LITTLE ROCK Competition is a wonderful thing.
The approach of a restaurant called A.W. Lin’s to the Promenade at Chenal in far-west Little Rock prompted area Asian restaurant empress Lulu Chi to expand her Chi’s Express, a primarily takeout outlet on Chenal Parkway, into the now-defunct next-door Coffee Beanery Corner Cafe to create Chi’s Fine Chinese Cuisine. And it’s a substantial improvement.
All of the decor fixtures in the really attractive dining room come from China, including the modern drum chandeliers, the Chinese character indited tables and vinyl chair backs and the decor brighteners on the walls and shelves and in the nooks and crannies.
The original Chenal Parkway-facing entrance is still open for to-go traffic, which still provides the bulk of the restaurant’s clientele, though more and more of them are coming in for a takeout order, getting a look at the fancy new dining room and deciding to come back and sit down for dinner.
The service setup is a little confusing, however. If you enter through the new main doorway, at the apex of the “L”-shaped shopping center, you will see a big podium for a host or hostess, but there is no host or hostess there to greet you. Instead, there’s an overhead sign that directs customers to the front counter in front of the partially open kitchen, where they order, in the style of Pei Wei, off an illuminated electronic menu board, get a tray, drink glass and number, bowls of soup and maybe an easy-access appetizer, and head off into the dining area. A member of the staff brings out in fairly short order anything you’ve ordered that comes out of the kitchen.
As at Pei Wei, all the silverware, napkins, etc., are at a central station along with the soft-drink dispensers. Fortune cookies are in a bowl by the front door. Need a to-go box? Those are self-serve in the dining room as well.
The original idea was to incorporate some of the new Sichuan dishes on the extended menu at Chi’s West Markham/Shackleford headquarters restaurant. The new Sichuan chef was supposed to shuttle between one restaurant and the other to make that possible. The printed menu and the electronic menu board that reflects it includes a few of those items - for example, the spicy Sesame Noodles ($6.95), an appetizer.
(We’re monitoring the new, very spicy Sichuan side of Chi’s menu at HQ , one or two dishes at a time, and will eventually report on it; so far, it’s been hit and miss, fifty-fifty, a few things that are wonderful and a few thingswe would never order again on a bet.)
However, Lulu Chi quickly discovered that her far-west customers either weren’t interested in, or possibly were a little scared by, that Far East stuff with strange names and with hot red pepper icons next to them, and have stuck to tried-and-true stuff like Moo Goo Gai Pan and General Tso’s Chicken (both $8.95). The Sichuan chef is now pretty much permanently ensconced in the original Chi’s.
And while the Sesame Noodles (one of our old-time favorites, hard to get around here and even harder to get done right), are still on the menu, you may, as we did, have considerable trouble in getting them. (The manager had quite a shouting matchwith the cook, who never did seem to understand what “Sesame Noodles” were. We eventually just gave up.)
What you can count on finding at the new Chi’s isthe fine standard stuff that Lulu Chi has always served at her restaurants, with fresh ingredients, plenty of flavor - even the supposedly “bland” Cantonese dishes - and nice plate presentation. (By the way, the restaurant on West Markham Street just west of Fair Park Boulevard that still bears her name isn’t hers any more; she sold it off a few years ago to a former chef, and while it still preserves the original version of Chi’s menu, the place certainly isn’t what it once was.)
The soups are dependable: good old Hot and Sour (a little pricey at $2.25 cup, but not bad at $5.95 a bowl) is a little red-pepper hotter than some but rich with tofu, bits of pork and chewy vegetable items. The Wonton ($2, $5.95) wasa bit of a disappointment, a single, slightly chewy wonton in uninspiring broth. But the Three Delicacies ($8.95) was wonderful, chicken, shrimp and scallops with beefy Chinese mushroom slices in a delicate but rich egg-drop base.
The Spicy Sichuan Dumplings ($5.95), unlike the version at main Chi’s (slightly silky, wonton-like porkfilled dumplings in a spicy, throat-threatening red-orange chili broth), is much more souplike, the dumplings more like wontons (and with the same chewy texture as the one in our wonton soup) with strings of cabbage in a broth somewhat accented with an orange sheen of chili oil.
The Chicken Dumplings ($5.95) were excellent, amontage of chicken, cilantro and spinach wrapped like a potsticker and served by the half-dozen with a zippy dipping sauce. The Shanghai Egg Rolls ($2.95 for two), however, failed to pass muster; the shells were delightfully crispy and, well-drained, not oily, but inside the cabbage-pork mixture had been overly processed until it was mostly mush.
Among the “bland” Cantonese dishes, we’d give pride of place to the Scallops with Chinese Vegetables ($10.50), a goodly number of plump, tender sea scallops served up in a subtle white sauce with plenty of broccoli, pea pods, water chestnuts, corn, mushrooms, carrots and bok choy. If you’re looking for something with a little curry kick, go right for the Singapore Rice Noodles ($8.25 with vegetables, roast pork, chicken, beef, baby shrimp or “house mixed,” $9.95 with “jumbo” shrimp).
Address: 17200 Chenal
Parkway, Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Beer
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Weekend, Pages 29 on 02/21/2013
Print Headline: Chenal Chi’s is bigger, better