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March 7, 2012

Top-notch Chinese a tradition at Oriental House

“I went to Oriental House for lunch the other day, and we had a really good Chinese meal that didn’t cost us an arm and a leg.” This statement would have been perfectly grammatical, and factual, in 1960, and it still is.

Oriental House, whose ornate Chinese-style building has been a local landmark since at least as far back as the 1960s, was one of Louisville’s first Chinese restaurants, and is surely its longest-standing. In many ways, its core menu, too, remains true to those old days of chow mein, chop suey, fried rice and egg foo young — all of which, indeed, remain on the menu and affordable.

When new owners arrived in the early 2000s, they wisely didn’t change a thing about the place’s traditional menu or its exuberant retro decor of reds, golds and greens, Great Walls and dragons; but they endeared themselves to local foodies by adding on a full list of more authentic Chinese dishes — and dim sum bites — and, wonder of wonders, made it all available in English for Western diners.

By and large, for much of the past century, many Chinese restaurateurs, fearing Westerners would find their authentic dishes too challenging, dodged the issue by publishing the “menu-for-Chinese” only in Chinese, feigning incomprehension when asked pushy questions about authentic dishes. Applause to Oriental House (along with Peking City Bistro, Jasmine and a few others) for breaking down the wall and giving us a chance.

The other day, my friend Anne and I went by and enjoyed a delicious authentic lunch. A few days later, we joined a group of 10 to sit around one of those giant round tables, and enjoyed sharing from a broad range of dishes both authentic and “Chinese-American.”

Any restaurant group that big poses special challenges, but Oriental House handled things easily. The big round table is a definite plus for a large group: It’s more sociable when everyone can see each other across the table rather than being lined up in a long row.

Service is bound to stutter on occasion when your server is trying to keep up with that many tickets, with dishes arriving in no particular order, but that’s not much of a problem with family-style Chinese. Our guy handled his job with grace and charm, and was perfectly content to maintain separate checks and keep track of couples and singles. It would have been nice to have had one of those classic Chinese-restaurant lazy Susans on the table so we could spin dishes around for sharing, but simply passing the plate worked well, too. Bottom line, don’t worry about having a large group, but do call in advance to reserve a large table and ensure the restaurant staff will be prepared.

The menu is extensive, with about 100 Chinese-American dishes plus another 82 items on the “Authentic Chinese” menu, which includes about 25 dim sum. Pricing is similar on both menus, with virtually all entrées between $7.50 (for vegetable dishes) to $10 or so, with a few outliers at $19.75 (some lobster items) and $25 (the über-authentic braised sea cucumber — a gelatinous sea creature akin to a giant sea slug that’s said to have aphrodisiac properties). Our group passed on this opportunity.

About 30 dishes are marked as hot-and-spicy, with the footnote that “we can alter the spicy according to your taste.” I’ve found them generally responsive to such requests. The eggplant with garlic sauce ($7.95) on the authentic menu was delicious: tiny Asian eggplants braised to silky but still toothy texture, in a sweet and medium hot sauce.

Another favorite on our recent visits was roasted duck with steamed rice ($6.50 on the authentic menu). Anne enjoyed it for lunch, and two plates of it turned up at dinner. It received thumbs up for its classic Chinese style, crispy skin, earthy and juicy meat, lightly painted with a sweet glaze bearing a haunting anise scent of “five spice.”

Hong Su Tofu, a colorful and tasty veggie-based stir-fry ($7.50, authentic) consisted of bite-size cubes of fried bean curd tossed with broccoli florets, pea pods, mushrooms, onions, Chinese cabbage, carrot slices, baby corn, water chestnuts and more, cloaked in a light, sweet-salty reddish-brown sauce. Stir-fried flat rice-noodle with egg and shrimp ($8.95, authentic) was as pretty to eat as to examine. A generous portion of wide noodles was topped with a bright scrambled-egg sauce, abundant shrimp fried tail-on, and snipped scallions.

Briefly told, it all rang our chimes. Wok-seared whole flounder ($9.50) was fresh, delicate and fine. Fried fish nuggets ($9.50) were addictively crispy, tempura-style. Chinese broccoli (gai lan) and water spinach made fine greens, and earthy turnip cakes, stuffed eggplant and rice crepes were fine dim sum.

Lunch for two was under $20, and a two-diner share of dinner, including tea and a Tsingtao beer, came to $34.40.

Oriental House
4302 Shelbyville Road
897-1017
Rating: 88