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story.lead_photo.caption Chi’s daily lunch specials, like Orange Chicken, come with rice, an egg roll and soup. - Photo by Jennifer Christman

Now for some Chi chat.

Chi's Dim Sum & Bistro, the Chi family flagship, has closed at the Markham-Shackleford intersection on what we used to call Macaroni Grill Hill (before, alas, that closed, too).

That restaurant -- and its weekend dim sum offerings -- have now been folded into Chi's other west Little Rock location, Chi's Fine Chinese Cuisine, in the Centre at Chenal shopping center on Chenal Parkway.

What is now the biggest Chinese restaurant owned by the Chi family, Chi's Fine Chinese Cuisine, was once the smallest. It started out as takeout operation Chi's Express before it expanded a few years ago.

Gallery: Chi's

Our first impression: the Chenal location -- though pretty enough with bold ceiling light fixtures and Chinese characters framed on the walls and embossed on chairs -- just wasn't the same as the architecturally interesting Shackleford location with the koi pond we used to frequent, before other newer Asian competitors, like Tokyo House, lured us away. It just didn't seem as special.

Especially for a weekday lunch, when the restaurant acts primarily as a fast-casual operation. Look at the electronic menu screens, place your order at the counter, seat yourself and they'll bring the food to you. At night and on weekends, however, Chi's Fine Chinese Cuisine is full service.

But what is special about Chi's is its weekend offerings and clientele. The restaurant, which was rather empty and sleepy during a weekday lunch and dinner, came to life and transformed into an entirely different place on a recent Sunday -- thanks to the dim sum carts and a special menu of more authentic traditional Chinese entrees supplementing its standard menu. The restaurant was full of Asian-American families as well as churchgoers.

As we looked more like the second group, the hostess was going to give us just the regular menu. But when we inquired about dim sum, she grabbed a paper dim sum menu, which resembles a sushi menu, and the Traditional Chinese menu, too.

We never ordered off the paper menu. We just looked at the dim-sum cart, listened to a server's rattled-off descriptions, asked her to repeat the rattled-off descriptions and chose what looked most tempting. We ended up -- we think -- with steamed beef meatballs, barbecue pork buns and steamed pork dumplings (all $4.50). The soft, spongy texture of the meatballs was strange at first, but the flavor was delicious. The juicy pork dumplings were top-notch. And the pillowy, bready buns with a zesty barbecue pork were dreamy.

While we weren't adventurous enough to order dishes like the Barbeque Roasted Marinated Duck Claws ($6.50; for those who want a half or whole Peking Duck, that's $13-$25), we selected two of the more tame choices from the Traditional Chinese menu.

He ordered the Spaghetti with Chinese Meat Sauce ($8.50), while I requested the Roasted Pork Noodle Soup ($9.95). Both featured generous portions of the same thin noodles, his in a slow-cooked, rich and meaty gravy sprinkled with scallions and mine in a tasty broth filled with slices of tender pork, scallions and bok choy. It was a homey touch when Jacob Chi stopped by to toss my date's spaghetti for him tableside, making sure the noodles were fully coated in the comforting sauce.

During the week, Chi's is a more typical Chinese restaurant, with a large menu of to-be-expected seafood, beef, pork, chicken or vegetarian noodle and rice dishes, with prices ranging from $7-$14 for dinner; add $3.95 for a Chi Chi Dinner that includes an egg roll, crab rangoon and choice of soup.

And on the subject of soup, Chi's serves the usual trinity of egg drop, hot and sour and wonton ($2 cup, $6 bowl when ordered separately). The egg drop and wonton are satisfactory; the hot and sour, full of floating bits and a kick, is one of the area's best.

To try several starters, and to play with fire, we ordered the proudly presented Papa Chi's BoBo Platter for two ($14). It's served in a segmented wooden dish with a lighted mini hibachi grill in the center: egg rolls, crab rangoon, ribs, fried chicken wings and steak skewers and a couple nice, unexpected fried shrimp, too. While the egg rolls, chicken wings and crab rangoon were standard, the pork ribs, if slightly tough, had a good flavor. The tender teriyaki steak skewers, which we grilled over the flame for extra flair, were the standout; we'd probably forgo the pyro and just order them separately ($8).

If we have one complaint about Chi's menu, it's that menu items typically don't -- can't because of length -- feature much description. What exactly is Beef & Shrimp in Ground Pepper ($14)? And what exactly are the "vegetables" in the Hunan Pork ($10)?

We'd find out when we ordered both very different-sounding dishes that ended up looking very similar. His beef and shrimp featured cabbage, snow peas and broccoli in a savory brown sauce with visible black pepper. My pork featured the same vegetables, with flecks of carrot and mushroom, minus the pepper and brown sauce, and adding a spicier sauce. Though we didn't know what exactly to expect, we both were pleased.

About 20 lunch specials ($8-$10), consisting of an entree, choice of soup, choice of rice and an egg roll, are available 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Based on our visit, portions are plentiful and served swiftly. But lunch menu options feature no description.

My friend took a gamble on "Shrimp and Vegetables" ($9), which turned out to be slightly tough shrimp with broccoli and cabbage in a light sauce that she describes as "passable for a quick lunch, but certainly nothing I would order again."

I was happier with my Orange Chicken ($8.50), golden fried bites of chicken in a citrusy sweet and spicy sauce featuring pieces of orange zest and red chiles, accompanied by a couple of pieces of broccoli for color.

In addition to Chi's Fine Chinese Cuisine, the family still owns other restaurants: Chi's Asian Cafe and Sushi Bar in Riverdale; Lulu's Crab Boil and Prospect Bar and Grill in the Heights; La Madeleine French Bakery & Cafe in west Little Rock. (The family sold Chi's Too, 5110 W. Markham St., years ago to a former chef.)

And another restaurant is coming. Chi's Express is expected to open at 319 W. Second St., across from the Pulaski County Courthouse, next year.

It will focus on takeout and delivery, so the chance of dim sum being served there is, well, dim.

Weekend on 10/04/2018

Chi’s Fine Chinese Cuisine

Address: 17200 Chenal Parkway, Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily

Cuisine: Chinese

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes; delivery available 5-9 p.m.

(501) 821-8000

facebook.com/ChisFineChineseCuisine

Print Headline: Go west for consolidated Chi's Chinese

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