3381 Sheridan Dr., Amherst NY 14226
Rating: [learn more]
Affordably priced, intriguingly traditional Chinese dishes - including special soups and entrees - complement a more familiar menu of Westernized Chinese appetizers and main courses. Better than take-out-quality dining area and nice Bubble Tea offerings offer additional reasons to stop in.
Somewhat inconsistent food and service quality that range from very good to seriously deficient depending on certain factors; cash pricing with credit card surcharges.
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"We would recommend Gin Gin as a solid place to find both traditional and Westernized Chinese food, with the warning that the experience may not always be thrilling."
We wish it weren't true, but authentic Chinese food is becoming more difficult to find in Western New York: low-end plaza take-outs with Americanized menus have multiplied across the area, as classier mid-range and high-end restaurants continue to disappear. Thankfully, there are a few exceptions, and Amherst's Gin Gin is one of them. Nestled into what used to be a corner donut shop on Sweet Home and Sheridan, Gin Gin is one of the few remaining Chinese restaurants that actually attracts Chinese patrons - always a good sign - and offers a dedicated menu of Chinese dishes. Thanks to substantial remodeling that expanded and darkened the interior seating area, adding everything from a goldfish tank to an extensive coffee and tea display, Gin Gin is two steps better than the typical low-end takeout joint in seating and decor. But it's not a formal place, either. Patrons are handed paper take-out menus to order, their interiors filled with all the expected dishes, while their backs feature a dense, unfamiliar collection of authentic Chinese fare. If you're willing to sift through the choices, you'll find items here that just aren't available elsewhere in Buffalo these days.
The interesting stuff starts with a 103-item section of the menu innocuously titled "Rice Dishes," containing Chinese favorites such as bitter melon, taro, tripe, and chopped squid, each served with a bed of soft white rice on the side. On our first visit, we were so excited to discover an old favorite, Curry Squid Chop ($8), that we ordered it without hesitation, and were genuinely thrilled by what arrived: a plate with plenty of big, tender pieces of squid meat, soaking in a green sauce and mixed with chunks of green pepper and onion. For the price, the quantity and quality of meat were thrilling, and the sauce was exactly as it should have been: spicy green Chinese curry, a variant on brown sauce with more kick and depth. Even with the squid removed, there were enough sauce and vegetables left over to fill a stomach with the "Rice" portion of the dish.
Adjacent to the Rice Dishes on the menu are "Soup Noodle" and "Congee" sections, offering entree-sized bowls of soup with five different types of noodles or rice inside, respectively. After you pick from flour, egg, udon, thick rice or thin rice noodles, the Soup Noodle list offers 22 different meat or vegetable choices; the 11 thick white rice porridge congee soups differ only by meat or vegetables. A member of our group went with the Seafood Noodle Soup ($7) and egg noodles, receiving a large bowl that was filled to capacity with pieces of seafood and stringy, ramen-style noodles. Gin Gin's generosity with meats was on beautiful display here, as giant pieces of squid competed with shrimp, fish, imitation crab and fishballs for attention, while vegetables were for a change wonderfully sparing. Filling and initially mild, the chicken broth-based soup was easy to punch up with some chilis on the table.
Over the course of two sample meals, we also tried some of the more familiar Westernized favorites: General Tso's Chicken ($10.55) was good, not great, with plenty of moderately battered, deep-fried chicken chunks in a sweet and spicy sauce atop broccoli. While the chicken wasn't as crispy as it is at our favorite places, it was otherwise tasty: Gin Gin's thick sauce left nothing to be desired. Four Seasons ($12), a plate of shrimp, chicken, pork, and scallops in brown sauce with vegetables, was a little disappointing: the seafood, particularly the very few scallop pieces, didn't taste particularly fresh, there was a lot of chicken with relatively little pork, and the vegetables were fine but very heavily skewed towards broccoli and cabbage. This dish, typically an opportunity to impress with the balance and freshness of items inside, was only a little better than okay. A plate of Moo Shu Beef ($9.55) - shredded vegetables mixed with chunks of meat, then served with flour pancakes and a thick, sweet and bitter hoisin sauce - arrived more generously sized than we can ever recall, a mountain atop its plate, but turned out to consist overwhelmingly of sliced cabbage. Still, the flavor was quite good, and we enjoyed as much of the veggie pile as we could find beef to accompany it.
Steamed Dumplings were such a hit on our first visit that members of our group ordered them again on our second. Served communally, ten on a plate for $6, the dumplings were far more meat than steamed wanton shell - something great at Gin Gin that can't be said about even some of the good versions sold elsewhere - and served with the typical soy-vinegar dipping sauce. Three people shared one plate of the Dumplings and also ordered another appetizer, Beef on the Stick ($7.55), four of which arrived huge, hot, and glistening with a modestly sweet, slightly spicy soy glaze, rather than the typically ultra-sweet, teriyaki-like sauce we're used to seeing in this item. We really enjoyed it.
There were a few hiccups over the course of our visits that ultimately gave us a little room for pause in our rating. On our first visit, the Hot and Sour Soup ($2.29) was beguiling - an interestingly sweet and unusually mild balance of soy and vinegar flavors, evoking the memory of some of the best such soup we'd had in China. Bits of tofu, sliced pork, mushrooms and scallions were all floating in the bowl along with thin ribbons of egg, all just as they were supposed to be. But on the second visit, the same soup arrived in comparatively disgusting form, as if the identical ingredients had been sitting around for a while; we couldn't finish the bowl. Then there was the plate of Chicken Lo Mein ($8), ordered on a lark by the shellfish allergic member of our group. After several bites of the simple sauteed chicken, noodle, and light vegetable dish, which wasn't anything great save for its relatively low grease content, her lips and mouth began to tingle with the telltale signs of shrimp exposure, requiring her to take a Benedryl and stop eating. We checked the plate and there wasn't any shellfish in the Lo Mein, but it had obviously been cooked in a pan with seafood. Another dish, the sauceless Steamed Chicken with Mixed Vegetables ($8.55), arrived incorrectly covered in brown sauce, and had to be remade; this was done promptly and the result was fine.
We wound up finishing our second meal with something liquid and soothing, another nice addition to the Gin Gin menu: Bubble Tea ($2.79 to $3.99 by size). Having first emerged as a fad roughly ten years ago, Bubble Tea - a mix of tea, amusingly chewy tapioca balls, and sweet flavoring syrup - so took off with college students that dedicated parlors started to pop up near campuses all over the country. Then, the fad died down. Now that the dust has settled, Gin Gin is one of only a few local places offering Bubble Tea, and unlike some of the places that tried to make it on the cheap, this restaurant even has the proper serving machine - a device that shrinkwraps the top of each cup after it's assembled to your order, leaving you to pierce the top wrap with an oversized, sharpened straw that's capable of sucking both tea and the tapioca balls out. Roughly half of the 25 options use a Green Tea base, while the other half use milk tea, each with your choice of fruit flavors, and we found a soothing lemon cup and a stronger blueberry version to be equally excellent. Gin Gin's renditions of Bubble Tea were so good that we'd stop by again just to pick up drinks.
One final note may concern some customers: Gin Gin isn't a cash-only restaurant, but its menu prices are based on cash payment - to the restaurant's credit, a 5% credit card surcharge is conspicuously disclosed on the front of the menu, and noted by the restaurant's proprietor on the telephone when people place take-out orders. This practice is frowned upon by credit card companies, but certainly results in lower prices or better ingredients for some of the dishes. Plan accordingly.
All in all, we felt that Gin Gin was on the fine edge of a three-star rating, which we issue with some caveats: while we were genuinely impressed by some of the food here, particularly the traditional Chinese items and the Bubble Tea, we were also less than impressed with others, particularly due to the variations we saw between one visit and the next. On one visit, we were thrilled by the service, while on the next, it was slower and dishes arrived both out of order and sometimes incorrect; it was hard to know whether the kitchen, the server, or both were off. Consequently, we would recommend Gin Gin to readers as a solid place to find both traditional and Westernized Chinese food, with the warning that the experience may not always be thrilling; in any case, the cash prices, casual atmosphere, and the drinks may well make up for any omissions.