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Asian standby

Chinese Kitchen does the classics well.


We all need a place we can rely on for a quick, relatively cheap, decent meal. A place you can call on when you've got no desire to prepare a proper meal at home or to sit down for an extended period at a restaurant. Aside from the often woefully inadequate offerings of most fast food joints, it's nice to have a place you can drop by, quickly and easily, and snag a complete meal . We don't always eat Chinese take-out, but when we do, it's typically under these circumstances. The so-called "Americanized Chinese" scene gets a pretty bad wrap, most naysayers citing its lack of authenticity with flavors tailored to the sodium and sugar-loving palates of the American people. But don't let this prevent you from enjoying a deep-fried egg roll now and again. Americanized Chinese is a part of our culture, one that should be embraced without shame, and in Little Rock, there's no better way to do so than at Chinese Kitchen.

We can't resist starting a meal with hot and sour soup ($1.85). Chinese Kitchen's version tends to be a little more on the sweet side than other places in town, but it retains all the necessary sour, spicy, and salty elements that make this dish so popular. It is often served so piping hot it may take half an hour to cool to a point you would even dare approach it with your tongue. The strips of tofu, dried Chinese mushrooms, and thin, firm strands of bamboo give the soup the contrasting soft and chewy textural elements that make this soup shine. Chinese Kitchen provides you with a generous pile of slightly oily fried wontons to top your soup with, a simple but flavorful addition that gives the soup another gentle nudge towards greatness.

While most of Chinese Kitchen's menu reads like the stereotypical Americanized-Chinese restaurant playbook, with standards such as sweet and sour pork, spicy kung pao chicken, garlic pork, and broccoli beef, a few less commonly seen items deserve special attention. The Cantonese press duck ($7.55) is prepared according to an old Chinese recipe. A whole duck is seasoned and steamed, deboned when tender, then flattened and steamed again. Once the double steaming process is complete, the duck is fried until the skin becomes crisp and a deep golden brown. Lastly, the aromatic, slightly sweet duck meat is gently tossed in a rich brown gravy. This is one dish not to be missed from Chinese Kitchen's menu.

"Leung's Special" ($9.55) is a hodge-podge of flavors rolled into one unique dish. Succulent lobster meat is blended with oven-roasted pork and shrimp, then tossed with assorted Chinese vegetables: snow peas, water chestnuts, and bell pepper. It's not the protein choices one would immediately imagine working well together, but they do — each bringing a distinct flavor profile but blending harmoniously to a single cohesive dish. You might also go with the "Lobster Cantonese Style," ($16.99),which is plump lobster tail sauteed with fried garlic and a thickened paste of black beans. Normally, we prefer nothing to distract us from the unparalleled flavor of lobster (other than melted butter, perhaps) but in this case, with some fluffy white rice and a drizzle of soy sauce, we happily make an exception.

We typically always order one of their fried rice dishes ($4.65), which are available in chicken, beef, pork or shrimp. The rice comes out a dark brown color, not exactly beautiful, but it tastes great regardless. Flecked with fried egg, onion, chopped carrot, and tender peas, the rice has the familiar flavor of oil and soy sauce and pairs well with nearly any dish on the menu. The lo mein dishes ($6.45) are equally appetizing. They always manage to balance the savory, salty sauce with the perfectly cooked noodles in such a way that the dish doesn't feel sloppy, saturated, or overly heavy. Instead with the mix of fresh vegetables and meat, it's another side item that is delicious and filling enough to eat like a meal. Their egg rolls ($2.10) are also always fried fresh for every order. Even after toting them home, with some down time in their to-go bag, they always retain their warmth and crispnesss when they hit your plate. Dip them in a small pool of soy sauce with some spicy Chinese mustard and you have a dish no one will refuse. They may be the essence of Americanized Asian cuisine but we won't turn them down.

We're not claiming that Chinese Kitchen will be awarded any Michelin stars in the near future, but it puts out a decent, reliable product. That's enough to earn our continued patronage. We've spoken with several other customers while waiting to pick up our order who have been regulars at Chinese Kitchen for 15 to 20 years. With loyalty like that, you know the restaurant is doing something right.

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