Dining Review

China Express is a foodie destination worth seeking out

CorrespondentFebruary 20, 2014 

  • China Express

    2223 N.C. 54, Durham



    Cuisine: Chinese

    Rating:* * *  1/2

    Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: Old-school Chinese

    Noise level: Low to moderate

    Service: Generally efficient, with occasional lapses

    Recommended: Noodle dishes, Mandarin chicken (Korean style), yang jang pi

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily

    Reservations: Accepted

    Other: Beer and wine; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * *  Extraordinary

    * * * *  Excellent. * * *  Above average. * * Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined:$ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

It comes as no surprise, given the restaurant’s name, when you step inside China Express and are greeted by the standard takeout shop photos of food on the wall behind the counter. The pictures represent just a fraction of the scores of mostly Chinese-American dishes listed on the paper menu.

As you wade through the list, you stumble across a few scattered hints that China Express may be something more than a generic strip mall takeout shop after all. Kim chee has infiltrated the appetizer list, advertising its difference from egg roll, crab Rangoon and their ilk in the red print that denotes “spicy.” There’s crispy duck under the Poultry heading, and something called “Cantonese fish” (you’re guessing steamed with ginger and scallions) under Seafood.

Still, it’s only after you’ve made your way to the back page that you discover what really sets China Express apart: a separate section labeled “Handmade Chinese Noodles.”

The noodles are indeed handmade, as their slightly rough surface, satisfyingly chewy texture and exceptional length will attest.

But the “Chinese” part of that heading tells only part of the story. Of the six listings in the category, the most popular is almost certainly the Korean jan pong, a spicy meal-in-a-bowl medley of shrimp, pork, scallops, squid, vegetables and noodles in a spicy broth. Or it could be a variation called San Shan jan pong, which substitutes beef and chicken for the pork, and large shrimp instead of small. I’m partial to the latter, but would happily slurp either to the bottom of the bowl.

Either way, be advised that you should order “extra spicy” at your own risk. If you prefer a milder but still flavorful broth, ask for Chinese style.

Other options cover the spectrum from a spicy Taiwanese beef noodle soup (available in limited quantities) to the soothing San Shan za jan mein, which features pork, shrimp, scallops, squid, zucchini and onions in a soybean cream sauce.

Regardless of which noodle dish you opt for, it’s well worth the $8.99 price of admission. And given the paucity of restaurants offering handmade noodles locally (notwithstanding their trendiness on the national scene), those six dishes alone are enough to qualify China Express as a foodie destination worth seeking out.

That’s not to say that they’re the only attraction. Under the heading of House Specialties is a delightful surprise called Mandarin chicken (Korean style): bone-in pieces, fried and then tossed in a light but flavorful garlic sauce.

Under the same heading is an offering listed simply as “yang jang pi,” with no further description. Your server will describe it as “Korean salad,” but a language barrier will prevent any further elaboration. If you’re daring enough to try it anyway, you’ll be rewarded with a large hot-and-cold composed salad of vegetables arranged around a central mound of shrimp, barbecued pork and mung bean noodles.

A generous bowl of mustard sauce (whose chief components are sesame paste and yellow wasabi) is served on the side. I’d recommend declining the server’s offer to dress and toss the salad. Perform this task yourself if you don’t want the entire bowl of sauce (there’s at least a cup of it, and it’s pretty rich) spooned onto the salad.

A little research after the fact reveals that yang jang pi is a Chinese/Korean dish traditionally served as a shareable appetizer. The portion is ample for two to share as an entree, though you can expect a quizzical look from your server if you order some rice (brown, white or fried) to go with it.

An ornate tile ceiling and Asian watercolors on floral papered walls highlight a rather tired-looking old-school Chinese decor that probably hasn’t changed since the restaurant opened.

That was in 1988, according to manager Su Chien, who also explains that the restaurant owes its curious hodgepodge of a menu to the fact that owner Yu Sun hails from the culinary melting pot of Taiwan.

For my money, the handmade noodles are clearly the star attraction, though the restaurant’s enduring popularity as a takeout shop is understandable in light of its proximity to RTP. The dining room is seldom more than half full in the evenings, though the large, steaming bowls on the majority of occupied tables testify that at least a few people have discovered the savory secret of China Express. And, given the restaurant’s name, I suppose it’s no mystery why the noodles have flown under the radar for so long.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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