Who would have thought that there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than McDonald’s? Certainly not me. Yet in the Charleston Metro area alone, there are nearly 100, but most are carryout.
Red Orchids China Bistro
Cuisine: Chinese and Pan-AsianCategory: Neighborhood FavoriteLocation: 1401 Sam Rittenberg Blvd., West AshleyPhone: 573-8787Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. SundayParking: LotFood: 3Atmosphere: 3Service: 3Price: $-$$$Costs: Appetizers $2.95-$10.95, soups $2.95-$6.95, house specials $10.95-$22.95, entrees $10.95-$14.95, vegetables $8.95-$9.95, lo mein and rice dishes $8.95-$10.95, daily specials, MP seafood.Vegetarian Options: YesBar: Full-service bar; specialty cocktailsDecibel Level: ModerateWheelchair Accessible: YesOther: Carryout, daily specials, up-charge for brown rice, no checks accepted, unusual ice cream flavors, sake, piano player, lunch served up to 4:30 p.m.
Where to get good Chinese food is a question frequently asked by our readers. Dragon Palace on Daniel Island delivers the standard-bearers of this cuisine in America. The now-closed Palais de Jade always could be counted on for a quality regional Chinese eating experience. Osaka and Zen Asian Fusion provide a pan-Asian menu that marries many cultures and satisfies many of our readers.
Trying to distill down all the “chow chows” (the name given to Chinese eateries in their early to mid-19th-century days) is no easy task. However, Red Orchids China Bistro, the modest endeavor of Kelly and Tony Chu, keeps surfacing as a place for “Chinese.” Kelly Chu’s parents owned the Joy Luck restaurant (now closed) in West Ashley, so the spirit of the wok is maintained through the Red Orchids enterprise.
Located in Ashley Landing Shopping Center between a Big Lots and a Burlington Coat Factory is a modest restaurant painted with yellow walls. When Chinese immigrants first opened chow chow houses to feed the laborers for the railroads and Gold Rush, they identified the business with yellow cloth triangles, and a bit of that color will be found in modern Chinese restaurants.
Red, the color of good luck, also is prominent on the wall treatments and lanterns hung over the dining room at Red Orchids.
And, yes, there is a pot of red orchids, a symbol of fertility and abundance, placed in a small shrine in the rear of the restaurant.
This is no “one from column A and one from column B” restaurant although in the early days of Chinatowns in America, this system was critical in bridging the menu language barrier for ordering.
Edamame ($4.50), lumpia ($4.95) from the Philippines, curried chicken ($10.95), Korean steak ($12.95) and pancits from Singapore ($8.95-$10.95) are a few of the liberties taken with the menu.
In the spirit of good fortune, start out with the money bag appetizer ($8.95) with tender rounds of ground pork seasoned with ginger and crisped in a jacket of spring roll dough that portends for good flavors to follow.
There is probably no better state than ours to eat the salt and pepper shrimp ($13.95), and here is the place to order it.
The black bean flounder ($17.95) is a study in yin and yang: the white, sweet flesh of the flounder in stark contrast to the black and salty soybeans.
Five-spice lamb chops ($18.95) and Shanghai fettuccine ($12.95) pack a powerhouse of flavor, the Chus’ own East-meets-West fusion foray.
Pan-seared dumplings are a staff favorite ($4.95) and the juicy pork center and generous portion (6) of dumplings was an auspicious beginning for our meal. The appetizers are varied, and you could easily park your appetite here and never read the rest of the menu.
I found the egg-drop soup bland ($2.95, $4.95), and so I spiked it with soy and chilies and wished for toasted sesame oil.
I missed the eggrolls of my youth as well as spareribs that defined for me Sundays spent in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.
But what they do offer and do it well are crispy red snapper fillets ($22.95 for two large portions) topped with the sweet and savory heat of a cayenne-jazzed sauce, the black bean flounder, mu shu vegetables ($8.95) and moo goo gai pan ($10.95).
Hunan shrimp and scallops ($12.95) with broccoli and snow peas rode the wave of the chiles’ heat, nicely moderated by the plainness of white rice. An order of eggplant with garlic sauce ($8.95) was free of eggplant’s bitter notes and married well with its cloak of Asian spices.
Most entrees easily serve two, and because even numbers are good luck in Chinese culture, it is easy to share appetizers that are portioned in twos, fours and sixes.
Dessert is not common after a Chinese meal. And the ubiquitous fortune cookies are an American conceit, not Chinese. But at Red Orchids, Kelly Chu has developed a menu of signature ice creams that you can order by the “shot” for $2 a pop.
We tried green tea, black sesame and lychee. You will delight in her playful laboratory of flavors.
Our server was well-informed and attentive. He was a wonderful tour guide for the menu and gave accurate readings for the spiciness of each dish. However, he suggested a braised duck dish ($16.95) over a sauteed dish, but the duck itself was not braised and a bit on the dry side.
Tony Chu was manning the bar and the brisk carryout trade, and the staff at the time of our visit was engaged with the guests and attentive to the needs of the diners.
The tables for two could be bigger, considering the communal nature of Chinese dining, but when the urge to eat “chi fan” strikes, the abundance of choices and portions at Red Orchids China Bistro will not disappoint.