When someone offered to take us out to eat, we got excited. Move over depression era meal budgets! This one’s on someone else! So we decided to try out the place that was voted to serve the Best Chinese Food in Montgomery. At least, that’s what the Montgomery Advertiser poll said.
When we arrived, we felt sure that we couldn’t be in the right place. It had those huge color pictures of food up behind the counter, like some kind of $5 Chinese place in New York City. And yet, it also had some expensive wooden floors and a fairly nice seating area. Maybe this was the place after all.
We were seated in a nearly empty smallish dining room. The menus are pretty expansive, but light on veggie items. They are broken into the familiar meat categories and the familiar staples of the modern homogenized American Chinese restaurant. Sichuan mingles without effort with Cantonese with no explaining. It’s a bit snobbish (but accurate) to say that most Montgomery diners don’t know the difference. They’re there because they can get the noodles with shrimp or one of those pork things. So the menu caters perfectly to that. When you think about food that way, of course there are 90-something options.
We ordered three entrees for the three of us, plus some egg rolls. The waitress was pissed that we asked whether various items contained meat. Of course she was. Still, based on the subsequent service, it was clear she was just pissed to be at work and not so angered by what was definately NOT a hyper-particular ordering on our parts. We ordered a spicy tofu and broccoli dish, a garlic eggplant dish, and some moo shu veggies. We also each ordered a spring roll, which was oddly fried, but the only veggie option of the appetizers after eliminating egg rolls and the dumplings.
The tofu broccoli was the best of the lot. It was far from spicy and generally somewhat bland. The broccoli was cooked right and the tofu was at least fried into golden brown cubes. The eggplant was the worst of the three. It was pretty much an whole large eggplant, cut up and gleaming purple, served with a brownish and flavorless garlic sauce of some sort. The pieces were huge and tough to cut up. And the middle of the road was the moo shu, served with hoisin sauce and three smallish won ton noodles. They were messy and, well, unremarkable. It was fun to assemble little burritos of hoisin and shredded veggies, but they were small and, once they were eaten, there wasn’t much fun about a pile of chopped up semi-crisp cabbage.
One particular highlight was that when seated, they bring you a bowl of fried noodles and a bowl of “duck sauce” with a tiny dollop of spicy mustard in it. It was almost as if they had seen the chips and salsa idea in a Mexican place and wanted to copy it. But nice salty chips and fresh cilantro-based salsa is one thing. Heavily fried noodles dipped in yellow glucose sauce is another. Thinking about Montgomery folks shoveling in a bowl (or two) of these before their meal helps explain why Alabama is only ranked above Mississippi in “Most Obese States in the Nation.”
All in all, it seems unlikely that we’ll go back to East China. There’s nothing East Chinese about it. It doesn’t have all of the offensive trappings of many of the worst Mexican places (where they spend more time on having the mariachi band and the sombrero for birthdays and the parrot decorations on the wall than they do on the food). But it does seem to worry more about having a bunch of stuff on the menu than it does worry about making sure the items are good. And in a town like Montgomery, even when there is authentic Korean food at several places around the city, basic worry about appearances is enough to win you the best Chinese food in town.