The first time I noticed Shuang Xi, the restaurant was closed. It was much too early on a Sunday morning for any of the North Charleston strip mall tenants to have stirred, and probably too early for wistful thoughts about chili oil and soy sauce. But I detoured across the parking lot anyway, trying to take the counter service joint's measure by peering through its front windows.
Cuisine: Chinese-American takeout
representative dish: Hunan chicken with pork fried rice
Address: 5070 International Blvd., North Charleston
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday
Costs: Appetizers, $1.10-$9.95; standard entrees, $3.75-$8.95; special entrees, $8.95-$15.75
Vegetarian Options: Yes
What drew me was the name. Most Chinese-American restaurants are titled so predictably that the naming process can be reduced to a party game. Take a natural feature, combine it with an architectural element, and all you need is a business license to start slinging lo mein: Lotus Garden. Panda House. Moon Temple.
So I was intrigued by Shuang Xi's willingness to hang onto a name which most native English speakers have to pause before pronouncing. (Translated as "double happiness," schwong shee is the best approximation.) And I came away from my peeping session certain there was significance to ma po tofu occupying the upper left hand corner of the backlit photo menu board: Surely only a restaurant catering to worldly tastes would grant the prime spot in its dish gallery to bean curd and numbing spice.
As it turns out, Shuang Xi isn't the font of authentic Chinese cookery I'd imagined: The custardy ma po tofu, swarming with the classic takeout mirepoix of flaccid straw mushrooms, cubed carrots, wobbly stamps of green bell pepper and sheer chopped onions, was bathed in a cornstarch-thickened beige sauce that didn't show any allegiance to the old country. But it was awfully good to eat, and a shimmering example of Chinese-American cuisine.
When food elitists use the descriptor "Chinese-American," they usually do so with a sneer, using the adjective as shorthand for bland, sweet and greasy. Shuang Xi, though, is American in all the best ways. Beyond the broccoli and brown sauces, the fluorescent-lit restaurant evokes an America that typically only surfaces in politicians' stump speeches.
Eaters from a range of ethnic backgrounds congregate at Shuang Xi: Both times I visited, almost every customer who walked through the door had a different skin color than the person who last strode in. They're coming for very affordable meals, of course (at lunchtime, $5.55 buys one of 24 dishes, fried rice and a can of soda) but the restaurant's extraculinary appeal runs deeper. The hard-working staff is unflappably friendly, and there's no TV to interfere with eat-in customers' conversations.
On the food front, Shuang Xi is a model of the Chinese takeout genre (which, as connoiseurs know, is more slapdash than the lazy-Susan, column A-kind of Chinese-American dining.) It's no more than that, but for eaters who were reared on orange chicken and chop suey, that ought to be enough.
There are a few errant dishes on Shuang Xi's menu: Chicken with black bean sauce is long on black pepper and short on fermented black beans. Eggrolls, while nicely fried, are overpopulated by minced pork. And a viscous hot-and-sour soup is the kind of gloop that could send grade-schoolers into hysterics.
Yet if that list doesn't include your barometer for cheap Chinese in a wire-handled box, by all means, place your go-to to-go order with confidence: Shuang Xi has an impressive aptitude for not screwing up. In this case, that's a high compliment, since what Chinese-American devotees really want is their nostalgic favorites unobscured by fat, grease and off-flavors.
At Shuang Xi, the Hunan sauce isn't too salty, and the sesame chicken isn't ballasted with breading. In the noodle section, the Singapore chow mei fun is nicely flourished with curry, and the wide-angle wontons afloat in the eponymous soup are tender. Beef, whether served with snow peas, mushrooms or string beans, is properly trimmed, and the vegetables are fresh.
The very best dish I encountered was the hot and spicy shrimp, which features chili flakes clinging to plump crustaceans curled up in a saucy bed of carrots, green peppers and onions. Apparently few customers agree with me, since most everybody orders the wings.
Wings at Shuang Xi are lightly fried, then sauced with honey, barbecue sauce or a vinegary Buffalo sauce. They're big, meaty and passably Chinese-American when paired with pillowy ham fried rice.
OK, they're mostly American. And so is Shuang Xi's sense of ambition: The 8-year-old restaurant is preparing to open a second location at the new Corner at Wescott shopping center on Dorchester Road. For fans of garlic sauce, stir-fried vegetables and hot mustard, Shuang Xi is finally making good on its double happiness claims.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.