Long Beach Lunch: Chen's Chinese Restaurant
In all kung fu movies (and that one Seinfeld episode), there's always that one Chinese restaurant that epitomizes what Chinese restaurants are "supposed" to look like, with red walls, gold-leaf accents and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
In Long Beach--where most Chinese food is scooped from a bin under a heat lamp into Styrofoam containers--Chen's Chinese Restaurant on Broadway is a welcome nod to this Americana aesthetic, a dark, sit-down place that's not in a strip mall and where food comes out fresh from a real kitchen and complementary hot tea is placed on the table before you even order.
Like many locals, I took advantage of the free delivery and heaping to-go portions for years before I discovered the restaurant's nostalgic interior and in-house amenities.
What's the point of eating there, I thought, when someone will bring paper-folded takeout boxes exploding out the top with chow mein and beef and broccoli directly to my door?
One word: lunch.
Mid-day mellowness with a friend or a group is the perfect time to dine in. The service is quick and the menu features a full page of lunch specialties that come with soup, rice and tea, all for under $7.50.
Sarah Bennett Lunch combination plate with Bhudda's Feast and Kung Pao vegetables
Thankfully, the portions when eating in are similar to the ones offered for delivery. Whether you order one of the 24 common dish options for a "specialties" combo or choose two entrées from a more limited list for a "combination plate," your meal will still come heaping and dripping and gloriously covered in a viscous sauce.
For the Buhdda's Feast, that sauce is pretty tasteless, translucent and aloe-looking; for the kung pao chicken, it's a more flavorful, dark, peanut-based liquid with chile peppers and a citrus zing. General Tao's deep-fried meat pieces and crisp broccoli are covering with a sweet brown sauce that's borderline teriyaki.
Other lunchtime options include Mandarin classics such as shrimp with black bean sauce, moo goo gai pan, chop suey and lemon chicken, all of which arrive in servings so large (and with bottomless white rice!) that leftovers are inevitable.
Sarah Bennett Lunch portion of General Tao's chicken
The restaurant's popularity has yet to suffer for such well-known facts as the health department likes to swing by more often than at other restaurants and there's a lack of "No MSG" labels on the menus. But Chen's never promised to be the best or most traditional Chinese food in Long Beach--it only has to be better than the other few sit-down Mandarin restaurants in the city, and that it does by far. With all the chow mein and orange chicken in this town Americanized, premade and Panda Expressed into oblivion, Chen's is a surprising toast to those old Orientalist dreams, a restaurant where the red front doors open to reveal a familiar world from so far away, where George Costanza can almost be seen arguing with the host, and even Chuck Norris would be proud to stage a fight scene there.
Chen's Chinese Restaurant, 2131 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 439-0309; chensrestaurantlb.com.