Dining review: Oriental Express still going strong after 18 years

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANOctober 4, 2013 

  • GOLDEN PHOENIX ORIENTAL EXPRESS

    Address: 110 N. 11th St., Boise

    Phone: (208) 345-8868

    Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays, noon to 9 p.m., Saturdays

    Menu price range: appetizers and soups $1.75-$10.95; entrees $5.50-$16.95

    Libation situation: Domestic and Asian bottled beers, such as Tiger, Tsingtao and Kirin, and a small selection of red and white wines.

    Family friendly? Yes

    Wheelchair accessible? Yes

    Opened: 1996

Chinese cuisine has a storied history in the City of Trees. Back in the late-1800s, Boise had a vibrant Chinatown with multitude of Chinese restaurants where Asians and Caucasians alike gathered to dine on chicken lo mein and egg foo yong.

Boise’s Chinatown, which once flourished near the Basque Block, is now nothing more than just images depicted in faded photographs. Long gone are all those noodle houses, too, with their clanking chopsticks and pots of steaming broth. But several longstanding Chinese restaurants in the Boise area still pay homage to the Westernized Chinese fare that was so common here during the Gilded Age.

Golden Phoenix Oriental Express, typically referred to as Oriental Express, has been pumping out recognizable Chinese-American cuisine on 11th Street (behind Hannifin’s Cigar Shop) in Downtown Boise since 1996.

A big part of the restaurant’s success has to do with the friendliness of its husband and wife owners, Jimmy and Chau Yuan, who make their customers feel at home. Jimmy Yuan easily slips into conversations, turning anyone’s bad mood into a good one. Chau Yuan plays off him well, gently ribbing her husband now and then. They are a fun couple, not to mention highly polished restaurateurs who work incredibly long hours.

I must admit to having a fond personal history with the Oriental Express: It’s the first restaurant I ever dined at in Boise after moving here more than a decade ago. What can I say? I wanted kung pao chicken, and the place had a familiar feel to it. Everything from the campy yellow dining room, with paper lanterns and umbrellas strung from the ceiling, to the fish tank and golden Buddha statue by the door reminded me of home. I grew up eating at these kinds of Chinese restaurants in Seattle.

The cuisine here has mostly stayed the same over the years, with the exception of a few more vegetarian and gluten-free options. The menu is all over the map of China. Hunan, Szechuan and Cantonese are some of the cuisines represented. You’ll even find nontraditional dishes such as chow mein and egg foo yong.

One night, my family and I grabbed a booth by the window and got things going with a few appetizers. Soon we were devouring four crispy spring rolls ($4.75) filled with briny shrimp, scallion and finely shredded lettuce, dipping them into a crimson-hued sweet and sour sauce.

Both the veggie egg rolls ($2.95), packed with cabbage, wood mushrooms, bean sprouts and carrot, and the barbecued pork and seeds ($4.50) were typical of the kinds of starters found at Chinese restaurants anywhere in America. The pork was tender and flavorful, for sure, served with sesame seeds, ketchup and nose-clearing Chinese mustard.

Then out came Jimmy Yuan with our entrees, cracking jokes along the way. He quickly went to work tableside on our moo shu pork ($9.50), rolling the stir-fried shreds of garlicky pork, scallion and cabbage in paper-thin pancakes with a healthy dose of hoisin sauce. He then placed one plump roll on each of our plates, before setting the other entrees on the table.

We also enjoyed the pine nut chicken ($9.95), a simple yet delicious medley of wok-seared chicken breast, wood mushrooms, water chestnuts, scallion and, of course, pine nuts in a seasoned soy sauce, served with iceberg lettuce for wrapping around the flavorful stir-fry.

The tofu string beans ($9.50) were tasty as well, with golden-brown tofu strips mingled with long green beans, onion and garlic in a dark sauce with a serious ginger kick.

The kung pao calamari ($12.95) was the only bummer of the night. I joke you not when I say the squid was as tough as rubber bands, tossed in a chili-kicked sauce with celery, onion, bell pepper, water chestnuts and peanuts.

During the course of several lunch visits, I made my way through other parts of the menu.

The hot and sour soup ($1.75) was a stomach-warming pick on a day when fall was in the air. The soup (with chicken stock, bamboo shoots, peas, scallion and threads of egg, thickened with corn starch) had just the right amount of vinegar and spice.

Also comforting was the beef egg foo yong ($5.95), which stayed true to its Chinese-American heritage with a spongy egg-scallion cake smothered with tender beef medallions, mushrooms, broccoli and snow peas, tossed in brown gravy. All lunch entrees come with a small pile of fried rice and a green salad.

Chicken lo mein ($5.95) is another dish with American roots. Here, the lightning-fast cooks gently stir-fry ropy noodles with tender chicken, snow peas, mushrooms, cabbage and celery — not unlike it was dished up during the mining heydays of the mid-19th century, in places like Idaho City (then called Bannock City) and Silver City.

Oriental Express doesn’t serve dim sum, but it does make pot stickers ($5.95), if you don’t mind waiting about 20 minutes. I was happy with the six gingery pork dumplings I received, boiled and wok-seared, next to soy sauce spiked with rice vinegar and spices.

Vegetarians should like the orange tofu ($5.95). I certainly did. But I’ll eat anything plant or animal. Breaded sticks of bean curd came dripping in a dense sauce of orange peel, ginger and chili flakes, which pooled like warm marmalade around the veggie-pocked fried rice.

Email James Patrick Kelly: scene@idahostatesman.com

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