- LOVE AT FIRST BITE: The sesame chicken is a joy.
For more than three decades, the name "Chi" has been synonymous with Asian food in Little Rock. Since 1981, there have been 10 or so restaurants opened, owned and operated by Lulu and Bill Chi in the city. These restaurants have run the gamut of styles, including Mongolian barbecue, Japanese hibachi, upscale sushi and the classic namesake Chinese restaurants that dot our dining scene.
The thing we love the most about the Chi's restaurant group is that each of the family's restaurants has a unique feel, personality and menu. These are not cookie-cutter restaurants mass-producing cheap food — each location is a place to enjoy good food prepared by professionals. Picking a favorite Chi's is difficult, but if we were forced to do it, we'd have to go with Chi's Asian Cafe in Riverdale, which for our money offers one of the best, most expansive menus in town, all served by a friendly staff. It's the sort of place that goes to great lengths to make sure each customer feels taken care of.
It had been some time since we'd stopped by the Riverdale location, but after a recent expedition for antiques found us in the area, we decided to reacquaint ourselves with the place, finding it even better than we recalled. It's rare that we sit down to a meal with which we can find nothing wrong, but we've got to give credit to Chi's for accomplishing just that.
We took advantage of the lunch special menu, which offers a selection of Chinese classics like Sesame Chicken ($8) and Kung Pao Triple Delight ($9), served with an egg roll, fried or steamed rice and choice of soup. This sort of setup is pretty common in our experience, but the execution at Chi's was exceptional. Instead of bringing everything to the table at once, the staff at Chi's served us as if we were sitting down to a multicourse dinner, allowing us to savor each dish in our own time.
First up came our soups, one egg drop and one hot and sour. Having been victim to countless bowls of thin, uninspired egg drop soup, we were delighted to find that each Chi's version consisted of a thick, delicious broth that held thick ribbons of egg white, all piping hot and needing no added seasoning. The hot and sour was piquant, walking the line between "hot" and "sour" perfectly.
Just as we were spooning the last bites of soup into our mouths, our entrees arrived. The Kung Pao Triple Delight was a great combination of seasoned meat, peanuts and earthy water chestnuts, all lightly flavored. A side of fried rice made a tasty addition to the plate, and while the egg roll was nothing out of the ordinary, we must note that it, like everything else, had obviously been cooked to order.
Where we really fell in love, though, was when we took our first bite of the sesame chicken. This is a standard dish on most Chinese menus, but again the freshness of Chi's take on the classic made eating it a joy. Each bite of tender, juicy chicken was lightly breaded and quickly fried to a crisp, golden brown that held up perfectly to the tangy sauce without becoming soggy. This dish was as attractive to look at as it was to taste, dotted with both white and black sesame seeds.
Just as we were getting involved with our lunch entrees, our server brought out a spicy tuna roll ($6) that had our mouths watering. Sushi is one of the unique parts of the Riverdale menu, and while we initially had fears that the kitchen might not be able to handle sushi on top of cooking the other dishes, the first bite proved that those fears were unfounded. The tuna was ruby-red and lightly spiced without covering up the clean taste of the fish. Each piece was a wonderful balance of seaweed, rice and fish, and we found ourselves wishing we had ordered more than just one roll.
We fulfilled that wish on a return trip a few days later with the Sushi Combo ($11), which came with another of those excellent spicy tuna rolls and five pieces of our favorite kind of sushi, nigiri. We love nigiri because it is sushi distilled to just the basic ingredients of fish and rice. Being in a landlocked state, we have nothing but the greatest admiration for places that go above and beyond in their sourcing of seafood, and each piece of fish here was as fresh as if it had just been bought directly from the boat. There are several sushi bar dinner combos available that we are dying to get back to try, including the Papa Chi's Grand Sushi Combo, which comes with nine pieces of nigiri, a crab roll and a crunchy shrimp roll.
The large size of the menu may make you worry things won't work as well as they should. In this case, though, an experienced staff of chefs worked very well with our friendly servers, making sure that each dish hit the table right at the peak of freshness. The result was two meals that were nothing short of outstanding. Each bite was proof that after more than 30 years, the Chi family hasn't compromised standards of quality, making Chi's in Riverdale a relatively inexpensive way to dine on some of the finest food in town.
Chi's Asian Cafe
3421 Old Cantrell Road
Chi's Asian Cafe in Riverdale isn't huge, but it has three excellent seating choices, including a quaint patio, regular floor seating and seats available at the delicious sushi bar. The restaurant also offers delivery; call for details.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
All major credit cards, wine and beer.