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Thursday, March 15,2012

Chinese-American standbys

By Clay Fong

I’ve finally taken a “If you can’t beat, join ‘em” tack to my critical assessment of local Chinese restaurants. No longer do I hold Boulder eateries to the same standard of the Bay Area joints of my youth. Why? Because for the most part, establishments around here are not, strictly speaking, Chinese restaurants. They are Chinese-American restaurants featuring standbys like sesame chicken and sweet and sour pork versus more authentico selections like braised duck feet and ground pork with salted fish.

If I had ordered a Chicago hot dog in a Chinese restaurant growing up, my mom would have looked askance at me the same as if I had ordered sesame chicken. But now, I understand this poultry dish is an entirely proper choice for a Chinese-American venue. Moreover, I’ve come to expect it’ll arrive in a lunch combo with fried rice, egg roll and a cream cheese-filled wonton, especially appropriate given the lactose intolerance common among Asians.

Fan’s Chinese Cuisine, situated in a Niwot strip mall near a sheriff ’s office substation, does in fact offer the above mentioned archetypical special. It also serves up dishes free of MSG, as well as gluten-free choices.

Outside of that, the lunch bill of fare is a Chinese-American hall of fame, spotlighting such chestnuts as chow mein, Szechuan beef and vegetarian Buddha’s Delight.

The first thing that struck pal Keith and I upon entering was our server’s friendly greeting. She quickly presented us with menus and asked if we wanted soup. The second thing that struck me was something more intangible, which was a very specific vibe I got from the stark but welcoming décor. While the furnishings weren’t ornate or brand new, they were clean, and someone had obviously taken good care of them. Then it struck me, this was the same minimalist ambience of the restaurants of my childhood.

Soup is free for those dining in, and Keith’s wonton soup had true dumplings instead of just wrappers and a pleasant broth that wasn’t too salty. The hot and sour was a balanced affair, with pepper and vinegar playing well with one another.

Keith’s $6.95 Mongolian beef highlighted a nicely stir-fried complement of pepper and onion, and the flavorful meat had just the right measure of peppery seasoning. Both the egg roll and cream cheese wonton that came with lunch appeared to have come straight out of the fryer, each with correctly crisp texture and piping hot fillings.

I enjoyed my $7.95 Grand Marnier shrimp, although it would have been better if it hadn’t cooled off before arriving at the table. Otherwise, the seafood was surprisingly fresh-tasting given the price, and the steamed rather than fried preparation made for a healthier dish. Plenty of pineapple and crisp-tender broccoli rounded out the plate, and complemented the citrusy creaminess of the subtle liqueur-based sauce.

My main takeaway regarding Fan’s is that I got exactly what I wanted and expected. And while that may sound like faint praise, it’s not, because the strength of this type of restaurant lies in its consistency and value. You don’t come to a place like this for foodie flourishes and pretense. Additionally, the friendly service — more expensive local restaurants would be hard-pressed to compete — and nostalgic ambience will likely lead to return visits on my part.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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