East End Eats: ‘Good Enough’ 365 Days a Year
This is a roundup of just about every Chinese restaurant/takeout establishment in our area from Amagansett to Southampton. Montauk no longer has a Chinese restaurant since Wok ’n’ Roll “you hook ’em, we cook ’em” closed. Hardly seems fair since East Hampton has two.
Two were missed, Dragon Garden on North Sea Road in Southampton and Number One Chinese in Water Mill, because every time I went, it was closed. There was a children’s bicycle resting inside the front window.
Most of these establishments are takeout only, with no more than a few chairs or stools for waiting and free publications you have no interest in reading. The exceptions are Phoenix in Wainscott and Chen’s Garden in East Hampton. Some are cash only and some don’t have websites, but of this you can be assured: Every single Chinese takeout joint is open 365 days of the year, with the exception of Chen’s Garden, which is closed on Tuesdays. Some deliver and some do not. The menus at each and every one are almost identical, lengthy, and shockingly reasonable. The two exceptions here are Phoenix, which offers some Japanese food, and Fusion Express, formerly China Town, in East Hampton, which has some Thai offerings.
The places I tried are Sing City in Sag Harbor, China Garden in Southampton, Phoenix in Wainscott, Fusion Express in East Hampton, Chen’s Garden in East Hampton, and New Best Taste in Amagansett.
None of the places were particularly good, nor did I expect them to be, but I pretty much found something to like or appreciate at each and every one.
By the time I was halfway through the research, I lowered my “expectation factor” considerably, looking on the bright side. A moderately clean floor? Yay! A smile? I’m coming back just for that! But these Chinese takeouts and restaurants serve an important purpose in our, and every, community. They offer cheap, fast food for hard-working laborers of all nationalities, high school kids who just need something filling, tired wives, husbands, and parents who don’t have the time or energy to cook. And occasionally a lazy restaurant reviewer. . . . They are there for you 365 days of the year.
Someone asked me recently, “What’s your favorite Chinese take out? Which one is the best?” Hence this column. I always do a pivot worthy of Kellyanne Conway when asked my “favorite” anything restaurant-wise. I said I think everyone’s favorite is probably the closest one to them. That being said, I do not have a favorite, but Sing City is closest to me and I get its moo shu vegetables and stir-fried string beans about once a year. They are adequate dishes and when I get home I douse the moo shu vegetables with my own hoisin sauce and some sriracha or sambal oelek chili paste. Bonus points for Sing City: One time years ago I showed up half an hour before they were opening and they opened up and cooked for me. I do not recommend trying this; I think they were frightened of me. Cash only, no website, no delivery.
Next were China Garden and Phoenix. At first I thought getting identical dishes from every place would provide continuity but I tired of that after these two places. China Garden — “Best of the Best” Dan’s Papers — was filthy and the front door looked like someone had attempted to jimmy it. The dishes I tried were moo shu vegetables, boneless ribs, and green beans. The moo shu vegetables were okay, with mostly cabbage, bean sprouts, baby corn, carrots, mushrooms, and broccoli. The ribs were sweet and tough, most not swallowable. The green beans were somewhat garlicky, not much else. My fortune cookie said, “It could be better, but it’s good enough.” They also offer chicken nuggets and French fries for $3.25 and $2.25 respectively, and there were quite a few workers waiting for takeout orders of chicken and rice dishes. Cash only, no delivery.
Next stop, Phoenix, quiet as a tomb. Nobody to be seen up front but loud chatter coming from the kitchen. Eventually, a man emerged to take my order. More boneless ribs and an order of Szechuan spicy chicken. I was moo shued out. The ribs from here were more tender but lacked flavor. The Szechuan chicken had a lot of vegetables and some cornstarch-coated chicken in a thin, mildly seasoned sauce. The rice tasted freshly cooked. And Phoenix delivers.
On to Fusion Express which delivers and has a bare bones website with an upside down menu. This was one of the more expensive places. I tried cold sesame noodles, moo shu vegetables, and a Thai green curry with chicken. The cold sesame noodles tasted mostly of peanut butter and were very dense and gluey, but I enjoyed about three bites. Fusion Express had one of the better versions of moo shu vegetables. They were crunchy and had a hint of smokiness, known as wok hei, “breath of the wok,” an intentional smoky, almost burnt flavor. The green curry was okay, but once again, the chicken was coated in a disconcertingly slippery layer of cornstarch, which didn’t do much for the texture since this is a soupy dish. It was coconut milk, moderately spicy, with red and green peppers, green beans, and eggplant. Fusion Express was clean.
New Best Taste, formerly Best Taste in Amagansett was the next location. This place is takeout only and it does take credit cards. The family was gathered up front scrolling through a big roll of lottery tickets. They moved back to the kitchen and continued perusing when I walked in. A very well-dressed and stylish woman took my order. I got a spring roll, vegetable dumplings, Szechuan shrimp, and either kung pao or General Tso’s chicken. The spring roll and the vegetable dumplings were pretty good and I’ve heard they’re made in-house. The spring roll was thin, crisp, and not greasy. The dumplings had a thick dough but the filling was gingery and the dipping sauce tart-sweet. None of the Szechuan or Hunan dishes I ordered at any of these places was spicy at all, as they should be. Such was also the case here. The sauce was more like ketchup and vinegar and there were many chunks of al dente onions. However, there were 10 big shrimp in it and they were cooked perfectly. The chicken dish (I think I ordered kung pao) was fair, but again the slippery, cornstarch coated chicken in the sweet-sour sauce was not as it should be. A wonton soup came with the order. It was watery, but the dumplings were pretty good.
Last stop, Chen’s Garden, where you are always greeted cheerfully, the place is clean, and the prices some of the cheapest, but we are literally talking pennies here. It delivers, takes credit cards, and has a Weight Watchers menu. I tried the crispy orange beef, vegetable chow fun, and brown rice. The crispy orange beef was not spicy, again a sweet sauce, but the strips of beef were mostly crisp and tasty with tiny cubes of fresh orange peel in the dish. The chow fun was extremely overcooked wide noodles with overcooked vegetables. I tried to salvage it at home with some black vinegar (such as you’d put on bian bian noodles) and homemade orange chili sauce but it didn’t help. The brown rice here is very good, though.
The history of Chinese restaurants in America is a fascinating story but too long to tell here. It is worth researching if you are interested. From immigration to assimilation and hard work, there is a rotating system among communities and families, which is one of the reasons the names, management, and quality of each restaurant is somewhat unreliable and ever changing.
I am still mystified as to why the menus have to be so long, the portions so huge yet cheap, and who would order lobster or scallops. Most items come from freezers and are probably all from the same source. But the vegetables are fresh, there are dishes geared toward simpler tastes, and dietary restrictions are acknowledged at two or three establishments. The Chinese families in our communities work hard and we should be grateful for the niche they fill. As that fortune cookie so presciently put it: “It could be better, but it’s good enough.”