This, Part II of Eating Chinese in Eugene, is a review of Fortune Inn on W. 6th and Ocean Sky on Chambers.
And I sadly shake my head.
I’m cantankerous and prejudiced about food, I’ll admit, but I try to step back and assess the possibilities, especially when other people are being positive about it. I felt that way about Fortune Inn, because what scant reviews there are seemed to be ok, and since there truly seems to be no choice in Eugene, I thought I’d investigate. Were the two “best” local Chinese restaurants better than P. F. Chang’s? And what is missing when you choose the real dive over the fancy dive?
When we drove up to the Fortune Inn restaurant, unpromisingly squatting across the street — the street out of town — from a Jack-in-the-Box, a weathered old sign greeted us. Nary an Asian person was in sight either behind the counter or in the restaurant. That’s not a good sign, even in Eugene. (P. F. Chang’s, for the record, had none either when I was there.) Location for excellent budget restaurants, however, is often misleading, and I was willing to give it a chance.
We found it unnerving that the “new” menu tacked to the inside of the old one had specialties like fried wontons and wonton soup. The old menu had items that were more authentic-sounding, such as the Cantonese classic West-Lake Minced Beef Soup ($9.50) and two meatball soups, a Beef Meat Ball Soup ($8.00) and a Seaweed Fish Ball Soup ($7.50). It also has all the standards you’d expect in an American-Chinese restaurant, including noodles (chow fun and chow mein) and sizzling rice platters. We ordered a handful of dishes, Dry Cook Green Bean ($8.50), Ma-Po Tofu (Soft Bean Curd) ($8.50), Special Chow Mein ($10) and Fried Chicken with Garlic Sauce ($9.50). The squid dishes, in particular the Fried Squid with Spiced Salt ($13) on the Chef’s Suggestions menu, looked interesting, but we were afraid to order squid on our first visit, considering the bad frozen squid experiences we’ve had at other budget Chinese places. I ordered the rather doughy but otherwise good pork Pot Stickers ($6.50) on a separate visit. I can’t speak for the Human Shrimp ($13) with ketchup, though.
When the food arrived, we were disappointed. That unique, fake umami smell from MSG hung over all the dishes. The best of the bunch was the green beans, but they insisted on mixing in canned Chinese mushrooms, which have absolutely no benefit over using fresh or dried mushrooms (or, might I suggest, Szechuan pickle or, even nothing at all). The beans were wrinkly and flavorful, though, and even without any punchy Szechuan pepper or carmelized garlic or green onion, they were still tasty. Special Chow Mein wasn’t particularly special, but it also wasn’t bad. It featured chicken, char shu pork, shrimp and the standard mix of broccoli, carrots and other green vegetables in a gloopy clear sauce over pan-fried noodles. Fried Chicken with Garlic Sauce was just that: heavily breaded chicken breast, sliced on the bias and served with not-very-pungent and not-very-fresh garlic gloopy sauce poured on top. Again, tasty in a junky way, but not great. The Ma-Po Tofu was not ma-po tofu. It was pieces of tofu in a clear brown sauce with a few peas swimming around it and black pepper sprinkled on top. We didn’t ask for it hot, which we should have, or with meat, which we should have, and maybe then it would have been more like real ma-po.
The restaurant is housed in what seems to be an old roadside diner, and the decor is a shade over bare bones, with unusual (I’d say rococo but that’s not the right word) oriental chandeliers and standard issue “Chinese” pictures on the wall. It’s a far cry from P. F. Chang’s dark wood and high ceilings and dramatic lighting. Is this tradeoff worth it for food that is a bit better and in larger portions? I’m not sure. There’s something depressing about the ambiance, the clientele, the location. Is it more depressing to see more upmarket Eugene businesspeople getting taken for a ride with crappy food in a nice environment, or downmarket Eugene businesspeople getting ok food in a crappy environment? It’s really six in one, half-dozen in another. One plus: we took the leftovers home, thinking that we could make something else with the tofu, and eat the noodles and beans and chicken. We did. It was edible the second day, unlike the food from P. F. Chang’s.
As for Ocean Sky, that remains our favorite Chinese restaurant in Eugene. By default. It is consistently fresh, always busy, and the cooks have a lighter touch with the cornstarch in the American-Chinese dishes with the gloopy sauce, and have a deft hand with seasoning. If you want spicy, they give you spicy. You don’t need to fiddle with soy sauce or vinegar or white pepper to make the seasonings taste right. And yet, they bus in old folks from a local retirement home for lunch, so it works with the staunchest white people palates out there. Let’s not forget where we are.
The prices are about the same as those at Fortune Inn, and I read somewhere that a former cook at Ocean Sky now works at Fortune Inn, so the menus read remarkably similar.
What’s different is the portion size. The portions are large at Fortune Inn, and absolutely leviathan at Ocean Sky. When I order, for example, Mu Shi Pork ($9.95), it comes on a platter-sized plate and serves two very hungry people for dinner, plus lunch and even dinner the next day. The leftovers are very edible. I order their Won Ton Soup ($6.95) when I’m sick, and the takeout version is a quart of chicken broth, plus a heaping serving of steamed vegetables (sliced whole baby bok choi, broccoli, carrot, snow peas, peppers) and at least a dozen wontons.
The atmosphere is better than Fortune Inn, if only for the size and buzz possessed by a permanently busy restaurant. It’s still housed in an old building in need of renovation, but instead of a diner I think the building used to be a medical office from the design of the place. I have to admit that my husband doesn’t like the divey feel of Ocean Sky, but I don’t mind it too much. You’ll see Asians eating here, and the waitstaff and cooks are all Asian-American. Big families (in all senses of the term) come and share meals here, and everyone seems happy and stuffed when they finally can get the waitress to come take their check and leave). Tea and water are constantly refilled, and the restaurant buzzes with activity. I would take this restaurant in a heartbeat over P. F. Chang’s. The food is much better and the place doesn’t try to be something it’s not.
Still MSG-laden, though. I really wish they’d change that. I think I’ll ask next time, but I have a feeling I don’t have a hope for the soup. They don’t have the meatball soups that Fortune Inn has, but there are two duck soups for Marx Brothers fans: Duck Noodle Soup and Duck Rice Noodle Soup (each $6.95) and Roast Duck (half $8.50, whole $17). The Dry Cooked String Beans ($8.95) aren’t as good as those at Fortune Inn, and if you ask for them to put pork in it, they will change the dish completely and give you wet-cooked ones in Pork with String Beans ($9.95), which isn’t nearly as good. They also have Singapore Noodles with various accoutrements ($7.95-9.50), decent American-style Kung Pao, and not-too-cloyingly sweet fried beef options like Szechuan beef (or is it Hunan beef? I forgot) ($11.95). There are also way sweet options for the Eugene crowd, such as Lemon CHicken ($9.95) and Honey Walnut Shrimp ($12.95), the latter a huge mound of shrimp and sugared walnuts which seemed even less appetizing when I saw a waitress sneak a walnut off the platter before serving it to the table. I guess that can happen anywhere, but still.
I often order the Chicken with Snow Peas (asking them to hold the reconstituted shiitake mushrooms) ($9.95) for a trip down memory lane, way back to that first Chinese restaurant in Michigan, for those velveted chicken breast slices and perky, very fresh peapods in the slightly colored, unctuous, fragrant sauce.
It could be worse.