm going to do something else for the restaurant," Chu says. "And I did. I made a black sesame, and from that point on, I just went crazy." You never know what you'll find on the menu on any given day, whether it be lavender, vanilla and black pepper, or — the most recent offering — strong Brazilian latte. They're served either by the bowl or in little shot glass-sized servings. We recommend ordering the sampler.
According to Chu, their most popular flavor is the sweet-and-spicy chocolate cayenne. "Chocolate by itself is kind of boring, so I wanted to add a bit of dimension. I like that the flavor would bring a little surprise," she says. "I really like bold flavors. There are flavors that I make that are very delicate, like the lavender or the lychee, the jasmine tea ... but most of my flavors are bolder." Chu has an instinctive knack for coming up with flavor combinations — she says ideas usually strike at unexpected times, and they usually turn out exactly how she imagines. Though she doesn't always hit the mark.
"I made a basil ice cream that turned out awful," she laughs. "And I made probably three batches of awful basil ice cream. And I realized that maybe I shouldn't touch that ice cream anymore."
When asked to choose her personal favorite, Chu wavers. "It's kind of like all my children, so it's really hard to say which one I like the most," she says. "I guess it depends on the day. The rum and dates is really good. I like alcohol in my dessert, though I really don't drink."
While she loves eating her own ice cream, her favorite part is sharing it with others. "I like making it because I like people eating it," she says. "That makes me very, very happy. When people enjoy it, that just makes my day."