At China King, Cheap, Forgettable Chinese Food In Quarts

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China King
8218 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221 9648 Transit Rd., East Amherst, NY 14051
Phone: 716.688.2688‎, 716.688.9868
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"These restaurants seem like they exist merely to fill a niche in the most marginal possible way, assembling low-frills dishes that can be sold for absurdly low lunch prices."

No matter how much we have come to appreciate the culinary traditions of Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Korea, Chinese food will forever have a special place in our hearts. It was the first of the Asian cuisines to really gain acceptance in the United States - albeit often in Americanized forms - and in some places we've visited and lived in, there are now multiple types of authentic Chinese restaurants, each specializing in one or two regional cuisines. We truly, seriously love Chinese food. That's why we hate when it's bad.

Even though we don't measure Chinese take-out restaurants by the same metrics as full-service ones, there's surely a difference between good take-out restaurants and not-so-good ones. Falling into the latter category is China King, a local chain of small Chinese take-out places that achieved national notoriety last year after the Hamburg location dragged a bloody, roadkilled deer into the kitchen to butcher alongside poorly refrigerated meats, resulting in its temporary closure and a surprisingly modest fine. To be clear up front, our problem with these restaurants isn't the deer - we've eaten much crazier things in our travels throughout Asia, and won't hold the Hamburg location's failings against the other independently operated ones - but rather the fact that after multiple visits to different China King restaurants, we've never had a meal we'd call better than merely okay for the dollar. In short, China King is a sub-par chain even by take-out standards.

Apart from the E. Coli and other sanitation issues, the addition of fresh deer to China King's otherwise forgettable menu might have been cause of celebration. Unlike somewhat more authentic Chinese take-out restaurants such as Uncle John's No. 1 and Gin Gin, China King's menu consists very substantially of Americanized Chinese fare - Lo Mein, Egg Foo Young, Chop Suey, and so on - without as significant an offset of authentic Chinese dishes. Here, the focus is on rendering Chinese food as cheap as possible to attract a lunch crowd, and so both the windows and the backs of China King menus are typically plastered with $4 lunch specials, the options a familiar mix of meats in heavily cornstarched white and brown sauces with sides of fried or steamed rice. Pint and quart-sized full entrees run from $4 to $12, with most quarts in the $8 to $10 range.

Unfortunately, though the quart prices are comparable to those at other Chinese take-out places, the quality isn't quite up to snuff. Our most recent meal at China King was nearly as simple as they come: a bowl of Wonton Soup ($1.40), a plate of General Tso's Chicken ($9.40), and a pint-sized carton of Chicken Lo Mein ($4.10), all ordered to see how the place would do with common items. The Wonton Soup - ordered this time because of past bad experiences with watery Hot & Sour Soup ($1.85) - was similarly mediocre, with unpleasantly dense rather than moist wontons, and the chicken broth unaccented and boring. Chicken Lo Mein, essentially just stir-fried egg noodles in a brown sauce with chunks of chicken, was greasy and something very close to flavorless, with rubbery bits of meat. It elicited a comment that it was a 1.5-star to 2-star item, even as low-rent Lo Mein is concerned. And the General Tso's Chicken, billed in normal fashion as crispy chicken in a hot pepper sauce, was overbreaded, brown, and barely spicy - basically a sweet orange-flavored sauce with a hint of pepper. It wasn't crispy, either.

We've tried some of these items on prior visits just to determine how consistent they are from location to location, and the common thread is that they were never good: the General Tso's was always overbreaded and poorly sauced, while noodle dishes and soups were routinely bland. Then there are the other items we've tried, such as the vegetable-heavy Moo Shu Pork ($8.10) and Shrimp ($9.20), which we've tried twice, both times greasy and overcooked to the point of lifelessness, and "Chef's Specials" such as the Happy Family ($11.20), Triple Delight ($10), and Four Seasons ($10), variations on the "multiple meats and vegetables in brown sauce" theme. Normally, the latter three items are guaranteed winners, as they all feature chicken, beef, shrimp, and vegetables, with Four Seasons adding pork and Happy Family adding pieces of pork, crab, scallops, and lobster, but the meats here are always lacking in the depth of flavor and quality of places such as the old or even the current Sun Garden.

Thus, we weren't surprised by the plainness of the Seafood Pan Fried Noodle ($12), which promised lobster, jumbo shrimp, scallops and crab meat with Chinese vegetables and noodles. On one prior occasion, we'd ordered the Happy Family and found none of the promised lobster inside, but this time, there was a slice of lobster tail - unfortunately, it was quite literally the toughest and chewiest we've ever had. That said, the shrimp were fair, the scallops were fine but very thinly sliced, and the crab meat was artificial - whitefish - but otherwise unobjectionable. Hidden underneath the fair quantity of seafood and a thick bed of assorted vegetables was a modest layer of chunky flour noodles, in no way as crispy or tasty as they typically are in this dish. All of the elements we expected to find were here, but none of them tasted very good. It was sustenance without enjoyment, eating without pleasure.

Not surprisingly, the China King experience has generally been capped off by less than thrilling counterside service, which depends of course on the location but in our experience has never made it into "good" territory, and occasionally fallen into "bad." After our first bad experience, one of us was ready never to return again, and after a few more, we think that we're ready to be done with these places, geographic convenience be damned. China King isn't here to spread the more interesting aspects of Chinese cooking and culture to the masses, or to surprise and delight patrons with great food. Rather, these restaurants seem like they exist merely to fill a niche in the most marginal possible way, assembling low-frills dishes that can be sold for absurdly low lunch prices without upscaling full entrees to match their higher prices. It is a never-ending cycle of disappointment, and one we'd like to help break. So we promise you, China King: upgrade your food and your service. Charge a bit more for a better experience, and we'll gladly pay for it. But keep going in this direction and we'll never return. Even at these prices, and no matter how much we love Chinese food, life is too short to eat such half-hearted renditions of our favorite dishes.

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Comments (1)

Chris :

Agree 100% with this assessment. I wouldnt say that I love Chinese food, but I do like it when well prepared. China King makes just makes edible food at great prices. If you want a great meal... look elsewhere. The locations do vary somewhat but one location does not stand out.

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