It happens more frequently than one would expect.
"The problem," a caller will say, "is that I can’t find any real Chinese food in Las Vegas."
In the early days, I was a little taken aback by that.
"Um, have you tried Chinatown, on Spring Mountain Road?" I would ask.
"That’s not real Chinese food," would be the reply.
It was a puzzler for me. Here were Chinese-native tourists getting off buses and going into restaurants where, if you only spoke English (or some useless other language, like German), it was common to encounter a server who would smile and nod and go get a 12-year-old busboy who could take your order. And to my way of thinking, if that’s not real Chinese, I don’t know what is.
But as the years went on, I came to understand that "real" Chinese means "Chinese food like they served where I grew up," whether the cook in question was named Chan or O’Callihan.
Most of the time, such calls come from Easterners, especially New Yorkers. As far as ex-New Yorkers are concerned, no bad restaurants exist in New York; au contraire, they’re all paragons of culinary excellence. But I digress.
And it’s true that, as there are regional differences in American cuisine, there are regional differences in Chinese-American cuisine. I don’t ever remember seeing strawberry chicken or walnut shrimp with a creamy white sauce in a restaurant east of the Mississippi, where they serve "egg-drop" soup instead of "egg-flower."
But the thing they complained most about is the chow mein (sometimes called chop suey). Eastern chow mein, it seems, usually is served on crisp noodles, unlike the soft ones that are most common here and that in the East designate a dish lo mein.
And it’s true that the eggrolls I remember from my childhood points east contained meat and shrimp and not just cabbage and other vegetables like the ones I get in Las Vegas today, although I always thought that was a factor of changing economies, not regional differences.
At any rate, several readers had told me about New York Chinese Restaurant, promising that it was the real deal — real New York chow mein with crisp noodles, eggrolls with meat; they even call it "egg drop" soup. And while it’s rare for a reader to steer me wrong, I don’t know what they were eating, but it’s not what I got.
The menu section titled "Chop Suey or New York Chow Mein" was promising, especially in that it said the former came with steamed rice, the latter with white rice and crispy noodles.
We ordered the beef version, the New York Chow Mein ($4.75 small, $7.25 large). It was fine — lots of beef, all of it tender, the vegetables crisp, the sauce about right. But there was neither rice nor noodles buried under all that, which we didn’t realize until a server bringing another dish asked if perhaps we’d like some rice with our meals.
Egg rolls ($2.75) were crisp and hot, but the tiny dots of meat we spotted in the first few bites soon gave way to an all-vegetable filling.
Lemon chicken ($8.95) was two large breast halves crisp-fried in batter, sliced and served atop shredded lettuce, covered with lots of lemon slices. On the side was the requisite lemon sauce, but sweeter than most and very, very thick.
Wonton soup ($2 for a cup, $3.75 for a bowl) was a little better than average, with lots of meat-stuffed wonton in the hot broth.
We even tried the crab rangoon ($4.25) to see if they gave it some sort of treatment that made it rise above its usual mediocrity, to no avail.
The long and short of it is this: The New York Chinese Restaurant is a perfectly average Chinese restaurant. You order at the counter and the food is brought to the table. The place is overly bright, but nice and clean. The menu is varied, and the food measures up to the general level of neighborhood-joint Chinese food in Las Vegas.
But as for the authentic New York aspect? I just didn’t see it.
And they weren’t even rude.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at email@example.com.REVIEW
New York Chinese Restaurant, 9430 W. Lake Mead Blvd.; 870-8888
Pluses: It’s decent neighborhood Chinese food.
Minuses: It’s not New York-style.