Readers frequently ask me about my favorite Chinese restaurant.
My answer is a neighborhood, not a specific restaurant.
Along a one-mile stretch of South Tacoma Way, in a Lakewood neighborhood known for Korean dining, three restaurants comprise what I call the Chinese Restaurant Vortex of South Sound.
One is an old-time find, a Chinese-American restaurant reminiscent of the chop suey houses of yesteryear. A second is a stylish, modern Chinese venture featuring some of the best Szechuan dishes you’ll encounter around here. The third is an unproven hybrid that offers something new for diners: a handsome Chinese-Korean bistro.
8765 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-582-3400, yenchingrestaurantandbanquet.com
Tucked into a gritty strip mall that once housed a movie theater, Yen Ching has served wok-based Mandarin and Szechuan Chinese food for more than 30 years.
Yen Ching initially opened under Jue Hai and Kelly Wang, but later turned it over to Jue’s sister, June Wang. June is a constant presence at the restaurant with her son Chin and his wife Christina. The longtime face of the business is Frank Luu, the debonair server consistently outfitted in a crisp dress shirt and snappy bow tie. He serves alongside Linda Charles, also dressed to impress.
Diners will find comfortable, sprawling digs outfitted with a trickling pond in the entry, cushy high-backed booths, and celebratory Chinese lanterns dangling above.
Yen Ching is a small family operation, meaning wait times can run longer than expected, but it’s forgivable when you factor in gracious service, generous portions, fair prices and the come-as-you-are vibe.
The food isn’t cutting edge or fancy, and that’s by design said Chris Wang, who acknowledged that Yen Ching’s longevity is due to rarely changing anything, including prices. That means the menu might seem stuck in ’70s era Chinese-American fare. As a kid who grew up feasting on that style of Chinese food, I appreciated the familiarity of the menu and its widespread appeal. You know what you’re getting, and that’s just fine sometimes.
On three visits in the last year, patterns emerged. Balanced sauces segued between sweet, spicy and savory. Filler ingredients – those ubiquitous peas and carrots – were sparse. Meats were tender, vegetables still crunchy. Service included nice touches, such as tableside assembly of mu shu pork ($12.50).
The one soup to try is winter melon ($7.95), enough for four. It’s similar to egg drop soup, but brimming with crunchy melon tasting faintly of cucumber.
Eggplant with garlic sauce ($10.50) proved my favorite in the region for this presentation – a dynamite spicy-sweet sauce heavy with garlic, the Chinese eggplant cut large. Sesame beef ($12.95) and similar wok-cooked beef dishes lacked dimension, but held plenty of meat.
Twice-cooked pork ($11.95) showed up with an appreciated surprise – thick-sliced pork belly, long cooked and deliciously sauced. Hunan chicken ($11.95) combined fried chicken wings with a pepper-flecked sticky sauce, fortified with crisp peppers, broccoli and onion.
The seafood was average. Honey walnut prawns ($15.95) and shrimp with exotic sauce ($15.50) were fine, but predictable. I suppose that’s to be expected of a restaurant that specializes in the fare of yesteryear – not that I’m complaining. I am fine with predictable restaurants, just so long as they’re consistent. This one is.
9601 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-581-0102, tacomaszechuanchinese.com
One bite of chong gin hot chicken and a spice-seeking diner will understand the peppery allure of Tacoma Szechuan, a longtime destination for the region’s finest – and possibly spiciest – Szechuan cuisine.
Chong gin hot chicken and other dishes listed as “Szechuan style” are a memorable, tongue-zapping culinary odyssey at Tacoma Szechuan. On a visit earlier this month, chong gin ($11.50) arrived thermonuclear hot in a foil-lined basket: bitesize boneless chicken breast wrapped in crunchy breading, deep fried and coated in a pinkish-orange dry spice mixture that tasted of floral-tinged chili pepper laced with what felt like tongue-numbing Pop Rocks.
Szechuan peppers at the base of the spice mix whipped my tongue, yielding a numbing sensation that simultaneously sensitized my palate to the fiery sensations of the other spice-heavy dishes.
Heat avoiders, skip the chong gin.
Heat lovers, however, will appreciate the six-page menu listing a dish that is hard to find in South Sound: Chinese hot pot in eight configurations. I skewed toward the Szechuan dishes over several visits the last two years. Those Szechuan dishes always have leaned heavy on chili and hot oil, with layered flavors deeply concentrated and aromatic.
Steamed dumplings ($6.99) should begin every meal at Tacoma Szechuan. The satisfyingly chewy dumplings, served with hot chili dipping oil, broke to a loose ground pork flavored with ginger and scallions. The peanut and dried bean curd appetizer ($6.99) tasted long marinated in a spicy bath of chili oil dosed with garlic.
Szechuan beef ($10.50) was more sweet than spicy, the dish fortified with still-crunchy fried broccoli, peppers and onions. Eggplant in hot garlic sauce ($9.50) comes close to the delicious sauce of nearby Yen Ching, but was heavier on chunky-cut Chinese eggplant. Deep-fried fish Szechuan style ($13.95) is the cousin of chong gin chicken: tender and flaky fish, like you’d find at a fish and chips house, only basted in that tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper dry rub.
Always-friendly servers were apologetic when the crowded restaurant – as it frequently was – meant long waits. What I appreciated was that despite the dining room bustle, the dishes never appeared hastily composed. Quality was consistent in the kitchen, which speaks to the longevity of the chef who has remained through an ownership change when three sisters – for whom the restaurant previously was named – sold the restaurant to an employee, Adan Oei.
Tacoma Szechuan is amid broad Korean offerings. Next door is the area’s best destination for Korean soondubu, Cho Dang; and Tacoma Szechuan is attached to Korean grocery store Paldo World.
3615 Steilacoom Blvd SW, Lakewood; 253-292-0629
In the middle of the Korean dining district on Lakewood’s South Tacoma Way, a newcomer now offers a hybrid Chinese-Korean dining experience in a stylish bistro setting.
Malri Hyang opened about two months ago in the space that previously held Hwang Do, a cafeteria-style Korean restaurant known for its handmade noodle soup, bagirock kalgooksu.
The modern digs of Malri Hyang appeared so polished, it almost seemed out of place among the casual neighboring Korean eateries. Soaring paneled walls in wooden tones enclosed a dining room lined with stylish black tables and sleek, long booths. Wood screens created a narrow entry flanked by oversized tables outfitted with rotating lazy Susans for large-group dining.
It would take a dozen visits to eat through a fraction of the six-page menu listing the greatest hits of Chinese wok dining with occasional nods to Korean cuisine.
Locate Malri Hyang’s specialty at the rear of the menu under “noodles”: jjajjang mein (sometimes spelled jajangmyeon), a mish-mash Chinese-Korean noodle dish with a salty black bean sauce. The thick tangle of squishy spinach noodles coated with a thick, soupy sauce will be an acquired taste for some. Order it solo for $6.99 or as part of the “noodle combo” dishes.
We navigated to Chinese wok standards on two visits. The sauces appeared heavily thickened and grew gloppy and gelatinous as they cooled. Filler vegetables – such as bamboo shoots and water chestnuts – cluttered several dishes.
Eggplant with hot garlic sauce ($9.99) was garlicky, but light on spice. Spicy garlic beef ($14.99) came in a copious serving, but was lighter than expected on both garlic and spice. Shredded pork with hot sauce ($13.99) matched thin slices of tender pork with equal portions of water chestnuts and mushrooms. Sesame chicken’s sticky sweet sauce – thick, but tasty – jacketed crisp fried breast meat ($12.99).
Look to the appetizer menu for a standout: steamed Chinese bao, listed as “steamed meat dumpling.” In orders of two ($4.49) or four ($7.99), the grapefruit-sized puffy steamed buns spilled a scallion-licked filling of ground pork.
The service was kind and efficient, making Malri Hyang the kind of place to dine with a large group. Dishes had family-size portions. A promotion throughout March offers free sweet and sour pork for orders exceeding $30.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.