In honor of this week’s Beijing Olympic Games, your humble reporter is hungry for Chinese.
Who would have imagined the Gold Coast casino would be a hotbed for authentic Chinese cooking? Now the recent opening of Noodle Exchange has thrust it into the forefront of Chinese dining in Vegas, and customers are slowly getting the message.
It’s not completely counterintuitive, though. For one thing, the Gold Coast is the closest casino to Chinatown, on Spring Mountain Road. For another, neighboring casinos such as the Rio and the Palms do not have authentic Chinese restaurants, so the night crowd needs a place to land when they are hungry for chow fun or a bowl of steaming miso ramen.
Enter, or actually re-enter, Kevin Wu, who owns the successful dim sum parlor Ping Pang Pong across the hall. Wu, a native of Taiwan, understands Chinese food, and also the Vegas market. Formerly, he operated the upscale Royal Star at the Venetian before it morphed into David Burke. There, he served terrific Chinese food, ably assisted by his longtime manager, the charming Karrie Hung.
Luckily for us, Ms. Hung is in charge here, the better to keep watch over a team of mainly Chinese-speaking servers. This is an open space with modest furnishings and that “turn up the lights and eat” Chinese restaurant aesthetic. It’s certainly not a place to have a romantic tryst. And prices are low enough to allow a busted-out gambler to eat, even after he goes tap city in the adjacent poker room.
The paper menu is bilingual, printed in Roman letters on one side, Chinese characters on the other. The top left section is entitled “Openers” and has a few of my favorite dishes here, including a few holdovers from Ping Pang Pong—including crispy firecracker shrimp roll, the best egg rolls on the planet. Picture a pile of pastry cylinders, with wickedly brittle skin, and shrimp forcemeat on the inside. The house chili sauce is their ideal complement.
There are also Szechuan chicken wings, delicious, crunchy things with a sweet, hot sauce, done lollipop-style. The one complaint here is the portion size, on the stingy side.
Seafood lettuce cups are wonderful, finely minced shrimp, scallops and lap cheung, that sweet Chinese pork sausage that you wrap taco-style in the hollow of lettuce leaves slathered in hoi sin sauce. Hung wrinkled her nose when I complained about the lack of pine nuts, which the authentic version requires. “You’re soooo Chinese,” she quipped.
Er, not really. But although it’s true that I never met a pine nut I didn’t like, the nut does add a nice dimension of flavor and texture to the lettuce wrap, which is becoming as common these days as blackened fish was during the ’90s.
The list of good openers doesn’t stop there. San pan tofu is delicious, too, for those of us who do not hate and fear the mushy squares of soybean curd. This preparation tosses them around in a wok with shallots, minced garlic and a green herb sauce. Eaten on white rice, the dish is a treat for vegetarians and a revelation for the rest of us.
Noodles are, naturally, the house specialty here, and there are 16 ways to try them. If you don’t mind a spicy kick, I highly recommend home-style spicy braised beef in broth noodles, a huge bowl stocked with thick, wheat-based noodles and shards of thinly sliced beef bobbling on the surface. A milder noodle dish would be foo kiem shrimp and calamari stir-fried rice noodle, with anchovy and bean sprouts adding crunch and salt.
Teppan pork tenderloin noodle with onion black pepper sauce is served on a sizzling platter, and there is a nice helping of meat to balance the carbs. If you prefer something on the bland side, then stir-fried chicken and vegetable noodle is the ticket. Think of these thick, white, spaghetti-like strands as Chinese Noodles 101.
The right side of the menu is filled with must-try dishes as well. Wok-tossed diced skirt steak with garlic and basil comes on a bed of tomato-onion fried rice. Crispy har ka salt-baked chicken rice is fine, too, but the kitchen is sneaky and in fact fries, not bakes, your pieces of chicken.
Favorite Asian bento-box dishes are more for the Western palate, as Hung implied, again wrinkling her nose when I asked after them. Still and all, if you are in the mood for kung pao chicken, Mongolian beef or similar P.F. Chang’s fare, you can get them all here, in a box flanked by soup, rice, a trio of side dishes and fortune cookies—in English, natch.
There is one unusual dessert, sweet walnut cream served with a ball of glutinous sweet rice, and paraphrasing Mark Twain, who once opined that “Wagner’s music is much better than it sounds,” this puppy is much tastier than it looks.
Failing that, there are also cloyingly sweet sorbets and locally made gelato to clear your palate after the onslaught of authentic Chinese flavors. Go USA.