Chen's Chinese Restaurant

<p>The happy family dish.</p>

Is it just me, or do many Chinese restaurants here in the United States taste kind of … the same? I don’t mean to stereotype or over-generalize, but it seems that American Chinese food has become rather homogenized. The General Tso’s chicken at Place A tastes more or less the same as Place B, even though the owners and chefs are different and the restaurants are three states apart. After a lot of thinking about it, though, it occurs to me that American Chinese restaurants are offering what the American public wants, and while not terribly inventive, that usually includes pork fried rice, sweet and sour chicken and fried shrimp. I don’t believe that any restaurant is trying to be uninventive, or that they’re incapable of preparing something more challenging, but rather, the majority of America isn’t interested in inventive and challenging when it comes to Chinese food.

An explanation for all this was provided recently by David Chan, a blogger for the “Menuism Chinese Food Blog” and a man who has visited over 6,090 Chinese food restaurants. To summarize, the Chinese first came to America during the gold rush days and came primarily from one part of China: the coastal Guangdong province and particularly its city of Taishan. They brought with them a small offering of dishes that have now become some of the most popular in America. It was not until several years later that a more geographically diverse Chinese population began coming to the United States and that diversity in the cuisine also followed. But no other dishes have matched the epic fame of those from Taishan – chop suey, chow mein and egg foo young, to name a few – and hence, for most Americans, dishes such as these have become our definition of Chinese food.

All that being said, Chen’s Chinese Restaurant in Long Beach, Wash., offers standard Chinese favorites and more, and does it very well.

I have visited Chen’s many times, and have often lamented that they don’t serve some of my favorites that are less popular: crispy, fried duck for example, or dim sum. Upon visiting this time, as The Mouth, I put the desire for those foods aside and decided instead to sample a broad smattering of the menu offerings, including those that the American public holds so near and dear.

Our service at Chen’s on this evening was top notch. We were seated quickly and dispensed tea and egg flower soup almost immediately. Egg flower soup is not one of my favorites, although the version offered at Chen’s is one of the tastier I have sampled. Next up was a classic favorite, barbecued pork. This dish at Chen’s is far better than its counterparts at other restaurants; it is soft and tender, rather than hard and chewy, and amply glazed in sauce, something I don’t find often. It is delicious and tastes fresh, as if prepared to order, rather than in large batches that are made to last the day, as can be common in many restaurants. It is served with Chinese ketchup and hot mustard, but it needs no additional flavoring.

An entrée of Mu-shu pork, with tender shredded pork, cabbage, onions, carrots and bamboo shoots arrived next, with thin rice pancakes for wrapping. Again, the Mu-shu was far better than that of other restaurants I’ve visited. The pork was succulent and subtly spiced, and the vegetables crisp on the outside but tender on the inside.

I next sampled the Happy Family, a medley of chicken, scallops, shrimp and fresh vegetables. Although the dish was quite lovely, and a generous portion, there was a garlic taste that was overpowering to me. The scallops were also slightly overdone, making them chewy and tough. Scallops are difficult to prepare, and go from “perfect” to “overcooked” in seconds.

One of my favorites at Chen’s is the Chef’s Special Beef, thinly sliced beef deep fried and served with “special” hot sauce and broccoli. The breading is a just-right combination of crisp and soft, and whatever “special” ingredient is in the sauce, it is magical. The flavor is tangy and rich, sweet and spicy, and the sour crunch of broccoli is a perfect accompaniment. This dish is a treat, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Somewhat begrudgingly, I tried the sweet and sour chicken next, as it is such an American favorite. I can see the appeal of it, with its crunchy coating and sweet and tangy sauce, but it lacked the complexity of the other dishes.

As a side to all the entrées was a large order of pork fried rice, which was also superior to some others I’ve tried. The vegetables tasted extremely fresh, and there seemed to be more egg and pork than is usually found.

My fortune at the end of the evening said, “You will find happiness in a place unexpected,” and at Chen’s I was quite content with its traditional American Chinese food.

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