the chinese new year chinese food massacre, or, eating chinese in eugene, Part I

This is the first part of my restaurant reviews of the best Eugene has to offer in Chinese restaurants: P. F. Chang’s, Fortune Inn, and Ocean Sky.

No, it’s not a pretty sight. Those with squeamish tummies should stop here and click away from the review, click away from the review.

I love Chinese food. Growing up, there was one Chinese restaurant in our town in Michigan, House of Lee, and I loved everything about it, from the exotic paintings of bridges and bamboo-hat-wearing people on the wall to the fried wonton pieces you could float in your hot-n-sour soup to chopsticks, which, as a picky eater who would meticulously remove onions and chunks of tomatoes from my meals, I found downright miraculous. It was much more efficient with chopsticks. Indeed, I went through a period in high school eating everything with chopsticks, just to see if I could. And my very first cookbook? The spiral-bound Time-Life Chinese cookery volume, circa 1969.

Living in the Bay Area irrevocably spoiled me for American-Chinese food, because actual, real, non-bamboo-hat-wearing Chinese people lived there. I gorged my way through my vegetarian college days at Berkeley eating every kind of stir-fried vegetable imaginable, and fell off the wagon eating dim sum (a felix culpa if I ever saw one). After college, I spent a month house-sitting on a small island in Hong Kong, and relied on the tiny market to make my suppers, resulting in odd combinations with dried orange peels, rambutan, cloud’s ear mushrooms, gourds and eggplant. It was still delicious, every last bit.

Because I’m an example of how a white-bread/bred palate can adjust to and love more authentic Chinese food, and I’ve seen how simple it is to make cost-effective, better-than-sweet-n-sour Chinese food, I am baffled and disappointed that Eugene doesn’t have one amazingly good Chinese restaurant. Being a town of mostly white people, I understand why they cater to the American-Chinese style of cooking, and many overweight people, I understand why they cater to the Chinese buffet crowd, but honestly, there is a demand for a good, regional Chinese restaurant that aims for less sweet, gloopy sauces laden with cornstarch and MSG, and more crackly punchiness of szechuan pepper, chiles, and sour preserved vegetables. Eugene has the resources for these types of restaurants: we have three Asian markets (King’s on W. 11th, Yi Shen on Chambers, and my favorite, Sunrise on W. 29th).

Perhaps this desperation for good Chinese was what fueled the recent mania for the newly opened P. F. Chang’s in town. The P. F. in P. F. Chang’s is its founder, Paul Fleming, and Mr. Fleming has seen wild success in his theme eatery, with besotted white people lining up for hours for the privilege of eating mediocre American-Chinese food fancied up in rich decor with equally rich prices. The P. F. Chang’s in Eugene is so popular that some departments at the university even take their job candidates there, much to my shame.

My shame was even greater when I went there for lunch the other day, just so I could say I’ve been there. The menu contains many of the same items you can find in the Safeway Chinese food buffet at astronomical prices for the quality: Pepper Steak ($13), Beef with Broccoli ($12), Moo Goo Gai Pan ($13), Chang’s Spicy Chicken (“our version of General Chu’s”, $13), Chicken with Black Bean Sauce ($12.50), Sweet and Sour Pork ($12). They serve several of these in “Traditional Lunch Bowls” with a cup of soup for $7.50 – 9.50. The dishes are fancy and the portions are decent and the food is edible, I guess, if gloopy, sweetened, and full of MSG.

There is also a new grill menu which alleges it is an ancient Chinese secret, that is, if ancient China grilled ribeye steaks and crap with cheese on top, and unappetizing mini-desserts which only cost $2, but for which you have to suffer looking at carrot cake crammed into an oversized shot glass, frosting smearing down the sides, so it will be the same size as the puddings in the other glasses (or are those cake, too?). And cocktails. O the cocktails. Horrific combinations of everything that sounds vaguely Asian on the market, and then some. I can’t even.

A recent review of a sushi place in Eugene made a bold claim about the kind of service Eugeniuses demand:

The owners need to go to The Olive Garden or PF Changs to see what GREAT SERVICE is really like!!!

Um, no. No, no, no, and no.

As with many theme restaurants, excuse me, dining experiences, the P.F. Chang’s waitstaff has a ritual of asking you if you’ve been to P. F. Chang’s before. “No,” I replied brusquely, not wanting the spiel about my waiter’s favorite dishes or how exquisitely wonderful the next hour of my life would be, “but I’m ready to order.”

I opted for two dishes I usually like, the Dan-Dan Noodles ($10) and a small order ($3, versus $6 for the large) of the only thing that seemed really promising on the whole menu, the Spicy Green Beans with “Sichuan preserves, fiery chili sauce and garlic.” Then I asked for some tea, something simple, because I didn’t see regular Chinese tea on the menu of fruited, sweetened teas (Sweet Ginger Peach Decaf, Citrus Spice, etc., etc.) The waiter looked flummoxed and said the closest thing they had was “Organic Green: A slightly sweet Asian brew of three certified organic green teas.” I told him that I didn’t like sweet flavors, a theme I had to keep insisting during my meal at P. F. Chang’s, and asked if they had something like plain Oolong. Here, his eyes brightened: “oh yes, we do! You’ll love it! It’s my favorite!”

I know I’m going to sound like a total ass, but I don’t want to know some skinny, young white teenager’s favorite dishes at P. F. Chang’s.

A few minutes later, he plunked down a silly little iron pot of Dragon Eye Oolong (“Chinese Oolong with safflower, peach and apricot,” $2), which was unpleasantly fruity and perfumy, and became too sour and odorific to drink within 10 minutes.

Just before my noodles and beans arrived, the waiter came back, and with a flourish, he unveiled the special P. F. Chang’s Dumpling sauce, prepared tableside. He pointed out the little dishes and then dumped them all dscf6282.jpgtogether: sweetened (!) soy sauce, that nasty Chinese hot sweet mustard that comes in ketchup packages, vinegar (“for flavor!”), sweet chili sauce, and chili oil (“my favorite!”). I didn’t suppose it mattered that I didn’t order potstickers or anything else that might require such a sauce.

When the meal arrived, they had prepared a large beans instead of a small beans (for which I was generously comped, probably the only thing the service did correctly), and the waiter brought two bowls of rice, putatively because I had ordered two entrees. I could only manage to choke down a third of the noodles, which were ramen noodles with gloopy minced chicken, garlic and red pepper and garnished with a few sorry bean sprouts and cucumbers, no peanuts or sesame whatsoever, and about half of the green beans, which were too sweet but not bad tasting, especially since they had a kick.

I took the rest home, thinking my husband would eat them for dinner, but he was so repelled by the smell and sight of the congealed masses that he refrained. By that point, I was sick to my stomach and couldn’t eat the leftovers myself (a rare occurrence with even mediocre Chinese food), so I threw them away.

Now, to be fair, my husband did eat a dinner at P. F. Chang’s and he said the Chengdu Spiced Lamb ($14) was okay, but too sweet, and the Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Steam with Ginger (“Served over stir-fried shiitake mushrooms, bokchoy, tomatoes (?) and asparagus,” trendy fusion café-style, $18) was not bad. He can’t remember anything else he ate. I’ve heard people like the Chang’s Chicken in Soothing Lettuce Wraps, perhaps because they are soothing?

Tums, frankly, was more soothing…and necessary.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which I explore non-ridiculously expensive and pretentious American-style Chinese food options in Eugene.

15 thoughts on “the chinese new year chinese food massacre, or, eating chinese in eugene, Part I

  1. Michelle 15 February 2008 / 2:52 pm

    Oh, dear. I’m glad you survived! TG for tums, eh? We went once too, and I haven’t been back.
    I’m interested to hear your other reviews – Ocean Sky has changed owners since I was there last (and I’ve unfortunately heard it’s gone downhill) and I’ve never been to Fortune Inn. Keep it coming!

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  2. Eugenia 15 February 2008 / 3:08 pm

    Hi M! Ocean Sky isn’t bad for American-Chinese (as I will say in my next entry) and Fortune Inn is a step down from that, but still edible, depending on what you order. Sigh.

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  3. Kanda Yuri 17 February 2008 / 6:11 am

    I will comment for the first time.
    The idea to Chinese food who happens in Japan today, and is Japanese is
    described.

    In Beijing Olympics, it is most views of Japan that a lot of sports players are gotten food poisoning, and the player life is cut off.

    Now, a lot of Japanese are dying by the frozen food (chaozu) made at a government-run factory in China.
    A Japanese child and the elderly person are in damage as having died with the poison that a lot of pets are included in a Chinese product in the United States. Many of victims are the weak to whom the immunity is weak.
    A Chinese government doesn’t have a guilt in putting the poison in food and export.
    The manufacturing process of Chinese food doesn’t work on the improvement at all though is still opaque, and has elected a lot of victims.
    However, the government in Japan is threatened by a Chinese government, and the possibility of bearing silently is high. A lot of Japanese are disappointed.
    In your country, what one is the idea to the product and the food of China?

    I feel sorry for my poor English.

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  4. Eugenia 17 February 2008 / 9:00 am

    Hi Kanda,

    Hajimemasite! I read about the deaths caused by contaminated food in Japan, and that problem is a concern to us in America, also. The Japanese government should put pressure on China to regulate its food products more carefully, and the Japanese consumer should avoid cheap frozen food from China. This will put more pressure on the Chinese market.

    In my view, the problem is not only China, it is also cheap, processed foods everywhere. As long as there is a market for these types of foods sold at the lowest price possible, companies in China and the U.S. and other places will continue to try to make them more and more cheaply.

    I have eaten frozen dumplings from China (and Japan and Korea), and they don’t taste very good (oishiku nai). If you make your own dumplings and freeze them, you have more control over taste and the quality of the product. It takes more time, but it is worth it to know that you are eating something made from safe and delicious ingredients. In the US, many people are trying to (1) eat fewer packaged food products and (2) eat “locally” (foods that are grown or made within 100 miles of your home).

    Japan is much smaller than the U.S. and produces less food, of course, but there is a very old and wonderful tradition of regional food, and I think it is possible to eat only fresh products if you are willing to spend more money and time, and/or change your eating habits.

    Even in Tokyo, you can eat healthy, regional things like roasted sweet potato (yaki-imo) or chestnuts (kuri) in the winter. When I worked and lived in Tokyo, I would frequently eat street food, or even traditional Japanese prepared food for sale at convenience markets (konbini). I did not have a freezer so I avoided all frozen products. :)

    Thank you for your comment!

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  5. Eugenius Organic 16 April 2008 / 6:47 am

    I hate to make a bad report worse but I ate at ocean sky last night(sweet and sour pork overpriced @ 9.99) and four three hours I was stuck in the bathroom with food poisoning…….the only way you’ll make it out of ocean sky is with an ironclad stomach or a really strong immune system………there is one Chinese American resterant that I have been eating at for quite some tie and never had problems with it is called lok yaun and its on West 11th in the staples parking lot the fried rice is unmatchable. and at luch they have great deals( sweet and sour pork rice 3.99) and its good food that wont leave you crying out for a doctor

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  6. Eugenia 16 April 2008 / 2:43 pm

    Hm, well, without completely defending Ocean Sky’s cleanliness (I know there have been some problems with the health department), I can say that if you had food poisoning, it takes some time, usually at least 24 hours and sometimes days for it to take effect on your system. I just learned this in my food safety/ preservation class today. Maybe you had a food sensitivity? I’ve never been sick from their food.

    And I’m going to have to disagree about Lok Yuan — I don’t think I’d go there. Thanks for your comment, though.

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  7. Claire 12 July 2008 / 10:28 pm

    What was your opinion of the green beans at PF Chang’s?

    I found them rather disappointing… Soft, wilted, lacking in flavor beyond the sauce…

    I adore the spicy green beans at Yi Shen’s though. Just the right amount of flavoring/sauce, crispy, fresh, green, delicious!

    I share your amazement at the complete lack of a single decent, authentic chinese restaurant, especially with so many lousy ones around. When I feel like Chinese food, I usually end up just opting for Yi Shen instead.

    Like

  8. Eugenia 13 July 2008 / 6:38 am

    Hi Claire! I found the first few bites decent, but they were too sweet after that. I threw away the leftovers.

    I haven’t had the beans at Yi Shen, but will, thanks to you!

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  9. Marumaru 30 July 2008 / 8:32 pm

    What about Jade Palace? They’re really pretty good, and pretty well priced. Sometimes the buffet is a tad greasy, but overall they have good food, and do a really good job with their seafood, which I’ve found to be fresh and well-prepared. I’ve been to better chinese resturaunts in other cities, but in Eugene, it’s the best place I’ve found here so far, and I’m quite satisfied with it.

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  10. Fellow Eugenian 7 September 2008 / 11:12 pm

    The downtown Misako is no longer there, in place is a new sushi place called Sushi… (can’t remember what it is called). The food at this new place is extremely poor in quality and taste. The bathroom is really sketchy; and the tiles on the restaurant floors are dirty and greasy looking like they have mot been cleaned/mopped for a long time. Furthermore, I came down with continuous diarrhea hours after eating there.The experience there is just one word, “GROSS!!!”

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  11. Shel 10 May 2009 / 1:06 pm

    I have been to PF Changs a few times. The now the only reason we go is to get the yummy Bannana Won Tons. Sorry for spelling if wrong. And to get the Combination Fried Rice to go. My family of 4 can eat that for a meal and I believe it is around $11.00. Other then that our service is always horrible. Last time I went was with a large group for a birthday. I was charged for 2 apps. I never recieved. They brought my bill out after viewing it pointed out the app. issue and was given a new bill. It took close to $15.00 off plus the tip. On the new bill I drew a line thru the tip and left cash. So now there was close to a $30 differnece. A few days later logged onto my bank account only to find they charged me the original amount. By far not impressed and tell everyone I know now not to go there.
    Jade palace is good. They have good “crab puffs” if in other parts of country they are call “crab rangoon”.

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  12. Leah 13 July 2009 / 5:08 pm

    I totally agree about PF Changs, and hate to hear that Ocean Sky has gone downhill — it used to be pretty good, I swear! The worst Chinese in town though, by far, hand’s down, no contest is Louie’s Village. We went there once… OMG just a bunch of old people looking for cheap fried rice… it was smelly and the food was greasy and MSG-laden and horrible.

    The best Asian food in town (outside of a few delicious Thai restaurants) is Noodle Bowl, now a Korean BBQ restaurant. Really reasonable prices and pretty good food. When they first opened I had a problem with their salad wraps (lettuce was refrigerated too cold), but I totally love their Spicy chicken Bento… (And it’s owned by Joy’s – ala Brail’s – sister.)

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  13. Emily 13 August 2010 / 4:48 pm

    I have had similar disappointments with Eugene’s Chinese food. On the rare occasion that I remember it exists, I go to House Of Chen. The experience there is closest to my fond memories of going to bay area Chinese restaurants. It is a passable way to scratch my wonton soup itch.

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  14. Alexander Micheals Sr. 12 December 2010 / 12:51 pm

    I need to find a new Chinese food place around Eugene. I ate Shrimp and Mushroom dinner at Ocean Sky and was impressed by how big the helping was. It was big enough to be 2 or 3 meals. The only problem is I awoke early the next morning with terrible stomach cramps and vomiting. I was so ill from Ocean Sky that it literally took 5 days to get well. I had to go to the hospital. In summary as long as your body can easily fight off strange pathogens in the food then you will enjoy the extra large meal size at Ocean Sky!

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