What: Peking Chef Express
Where: United Penn Plaza, Kingston
Credit cards? Yes
Handicapped accessible? Yes
Why we went: To say happy birthday. The place was close to celebrating, and now just celebrated, a year in business.
Ambience: As Chinese restaurants go, this one is top-tier. Small and unassuming on the outside — it’s in a shopping center, after all — this one is a little oasis in pink inside. Which is to say peaceful, pinkish tones are found throughout the decor, which includes decorative tabletops and plenty of comfy booth seating. Soft music serves to complement.
Menu highlights: Mongolian beef! If you’ve never had it, you know not what you’re missing. This indisputably tender sliced flank steak is sauteed with scallions and sweet onions in a signature sauce of which the world needs more. You choose the level of heat. We went with “medium” spicy, which was good for the sinuses while not overpowering. Secret as the sauce ingredients are, skeptics simply must take a leap of faith. Every last drop was divine, and it hugged the accompanying noodles perfectly. A true menu standout, and not even, technically, a house specialty. But sidenote: On a second visit, we sensed word must be getting out because our server remarked that more and more people are ordering Mongolian beef, a dish that used to sit rather sadly unnoticed. Price: $8.50/regular, which is a generous portion, and $12.50 large, which should be eminently share-able.
Another standout dish was Peking Garlic Chicken ($7.95, regular/$10.95, large), which also starred beyond-tender, clean meat, this time chicken, sliced and accompanied by broccoli, snow peas, bell peppers and mushrooms in a garlic sauce, and a fragrant one at that. The only complaint? (And it’s not really one?) Mushrooms in the plural is a stretch because we really only got one. Yet it was a monstrous, meaty beauty. If two are dining, cut it in half.
As Chinese-food fans would expect, chicken, beef and shrimp form the meat of the menu here, and this one covers all the bases: chicken comes in the familiar styles of General Tso’s, sesame, cashew, Moo Goo Gai Pan, Orange, Lemon and even something called “Happy Chicken,” where “East Meets West” in the form of lightly battered wok-fried chicken sporting honey-glazed walnuts, pineapple and broccoli and covered in a tropical sauce.
Beef is available in fewer forms — with broccoli, in garlic sauce or with peppers and onions as well as in the stellar Mongolian form. (Did we mention how much we loved that?)
Shrimp, too, comes in at least seven incarnations, and vegetarians have at least 10 dedicated options.
In addition to all of this, check out a spicy-and-hot menu section boasting more than a dozen dishes, five Ho Ho specialties and three Moo Shu (shredded meat, thin pancake) dishes.
Or, of course, consider one of the 10 actual house specialties: say, a seafood supreme, a Moonlight Shadow chicken-and-beef dish or a Triple Delight, which teams shrimp, chicken and roast pork. Imperial Lamb and Imperial Beef also sound regal on this part of the menu.
Appetizers: Do not overlook. Eggrolls are among the best, with a hefty dose of meat rather than a few shreds hiding under mounds of cabbage. And dumplings — we chose pork, in the steamed fashion — were scene-stealers, each plump dumpling bursting with thin strips of pinkish (as it should be) pork. The other white meat also was plentiful in the Won Ton Soup ($2.25/pint, $3.95/quart).
Other options: Fried rice also makes the grade here, and noodles are around in abundance, in Lo Mein, Mei Fun and even Pad Thai. Pad Thai at a Chinese restaurant? Bully to that!
Overall impression: We could eat here every day. No hyperbole. The variety is present, and so is the freshness. You’ll pay a bit more here — others have noted it — but the upcharge is worth it. Eat in or take out, but if you choose the latter, you’ll also get those complimentary “Chinese chips” with sauce, and we’re not sure we’ve had better. These melt upon first bite and have just enough grease to keep you happy but not guilty. In fact, as far as “not sure we’ve had better” goes, we think the statement applies to the entire restaurant, at least when speaking of the Chinese genre. Happy birthday, indeed, to Peking Chef Express, which, by the way, is designed for people who might be in a hurry, though you don’t have to be. Here’s to many more happy celebrations in Kingston.