A predictable bet
I had this drinking buddy, Aaron, back in Kansas City. We’d get totally smashed, wake up hungover and then gorge on Chinese food. We must have eaten at every Chinese place on both sides of the Missouri River. After 20 or so Mandarin/Hunan/Cantonese binges, it occurred to us that it didn’t matter where we went; the food always tasted the same. Aaron put forth that some sort of subterranean go-kart network existed deep beneath the city, ferrying deep-fried and over-sauced Asian treats from a single source to every Chinese restaurant in town.
I’ve concluded that he’s right and that this clandestine, buffet-stocking Oriental Express operates on a national level.
China Luck, on San Pedro and Paseo del Norte, is another stop on the underground egg roll railroad. The dining room is busy and booths and tables are always full. The staff is brisk but friendly enough, often coming across as if they’re trying their damnedest to be interested in you while secretly wanting you to order and get the hell out. It can make for an awkward meal.
The food? Not bad, not great.
Appetizers usually please across the board at Chinese restaurants, what with all the deep-fried finger foods served with sticky-sweet sauces, but CL just kept missing the mark. Pot stickers, which I can actually survive on for days at a time, just didn’t do it for me. The expected balance of crunchy-fried and delicately steamed dumpling was way off-kilter. The crunchy bottoms weren’t crunchy; they were kind of chewy. And the steamed tops were so doughy, they stuck to my teeth.
On the other side of the table, sesame chicken was a saving grace. A typo on the menu described it as “deepr fried,” but it was actually perfectly fried.
While the egg rolls were crunchy wrapper-wise, the filling was neither here nor there. With all the usual ingredients, they should have at least been as good as any other restaurant, but these were on par with a food court. The Tsingtao beer I had with them was a pleasant sidekick. Light and cool, it washed down all the heavier fried foods nicely.
For entrées, I sampled a chicken hot pot and sesame chicken. The hot pot was certainly hot. I could smell burnt chicken before it found its way to my table. As it turned out, only the chicken in contact with the pot was burnt, but the aroma seeped its way into the rest of the dish. The whole kit and caboodle had a chewy texture, including the Thai basil.
On the other side of the table, sesame chicken was a saving grace. A typo on the menu described it as “deepr fried,” but it was actually perfectly fried. The breading was crisp without any greasiness. Generously sauced but not cloying, soy notes shone through the sugar, defying a simplistic nature of the dish that's normally displayed.
Aaron and I ended up distinguishing Chinese restaurants not by their food, but by their idiosyncrasies. We settled on a remodeled Taco Bell that had traded in Enchiritos for crab Rangoon. The cooks would assemble dumplings in the dining room while gossiping, and the owner/cashier would crouch under the soda fountain, watching soap operas that blared out from a black-and-white set balanced on his knees.
Likewise, diners at China Luck will have to find something that stands out to them to fall in love with. While some may find the food just as good as anywhere else, others will have to seek what makes China Luck special among a slew of similar restaurants.
The Alibi recommends:
• Sesame chicken
• Chinese beer
• Taking your time just to keep the staff on their toes
China Luck, 7900 San Pedro NE A1, 822-0525. Hours: Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun noon-8 p.m. Price range: $8.75 (chicken dishes) to $12.95 (house specialty seafood dishes). Ambience: Chinese déjà vu. Credit cards, large parties, booze.