January 9, 2013

Taste Bud: Chinese on the cheap

I stay away from buffets for a couple of reasons. For one thing, who really needs to eat “all you can eat”? Secondly, if any restaurant serves that much food at one time, are you really getting quality fare?

This is why you won’t ever catch me at a Chinese buffet these days. And that’s not to mention that after eating all that fried meat and dumplings and so forth, I tend to get a sinking feeling — sort of like how you feel after you’ve eaten at McDonald’s.

My girlfriend Cynthia’s co-workers, however, told her about a place in Middletown called Liu’s Garden that had a quality lunch menu for a good price. Not a buffet — but 30-odd options from which to choose, and they’re all $4.95 each.

Liu’s, which is nestled in a tiny stripmall at 11517 Shelbyville Road, actually has a pretty expansive menu overall, with some interesting-looking house specialties like black pepper delicacy (prawns and scallops with bell peppers and onions in black peppercorn sauce), as well as a nice selection of lo and chow mein dishes, and other Chinese classics.

And that $5 lunch menu, served between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., is really just a boiled-down version of the regular menu — which is to say, when you pick it up, there are actually a heck of a lot of choices staring back at you: Hunan sautéed beef? Check. Kung Pao shrimp? Yep. Moo Goo Gai Pan? It’s on there.

And they don’t short you for your $4.95 at Liu’s Garden, either. Each lunch special comes with an eggroll and a side of sweet & sour sauce as an appetizer, and your main dish is garnished with a heaping mound of fried rice.

On a recent weekday lunch outing, Cynthia ordered sweet & sour chicken, and I opted for General Tso’s chicken. We were both pleasantly surprised by the eggrolls right out of the gate — they weren’t greasy like some. Also, each came with a dollop of spicy mustard, which had a nice kick (it tasted a bit like Colman’s).

We were also a bit surprised by the large-ish portions for our money — I did a scan-count and saw probably 15 or 16 mostly bite-sized pieces of breaded chicken on my plate. Oh yes, and our meals were on plates, not Styrofoam. It’s a tiny place, to be sure (they do a lot of delivery and carry-out apparently), but they don’t skimp.

“On real plates, even,” Cynthia exclaimed when our food was served. “You don’t usually get real plates for $5.”

Cynthia’s chicken was served lightly battered and fried with the sauce on the side. Like the eggrolls, they were not at all greasy. She noted afterward that unlike when you eat most cheap Chinese dinners, with Liu Garden you don’t feel “like you have to wash your face immediately because of all the oil.” I’d never thought of it that way, but point taken.

My General Tso’s was quite good, with a mixture of white and dark meat chunks, although it was not as spicy as I had expected. (Yeah, I know, I always say that. Next time I’ll order it extra spicy.)

On top of it, the service was quick and friendly. For $5 a pop, I might start eating Chinese food again.

Farewell to Maido?
I was a Maido Essential Japanese Cuisine regular for many years — it didn’t hurt that I live three blocks away. But the sudden November death of Maido’s chef and owner, Si Won Yu, forced the Clifton staple to close its doors. A sign in the window notes that the restaurant is closed “until further notice,” leaving some hope that it may be revived.

What a shame on all counts. Yu had held his own in keeping Maido consistent after former chef Toki Masabuchi moved on to launch Dragon King’s Daughter, and it was a frequent stop for me and many of my friends through the 2000s, especially during the summer months when the patio was open and buzzing. Yu even kept up the tradition of former owner/manager Jim Huie in making sure the beer list was filled with nothing but quality choices. (I once watched a female diner storm out before ordering when told she could not get a Bud Light. True story.)

Cheers to you, Maido, and all who were involved during its wonderful run.