Friday, April 11, 2014
"The most beautiful adventures are not those we go to seek."
Intriguing quote, but more on that later. When I said back when winter was in full swing that my husband Jack and I would be staying relatively close to home to find restaurants until the Spring thaw, I wasn't thinking quite this close. But one very snowy night when our friends, Jerry and Barb, asked us to join them at a restaurant near Youngstown, fate intervened. Just as we started out, we ran smack dab into driving snow and a very icy road and made an instant decision to not push our luck. Well, Jerry said, is anyone up for Chinese? Sure, we agreed, after which he pointed the car toward downtown Niles and the Chef Peng Chinese Restaurant. He and Barb, he explained, eat there often.
Since that fateful night, we’ve eaten there a few more times simply because it’s close - not far from the center of Niles - and the food is outstanding.
The entire place is far from lavish and it’s on the small side - not a lot of tables and just a few booths - but the Oriental-style decor is quite pleasing nonetheless; on the way in, there’s a huge fish tank filled with colorful critters. When our server arrived to take our drink orders -- no alcohol here, for the record -- we all jumped at hot tea on that first visit, no doubt because our coats still were dusted with a few snowflakes and our insides craved something warm and soothing.
I'm a tea-lover, and this was quite good; each couple got a pot to share. If I had a complaint, it is that the little handle-less cups got very hot very quickly once the liquid was poured inside. That's fine for those who don't want their tea almost boiling hot -- just wait a few minutes for the tea to cool down -- but that's not me. Once the cup gets cool enough to pick up with my fingers, the tea has passed its prime as far as I'm concerned, so I was forced to wrap the cup with my napkin before I could pick it up.
On a recent occasion when we all got together here, we started with soup. Only won ton can be purchased by the cup ($1.75); crab meat corn, hot and sour and a couple of others are sold only in large bowls starting at $3.95. Two of us - Barb and Jack - went for won ton, while my favorite is hot and sour. Jerry, meanwhile, tried the crab meat corn just to see if we liked it.
I say “we” because we enjoy sharing, especially when it’s something a bit out of the ordinary. The won ton soup was filled with dumplings and other "stuff" I didn't bother to write down but probably should have, and my hot and sour had the usual tang, though possibly a bit less than at other oriental restaurants. But since none of us had tried the crab meat corn (and the bowl was huge), we all dug in. It was quite tasty, creamy with corn and bits of crabmeat, but we all agreed we wouldn’t want a lot of it.
The list of entrees is extensive -- both "combination plate" with an egg roll and fried rice and "dinners," larger portions served with steamed rice or, for 50 cents more, fried rice. Several appetizers are there as well, and and a four-item kids menu ranges from $3.95 to $5.95. There are three desserts: A deep fried banana or apple and Lychee (Chinese fruit), each priced at $4.50.
While we perused the dinner menu, we decided to splurge on a couple of appetizers, considering first the Pu Pu platter to share -- fried shrimp, egg roll, crab meat rangoon, beef teriyaki, fried won ton and paper-wrapped chicken for $9.50, which we’ve enjoyed on previous visits. No, we decided, we'd rather go for three different appetizers that offered more sharing possibilities for the four of us: Crab Meat Rangoon (eight for $3.95), Beef Teriyaki (two skewers for $2.95) and steamed or fried dumplings (six for $4.50, and we chose steamed).
Admittedly, it took us a while to decide on entrees, which are divided by categories like Pork, Chicken, Beef, Shrimp, Lo Mein or Chop Suey and Vegetables as well as portion size -- with quite a number of choices in each. Finally, we all picked something different so we could sample as many things as possible (sorry, Martha, but we're among friends here; sticking our forks in each others' plates is permissible, at least within reason). Our choices included Mongolian Chicken with steamed rice (large portion at $8.25), Sweet and Sour Shrimp ($7.50), Orange Chicken ($6.95) and -- for me, the cast-iron stomach member of the group, the spicy Szechuan Chicken ($6.50, and I ordered it extra spicy).
First came our appetizers, and very quickly we decided we should have passed -- but because they were so good, not because they weren't. The Crab Meat Rangoon -- those little folded handkerchief-like pastries filled with a crab meat-cream cheese mixture -- were delicious. The dumplings were tender and wrapped around tiny balls of sausage; for dipping, there was an intriguing sauce that was cold, slightly spiced with what we suspected might be ginger. The Teriyaki Beef, two fairly large flattened pieces of beef on wood skewers, looked very dry and overcooked. The taste was what I'd call "satisfactory" and they weren't tough like we'd expected, but we agreed we'd all stick with other choices next time out.
Once our entrees arrived -- discerning diners that we are -- we realized that these are not "cookie-cutter" meals. Much to our delight, each had distinctive flavors and ingredients. Trust me, the forks were flying right and left as we tasted our own choices and moved on (again!) to one of the others. Our collective favorite, perhaps, was the Orange Chicken -- a simply wonderful dish we agreed we'd order again in a heartbeat. The Mongolian Chicken was a close second, a huge mound of chicken and grilled, thinly sliced onions (make that lots of grilled onions)! The Sweet and Sour Shrimp comes with the typical bright pinkish-orange sauce that for me (and our friends) is a bit too sweet, but Jack absolutely loves it and devoured every single bite.
As for the Szechuan chicken, it was spicy -- but not even close to what I'd call "hot" -- but I'd made my choice in the knowledge that I probably wouldn't have to share (clearly, my momma didn't raise a fool). Only Jerry had the intestinal fortitude to sample it (and then only a tiny bite). It was filled with chicken, of course, plus tons of thinly sliced veggies like onions and carrots, and quite delicious.
The portions here aren't what I'd call gigantic -- two of the four of us brought home leftovers -- but on the other hand, we went there totally famished and there was plenty to more than satisfy our cold-weather appetites (and the prices are quite reasonable). In all, we went home stuffed at far less cost than we would have spent had we ventured to the restaurant we'd originally planned to visit.
Ah yes -- almost forgot! As at any self-respecting Chinese restaurant, the end of the meal comes with fortune cookies. And of course, as any self-respecting diner would do, we cracked them open to read the advice. The first was a ho-hum: "Goodness is its own reward." The second wasn't much more exciting: "Turn off the TV and computer and exercise your mind with a good book." The third? A big improvement, and advice -- albeit a bit sexist -- we'd all do well to heed: "Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such."
By far the most prophetic, though, was this one, with which I started this write-up: "The most beautiful adventures are not those we go to seek."
No, we didn't "seek out" Chef Peng's, but for sure we won't let grass grow under our feet before we go back again!
If you go:
Chef Peng Chinese Restaurant
517 N. Main St.
Niles, Ohio 44446
Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday Noon to 9:30 p.m.; closed Sunday.