by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's hard to imagine a more incongruous exterior for a Chinese restaurant than the red-barn fa & ccedil;ade that greets visitors to Ching Hua Garden in Greenacres. No elaborate gilded archways or red lacquer pagodas here; it looks more like a down-home barbecue joint, especially with the neon beer signs in the windows of the adjoining lounge. But surface appearances can be deceiving.
I first heard about Ching Hua Garden more than a year ago when a reader called to say he drives regularly from Tensed, Idaho, to visit the restaurant. Another reader called a few months later with a similar tip. When people go out of their way to call about a restaurant, it's usually a good sign.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o off we went to Ching Hua on Friday, five of us, ready to relax at the start of the holiday weekend. The interior is really three separate spaces: the darkened lounge on one side, a white-laminated lunch-counter space in the center, and the dining room to the right, wallpapered in a soothing floral print on a silver background with framed watercolor scenes lending a touch of Asian ambience.
The menu offers a full range of appetizers, from the expected (egg rolls, chicken wings, barbecue pork) to the surprising (pork buns, stuffed mushrooms, tofu with green onion). We chose the pan-fried wontons ($5.25), a platter of 10 small stuffed dumplings, lightly browned and served with a taste of cabbage-carrot salad and a deliciously piquant sauce that balanced a vinegary bite with sesame oil, garlic and green onions. Even after the wontons were gone, I looked for any excuse I could find to clean up the leftover sauce.
We opted to dine family style, so we could each try a variety of dishes. Unable to limit our choices, we ordered six entr & eacute;es to share.
The first dish to arrive was a platter of vegetables with fried tofu ($9.50). Big chunky triangles of deep-fried tofu teamed up with vibrant stir-fried vegetables -- carrots, mushrooms, onion, celery, zucchini, baby corn, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and thin slices of garlic -- in a brown sauce that was rich in flavor but not overwhelming, letting the vegetables shine. Even though one member of our group tends to eye tofu dubiously, he decided by the end of the night that it was one of his favorite dishes.
Next came scallops with vegetables ($12.50), a plate of sweet and fresh scallops, surrounded by crisp vegetables, all stir fried and presented in a light, almost clear sauce. The chow mein aficionados at the table loved the pork chow mein ($8.75), and even though I'm not a huge chow mein fan, I found it to be a pleasing execution of the traditional favorite: celery, bean sprouts and onions in lightly thickened sauce and topped with a sprinkling of finely minced barbecue pork, served over crispy noodles.
Beef with broccoli ($10.75) is another of those dishes common to most Chinese restaurants, but this presentation went a step beyond the common. The beef was tender enough to cut with a fork, and it contrasted beautifully with the deep green of the broccoli florets and the julienne carrots. The sauce was similar to the brown sauce on the tofu dish, and equally rich and tasty.
One of the more unusual dishes in our lineup was the Garden Big Pot ($13.50), a dish brought to the table in a large crockery pot, like a big stew or boiled dinner. Vegetables, meats (beef, chicken, pork), shrimp and tofu swam in a dark brown broth. Everything was a softer texture than the stir-fry dishes, having been cooked in the broth. The flavors were good, but it would have been easier to eat if we'd had bowls and plates -- and perhaps a bit more rice.
One of my favorites was the Garden lo mein ($10.50) --vibrantly colorful, crispy vegetables, stir fried with shrimp, chicken, beef and barbecued pork, along with soft egg noodles. The contrasting textures and blended flavors are a delight in this dish. Thin slices of garlic add to the flavor explosion.
Indeed, garlic was used liberally, but it was never bitter, never burned, and not nearly as overwhelming as garlic can sometimes be. And presentation was beautiful: Flowers carved from carrots sat beside leafy celery hearts as a garnish on most of the plates. The hot tea is a slightly nutty oolong blend.
Curiously -- or perhaps not -- everyone had a different favorite. Everything tasted very fresh and clean, not overwhelmingly salty or oily, as can happen with Chinese food. (Notably, Ching Hua uses no MSG in its dishes.) I was full at the end, but not uncomfortably so. Service was friendly and briskly efficient all evening. And we had dinner for five people for less than $100, including tax and tip, with plenty of leftovers to take home.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t the end of the meal, one of our party brought up "fortune cookie etiquette": You have to eat the entire cookie before reading your fortune, she says, "otherwise, it won't come true." This was new to me, but I followed her edict and was rewarded with my fortune: "Listen these next few days to your friends to get answers you seek." I'm glad I listened (finally) to the advice of the people who called to tell me about Ching Hua Garden. They had the answers that I didn't even know I sought.
We lingered, chatting and visiting, long after our meal was done, but we didn't feel rushed. Several other groups came in, but the dining room wasn't overcrowded. There's plenty of room in the barn for more.