I'll admit it: I'm not thrilled by Chinese food, at least not the overly greasy and sodium-filled kind that dominates the American foodscape. If I'm going to eat Chinese, I want it to be from some back alley in Chinatown where the menu barely taps the English language. I've always said that you should dine with someone Chinese who can show you the ropes about the good stuff. But when I walked into China in College Park with two of my least Asian girlfriends, I learned a thing or two about the validity of the Chinese-American hybrid Chimerican, one of my friends called it.
China in CP has one of those menus that numbers everything because there are so many items, all familiar and safe. Who hasn't heard of sesame chicken? Vegetable fried rice? Egg foo young? These dishes are so embedded in the American culture that they've almost become clichés of themselves. But what would a neighborhood be without Chinese takeout? People describe vapid districts of town, lacking culture, as places that "don't even have a Chinese restaurant." So China in CP not only fills a gap, but fills it well in its small spot on Edgewater Drive.
We walked up at night, the bright interior beckoning. As we stepped inside, we were awash in familiar Chimerican smells vegetable oil, sesame, shrimp and steamed rice. This truly felt like an urban Chinese takeout, with people popping in and out for paper bags brimming with red-and-white paper boxes, plastic soup containers and fortune cookies.
I must mention the service, which was so friendly that it had the feel of a corner diner, the kind of place you go by yourself on a rainy night and pour out your sorrows while drinking hot tea and catching up on gossip. Every dish we ordered generated our server's excitement, along with a story about who else eats it or why she thought we'd like it spicier.
Shrimp fried rice ($6.95) was an enormous dish of tender rice stir-fried with a plethora of diced vegetables and shrimp pieces. It was exactly what it promised, except it was three times larger. For value, you can't go wrong at China in CP. A family of four could feast for under $20 if they put their minds to it.
Because it fit the atmosphere so well, we ordered crab Rangoon ($3.95), six pieces of deep-fried wonton filled with crab and cream cheese. These antiquated party appetizers originated at Trader Vic's, the legendary 1950s tiki hideaway. Even though crab Rangoon has filtered down from the days of groovy gastronomy, they are still satisfying to the American palate.
One of my friends ordered chicken with lemon sauce ($7.95), which was more like chicken with lemon curd. The chicken was battered and deep-fried, and from the looks of the heaping plate, there was again enough for three portions. Alongside it, a bowl of bright yellow sauce was goopy-sweet. It tasted just right with chicken, but my friend admitted that she could eat the sauce on ice cream.
My other friend ordered an appetizer of sushi. Now that grocery stores sell sushi, places like China in CP feel free to do so, too. The sushi bar that fills the back of the restaurant serves decent sushi and sashimi. My friend got the sashimi sampler ($7.95) with great toro, mediocre tuna flank and flavorless yellowtail. For her entree, she chose something that wasn't on the menu, Singapore noodles one of those ubiquitous dishes and they had no problems accommodating her request. They make it all the time, they told her. Her plate was a huge mound of wok-fried rice noodles with spicy, curry-flecked vegetables and seafood.
I zeroed in on Peking duck ($15). I love this Beijing specialty that involves a process of glazing and drying to produce a succulent bird with a crispy skin atop a layer of delicious fat. It had been sliced into manageable portions and was served with thin pancakes to wrap around it and hoisin sauce for dipping.
Although China in College Park is a far cry from authentic Chinese, it is firmly filling its small place in its neighborhood.