Finding a Chinese restaurant worth your loyalty is like dating. You look and you look and you yawn and you look, but when you find the right one, your eyes widen and you stick around. China Inn is a keeper, with lots of admiring customers who'd be as miserable as a lovelorn schoolboy if the place wasn't there when they arrived.
Don't worry about China Inn shutting its doors. They've been around since 1976, as their menu proudly proclaims, which is the dim reaches of the last century as far as the younger of their enthusiastic customers are concerned. We went there with one, our medical student goddaughter, who prescribes the place as generically good for what ails you.
It isn't impressive outside, except for taking up a large chunk of a Pawtucket city block. Free parking is convenient. Inside is an aaesthetic contrast: tree-size ficus in a central atrium, plus plenty of other large potted plants and even bamboo mini-groves outside windows that bracket the dining area. The vast skylight with frosted glass is as lovely as a sculpture itself. The interior design is attractive, from ornamental plates to prints and hanging calligraphy. Tablecloths are a light rose color rather than white, which softens the atmosphere.
The cocktails are $5.25 and generous, so go crazy. The menu presents nearly 20 appetizers. Both the scallion pancakes ($4.50) and the peanutty tossed shredded chicken ($6.25) were recommended to me, but our guest and guide Tarra had a better idea. She so loves the steamed dumplings ($6.50) that on several visits she has never started with anything else. Tarra was turned onto the treats by a Chinese-American roommate and never betrayed them.
They were very good, eight fat and happy half-moons served in a bamboo steamer, plump with minced pork. Tasty as they were, they were given flavor competition by the off-menu vegetarian steamed dumplings ($6.75) that Johnnie ordered, the scallion filling given textural variety by meat-like bits of dense tofu.
There are four different soups for two ($5.75-$7): sizzling rice, chicken with sweet corn, seafood beancake, and seafood seaweed. I wanted to check out the basic ones, always good indicators, so we went with a couple. Egg drop soup ($1.50) can be bland, but this one had a quiet, interesting seasoning that kept me coming back for more. The hot and sour soup ($2.25) was light on the bits of pork and had more egg than I've seen, but was nicely flavored and not overly spicy hot.
Getting down to business, we soon had an array of five main course items to fill our plates. White rice went well under the shrimp and scallops in Szechuan sauce ($11.50). We also had vegetable fried rice ($5.75), which had enough going on that I didn't miss the meat. (Sometimes authenticity has its downside: brown rice isn't served upon request here, even if you request in polite Mandarin.) That sauce was red and sweetish, not as hot as expected but delicious. I appreciated that the shrimp tails were taken off so that I didn't have to fumble with the shells.
Tasted before anything spicy, the asparagus chicken in lemongrass sauce ($12.95) received varying reports. There could have been more lemongrass coming through, but Johnnie didn't mind and Tarra said she preferred that delicate hint to it overpowering the dish.
I've gotten so fond of well-prepared eggplant dishes in Chinese restaurants that I had to order the eggplant with Hunan sauce ($7.95). It was a nice addition, containing a Christmas party of red and green bell pepper slices, a sprinkling of firm noodles for contrast, and a few sautéed garlic cloves to flaunt the dominant accent.
The hit of the array was ants on the tree ($7.95), our noodle choice. It was unexpectedly hotter than the hot and sour soup (you may request the degree you prefer, so do so), but the clear vermicelli retained some bite, with ground pork "ants" in every forkful. Aromatically infused with dry spices rather than a sauce, it tasted almost smoky.
I sure am looking forward to checking out the three dozen lunchtime specials at China Inn. Maybe I'll even spring for the scallion pancakes.
Bill Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com.