Smile Politely

Picking up dinner at Peking Garden

The second installment of this series takes us from campus to downtown Champaign, where my partner in crime, Megan, and I reviewed Peking Garden at 206 North Randolph Street. Peking came highly recommended to me by my friend — food enthusiast and ultimate denizen of downtown — Aaron K.

But first, a little meta-commentary about this review series. The pleasure I get from ethnic dining is two-fold. I love the food. And I love the differentness of the experience. For someone who spends a lot of time working in a service-obsessed American restaurant, the experience is rather novel, and it’s difficult to express joy at that novelty without sounding a little exploitative and ethnocentric. I’m totally willing to sound like that and be so judged. But if you knew me you would know that’s not my style. I just like to differentiate my experiences and I have a lot of fun experiencing how varied our world can be. Ethnic dining is like travel for the poor man or for those who want to experience more without leaving home. More on the meaning of the experience next time. Let’s get back to downtown.

Peking is located in the Robeson Building with a nice canopied façade on the west side. The dining room is very enclosed and the windows rendered mostly opaque, resulting in an intimate atmosphere at about any time of day. Asian newspapers and various business cards completely unrelated to Peking Garden are, of course, scattered all around the entrance. The ambiance feels very familiar to the Asian restaurant regular — right down to the presence of a four-year-old kid on a laptop at all hours of the day.

The dining room is open and comfortable, and the décor is appropriate, if a little cluttered. Note the obligatory roundtable with a lazy Susan, the red doily decorations, Chinese calendars, and the rolling glassware cart. The P.A. was actually playing Asian-sounding music. Nothing screams culture clash like Mariah Carey playing on Light Rock 97.5 in a Chinese restaurant. 

In my short time paying review-quality attention to my dining experiences in ethnic restaurants, I have noticed that the servers are not often excited to talk to me about dishes in depth. That said, our server at Peking was great. She let us relax and study the menu and didn’t seem at all in a hurry when we stopped her to ask some questions about the menu. 

And nothing cracks me up like the menus at Asian restaurants. Among the first pages of the menu at Peking are a selection of specialty cocktails. They have names like “Blue Hawaii” and “Witch Doctor.” And while few of them have a description of the ingredients or the taste, they all include a picture of the type of ceramic tiki glass they are served in. We shared the “Pineapple Dream” cocktail, which tasted like a typical pineapple and rum and who-knows-what-else drink — nothing special but it was fun. (There are three cocktails labeled “For 2” on the menu for when you and your date want to Lady-and-the-Tramp a beverage together — or you just want to get plastered downtown at a Chinese restaurant.)

Unlike Lai Lai Wok, I walked into Peking with previous, recent experience. Since my friend Aaron told me to go there a few months ago, I have visited several times. Each time I order the Orange Chicken because it, too, came recommended to me. It is labeled as a spicy dish on the menu by the industry-standard pepper graphic, but I have never gotten a spicy dish when ordering it. This time I asked to be sure, “Is this dish spicy?”

“Yes, that is spicy,” our server replied.

Not knowing if I was getting reassurance or a warning, I emphatically said, “Good! I WANT it spicy.” She must have thought I meant white-people spicy. I just can’t seem to get that dish the way I want it. Maybe it is spicy somewhere under there, but the dish is so overwhelmingly sweet that any hints of spice stay buried. I like some sweetness, and I love to see the orange peel served right out of the wok with the rest of the dish, but they need to tone down the sweetness a little and balance it with a little more spice and some bitter element. It’s never what I want, but I’ll be damned if I don’t keep ordering it every time I go back.

However, I should mention that we took a detour between our Jimmy Buffet cliché of a cocktail and our entrees through the unfortunately named Pu Pu Platter. Yes, that thing. I always thought that was hilarious.Turns out it’s just an appetizer sampler — but you probably knew that already. Anyway, everything on it was fried, and that was just fine by me. The dumplings were really dense with great texture. Fried completely on one side, and less so on the top, giving them the delightful dual texture identifiable to the fried dumpling. 

Rounding out the platter were big, rich egg rolls that had great crunch without being dried out, typical crab Rangoon and of course marinated chicken-on-a-stick. (That is chicken, right?) The dumpling sauce and sweet and sour sauce were more than acceptable, the latter sporting an unexpected orange element. The surprise on the platter was the fried shrimp — the first shrimp I can remember eating that were battered and fried. Why not?

Megan’s dish outshined mine by far. She got the chicken lo mein and I reverted to it occasionally to recover from the sweetness of my chicken dish. Lo mein is one of my favorite bits of Chinese fare, and Peking’s is really good. It was actually a little on the mild side in flavor, but a smattering of dumpling sauce — Megan’s favorite Asian condiment — rounded it out nicely. 

If you’re interested in what even more unqualified idiots have to say about the place, check out the reviews on Google. The reviews are all over the place, leading me to suspect hit-or-miss food and service performance. My experiences, however, have been about the same, and I see the place as pretty solid even if they can’t quite nail the orange chicken. 

The cliff’s notes: nice ambiance, (mostly) good food, good service. Again, however, I walked out of Peking Garden looking over my shoulder a little, wondering what I had missed. I saw two people eating together out of a huge pot sitting on the table with a heat flame under it. “What the hell?” I thought, “That looks a lot cooler than what I had.” I’m thinking if I want to get the most out of my Chinese restaurant odyssey, I may have to abandon the original assignment of asking for the house’s best noodle and rice dishes. I need a better way to immerse myself in all that these places have to offer. I need to get off the beaten path in my poor-man’s travels.

Peking is a good dining experience overall. However, especially given its proximity to my workplace, I may file it away as a great lo mein carry-out spot. But I have got to find out what this open-flame dining option is. I’ll just have to make sure it’s not on a night when I’m enjoying a cocktail-for-two, so I don’t accidentally set downtown on fire just when it was becoming such a cool place to hang out.

Nice job, Peking. I’m awarding you 3.5 fortune cookies out of 5. I hope that’s okay with you, Roger Ebert. See you at the movies.

Peking Garden is located at 206 North Randolph Street in Champaign.

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