Over the years I’ve been doing this, I can’t tell you how many calls and emails I’ve received from people looking for “real” Chinese food.
At first, I didn’t get it. Well, I’d tell them, you could go to pretty much any restaurant in and around the China Town Plaza on Spring Mountain Road. Usually, the tables there are set only with chopsticks (although they’ll bring a fork, a little shame facedly, to spare non-Asians the embarrassment of asking), buses filled with Chinese tourists regularly pull in for a meal and several times, after I’ve been seated, my server has gone off in search of a colleague who spoke English.
I’d say that’s about as real as it gets.
But no, that wasn’t really what they were looking for. They were looking for the Chinese food they grew up with in New York or Chicago or Cleveland, especially — and this has been a big one — chow mein with crispy noodles. So, not “real” Chinese food, but “real” Chinese-American food, emphasis on the American. But my liberal-Protestant mama taught me to be accepting of all faiths (the mantra in our house could have been “not that there’s anything wrong with that”), and that extends to those of the culinary nature, too.
The whole subject came to mind as I was perusing a menu before going to Amlee Gourmet. I’d been to Amlee once, years ago, but I understood there had been a management change , and that the current owner is the former owner of Chin’s, which was renowned for its Chinese chicken salad and which readers also have been seeking over the years.
My intentions of trying the chicken salad were thwarted when the menu barely mentioned it, and I realized I had no basis for comparison. But the old-school idea stuck with me and was reinforced upon entering the restaurant.
Here there was a fork, knife and spoon at each place setting, not a chopstick in sight. The clientele in the restaurant, which was busy on a weekday evening, was exclusively white and leaned heavily toward those of a certain age or older. The beverage menu had an “Oriental” listing, which is something you don’t see much anymore. And when I ordered a glass of wine it was filled to the rim, just as my dearly departed father would’ve wanted it.
How could I not order chow mein?
Talk about no — or at least, not much — basis for comparison; I haven’t had chow mein since I was, oh, maybe 5 years old, and that was a couple of decades ago (har!). But with my order of chicken chow mein ($9.65), it all came flooding back.
Yup, there were no crispy noodles, and I remembered those, too; I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s an East/West kind of thing, sort of like Hellman’s and Best Foods or Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. This dish was closer to what I remembered as lo mein, with long, sort of soft, wheat-based noodles.
The rest of it came back to me, too: mostly cabbage, some carrots and maybe some celery, chunks of chicken that tasted as though they’d been poached, and a sauce that was definitely on the bland side, perked up a bit by the soy sauce our server offered.
And how about the Tomato Beef ($16.95)? I’m pretty sure that’s a Las Vegas thing although its provenance and popularity may extend westward; at any rate, it used to be a staple at certain lunch counters around here. This one was much less of a throwback than the chow mein, the tomatoes in large, firm, bright-red chunks, the beef gently sauteed, the sauce with a little kick. And steamed rice on the side.
To begin with we’d felt obligated to go with an old-school Pupu Platter, which at Amlee’s is called the Amlee’s Plate ($15.95) and which was another blast from the past. The items billed as shrimp puffs were fried wontons in the style of what usually are called crab rangoons, which usually contain no crab, just as these contained no discernible shrimp. And the two egg rolls specified turned out to be a number of cut-up rolls, filled mainly with vegetables. The fried prawns, though, were large and plump, the sesame-sprinkled barbecue pork tender and flavorful and everything but the pork fried nice and crispy, although there was some residual oil.
Service was very good, and also old-school. Amlee is a courtly kind of place, with linens and art accents and vari-colored neonlike lighting setting off the levels of the ceiling. Food is delivered on rolling carts and the server, using two large spoons, places a quantity onto each plate, which somehow made us feel like we were being pampered. So did the fresh orange wedges at the end, which arrived before the obligatory old-school fortune cookies.
I don’t mean to imply that Amlee’s menu is strictly old-school; there are a number of interesting dishes there, such as the Ruby Pork and Asparagus Shrimp. But I think the draw here, for the clearly loyal clientele, isn’t so much the Chinese food as it is the Chinese-American food.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or email her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.