by Mike Corrigan

The smiles that greet you upon entering the Ming Wah Chinese restaurant flow naturally from your hosts, Kam and Andrea Kwong. Kam is the owner, server, and one of the cooks as well. He's also one of the most friendly restaurant owners you are likely to meet anywhere. Kwong has a gift for gab and a passion for excellence in food and service.

Ming Wah features familiar Chinese-American dishes created and served with an extraordinary level of care, precision, speed and, yes, artistry. All of the cooks are from either San Francisco (where Chinese food in the West was first established) or from China.

"We bought the restaurant seven and a half years ago from the previous owners," says Kam Kwong with a laugh. "And we've never raised the prices."

Sure enough, one look at the well-worn lunch menu with the low, low prices and old school cocktail selections on the back (Harvey Wallbanger, Pink Lady, Rusty Nail, Zombie et al.) quickly confirms that claim. Actually, these prices would have been considered pretty reasonable 20 years ago.

The restaurant itself, small but casual and comfortable, is dotted with spotless pink Formica tables, each bearing a number. With its dark paneling, red Naugahyde booths, standard-issue Chinese lanterns and framed Far East art, it doesn't look as if the interior has been updated since the 1960s, if ever. There's even a dilapidated cigarette machine (and corresponding sign on the wall) in the back. The dining room is L-shaped, which allows for both smoking and non-smoking areas to co-exist harmoniously.

The lunch menu is in effect daily from 11:30 am-3 pm and includes eight different three-item combination lunches ($3.75-$4.50), 10 dishes served with soup and fried rice ($3.25-$4.50), noodles, won ton soup and a selection of appetizers. We ordered combination B-1 (Chicken Subgum Chow Mein, Egg Foo Young, Pork-fried Rice), B-4 (Chicken Subgum Chow Mein, Bar-B-Q Pork, Sweet and Sour Chicken) and B-5 (Fried Shrimp, Almond Fried Chicken, Pork Chow Mein). These may have been specially priced lunch combinations (with egg drop soup and tea included for only $4.50), but gadzooks, they were generous. And so exquisitely presented -- balanced and neatly composed with a variety of bright colors and textures.

Of course, looks don't mean bollocks unless there's a taste payoff. Fortunately, these dishes were even more pleasing to the tongue than they were to the eye.

Almond chicken, for example, is easily messed up. The gravy must be white, there must actually be at least some modicum of almonds present, and the meat should be predominately white. With this dish, the Ming Wah more than satisfied, with perfect bite-sized pieces of fried white-meat chicken resting cozily under a duvet of creamy white gravy and sprinkled with chopped toasted almonds. The regular chow mein came on a bed of crunchy noodles, and it was exactly as it should be: proportionate amounts of celery and bean sprouts in a savory sauce, topped with bits of barbecue pork. The subgum chow mein may have been even better, with diced chicken, water chestnuts, peas, onions, and celery in a delicate sauce over crunchy noodles. The egg foo young was tender and delicious as well, neatly topped with a dollop of brown gravy and barbecue pork. The shrimp were rather typical but made extra yummy by being dipped in some of the sweet and sour chicken's deliciously fluorescent orange sweet and sour sauce (also very good). There wasn't a problem or a letdown to be found in any of the three combos -- even the complimentary egg drop soup was outstanding. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I'd say that the Ming Wah serves up some of the best -- if not the best -- Chinese food I've had anywhere in Spokane.

Additionally, the service was -- how else can I say it? -- perfect. And I mean perfect in every way: greeting, seating, order-taking, water glass-filling, speed, precision, clearing and the all-important check presentation. Throughout our stay, our server was attentive without being intrusive and seemed genuinely interested in our complete satisfaction. The Ming Wah earns my highest personal recommendation. I now plan to become a regular.

Kwong says he sees the same people every week and that he and his staff know most of his regular customers by name. It's that attention to hospitality and service -- along with the great food -- that makes a trip to the Ming Wah such a memorable experience. "We have reasonable prices and we're fast," he says. "But it's also important for people to feel like they are at home. Everyone comes here. For a small restaurant we have a lot of support."

Publication date: 1/22/04

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