Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lam’s Garden

510 Bailey Road
Crystal City, Mo
Lam's on Facebook

It was hot, humid, too soon for this heat. Late afternoon clouds were gathering for another evening of spring storms.
The Place:
It was Adam’s choice, he did some research, found this place online and was pleased with the reviews.  We wondered why we’d not heard about it or even seen it before, though when we got there it made sense. It’s not exactly visible from either of the streets it is closest to. It sits behind the Dairy Queen fronted by what I would call an industrial road.
A stand-alone building, postwar, but not by much, signage was simple, and mosaics were hand-painted on the exterior walls. Parking was ample on the side and in front. There were several cars there already, apparently a popular place.
The place was big on the inside, lots of tables, lots of booths. It was very clean and brightly lit. At the counter was the expected kitschy Chinese statues, carvings, etc. A large shiny-gold laughing Buddha  welcomed us with open arms. The ceilings were decorated with various chandeliers, ceiling fans and at least one large red paper lantern.
The walls were painted a deep yellow, one wall sported a wall-length mirror. Bad idea, I can assure you people in Chinese restaurants generally don’t want to look at themselves while they are there, this mirror needs to go.
 The tables and booths were mostly black, the table tops bore a laminated mountain waterfall scene. The floors were light brown ceramic tiles, also clean.
My one problem with Lam’s, it’s not a buffet. At a buffet I can get a little bit of a lot of things. In a sit-down/takeout place, you get a combo. One main protein dish, rice, and a choice of fried wrapped goods (wontons, rangoons, egg rolls). So it’s much easier to blow it in a combo joint than a buffet.
Oddly enough, our all time favorite area buffet was Jade Garden in Crystal City, right next door to Lam's. It burned down in 2009, right before we started reviewing places. Recent research uncovered the fact that the buffet was actually called "Lam's Jade Garden." Yeah, apparently the same people.

The Food:
Part of the attraction of the place was that Angel discovered online that Lam’s boasted cashew chicken made with, among other ingredients, oyster sauce.  This is what is used in Springfield (Mo) style cashew chicken. In essence her decision was made before we even got there, this had to be tried.
I scanned the menu, while doing so Adam declared he was going for the sweet and sour chicken, hardly surprising. Our drinks were delivered, tea, tea and Coke, and the all-American young lady asked if we needed more time. Angel and Adam looked at me disappointed, I said yes. There are forty four combo plates to choose from. I scanned them all and finally decided on an old favorite, with a twist. Chicken pepper steak. It’s like beef pepper steak, except with chicken instead of thinly sliced steak. I wasn’t in a beef mood. It would still allow me to compare it to the pepper steak at other places though.
The girl came back. For the side, I asked for the rangoons, Adam, the wontons, and Angel, an egg roll, all bases covered.  
The food arrived quickly
While we waited I sampled the unremarkable looking tea and withheld, for the time being, remarking as to it’s unremarkable-ness. To continue to fuss about tea in this area is just trite and apparently falling on deaf ears.
One of the proprietors (I assumed) a slight Chinese woman stopped by and asked if we were too hot. In her quaint, broken English she told us: “If you no stick together, it not so bad.” She was very friendly and garrulous, laughing it up with just about every customer that walked in.
Sweet and Sour Chicken
Our food came rather quickly. Bright white plates with red oriental trim. Adam's was easily the prettiest dish, with the plain white rice, yellow pineapple, the red sauce and the brown nuggets of tempura-battered chicken.  Mine had bright green bell peppers, Angel's was all brown. In Springfield, cashew chicken is sprinkled with chopped green onions, probably to make it more visually appealing. Without, it looks kind of muddy.
I bit into one of my steaming, searing hot rangoons, not knowing at the time that it was steaming, searing hot. CAUTION: Contents of rangoons may be steaming , searing hot! I doused it with unremarkable tea. Crab rangoon is not an authentic Chinese food. The fact that it is filled with cream cheese gives that away. Authentic Chinese food rarely uses cheese. It is thought to be an American invention, much the way spaghetti is a Chinese creation. In other words, who cares where it originated? The rice was pretty good, not as good as my own, but better than many places. I could tell by the overall brown appearance that they were a bit heavy handed with the soy sauce. Usually that's not a problem, as long as there is balance on the plate. (Soy sauce is Chinese, having been invented and documented eight hundred years before Jesus was born, although there is no credible record of Jesus ever having tried it.)
Chicken Pepper Steak
Balance was a problem on my plate. The chicken steak was coated with a brown savory sauce. The thick chunks of onion and peppers cut the soy-based savory-ness with a little sweet, but not by much.  Between the rice and the chicken there was a lot of savory saltiness. Once the rangoons cooled to less than five hundred degrees, this helped balance it as well. However as the rangoons and peppers disappeared the remaining rice was a little much. I was also a little disappointed to see they'd added tomatoes to the stir-fried onion/peppers/chicken. I've mentioned before that tomatoes are a new world offering and rarely if ever used in anything like Chinese cuisine. Okay, okay, I'm a hypocrite, I earlier said that origin doesn't matter, but with this I'm a purist. Tomatoes don't belong in Chinese food, but primarily because they turn to mush when stir-fried.  It's enough for me that Mexican and Italian are saturated with tomatoes, and I like them there, just not in a stir-fry.
For these reasons, I didn't quite finish  my meal.
This was not an issue for Adam and Angel. The Cashew Chicken sauce, which indeed revealed hints of oyster sauce (but maybe not quite enough) was creamy, more like southern-style gravy. It was, as Angel put it, 'about as close to Springfield-style as any we've had anywhere else.' Not quite there, but close. Her egg rolls were "nothing special" which she qualified as being a compliment. It was a simple egg roll, no frills, no fancy ingredient, just a simple, good egg roll.
Cashew Chicken
Adam's wontons disappointed him. They had stuff other than meat in them. He doesn't like a lot of stuff. To Adam, and perhaps I've spoiled him by doing the same at home, a wonton should be a small chunk of meat wrapped, then fried. Other things like peppers, onions, etc. need not apply. Other than that though he was quite pleased. He was able to easily pick around the few annoying vegetables on his plate and enjoy the chicken. He made note of the fact that although Lam's, like everyone else in the area insisted on tempura-battering the chicken for the sweet and sour dish, that the breading was not as thick as most places.
I don't get this, as I have labored about before. Very lightly flour-breaded chunks of chicken can handle a wide variety of sauces. There's simply no need to coat the small nuggets of meat with what is essentially pancake batter. It's not a corn dog, it's chicken.
(In Canada, a corn dog is often referred to as a 'pogo stick', which just goes to highlight the sheer stupidity of Canadian culture.)
Donuts, Fortune Cookies, the tab.
About halfway through the meal, mama-san* brought a small platter containing three fortune cookies, two Chinese donuts (no holes) and the bill. I was the last one still eating, as I had spent time documenting the evening's meal. Adam cracked open his cookie and marveled at the numbers on the back of the fortune. Everyone says these are 'lucky numbers' to be used for lottery picks, but I know better. They are actually an elaborate code used to deliver messages to sleeper spies, not unlike numbers stations. To a non-spy, they are meaningless and harmless, to a super-spy, they are crucial. That's how brilliant the code system is.
Though not as awesome as most Springfield-area Chinese offerings, Lam's was as close as we've found anywhere. I'd personally prefer a buffet, small amounts of lots of things, but there's a fairly decent buffet down the road a bit. Where Lam's is going to shine for us is for takeout. Now that we know of a decent takeout place, Angel can further avoid actually cooking occasionally and grab some decent meals. I told her that I'd want General Tso's or Sesame chicken instead of pepper-steak, so as to break up the 100% savory (soy-sauced) problem.
The price was very reasonable, VERY reasonable. Twenty one dollars and change. I'll say it again, twenty one dollars and change. So a takeout could include extra rangoons or egg rolls without significantly denting the bank account.
The staff was very good, and mama-san was very friendly. As we were settling up she looked at Adam, then at me, then at Adam again. "You look so much alike!" she gasped. This insulted both Adam and me equally. I'm sure she was trying to be nice, so I responded rudely. "Are you saying we all look alike?" Which is, of course a thinly veiled racist comment. She didn't quite get it, but laughed anyhow.
The popularity of this place has, in my less-than-humble opinion, a great deal to do with her charm, humor and superior customer skills. She impressed us with knowing many customers by name, hugging a few of them. What her part is in the whole spying operation though, I'm not exactly sure.


Though I'm mixing cultures a little here, not unlike the food offerings, mama-san being mostly a Japanese/south east Asia term, I mean it with all due respect, as a woman in a position of authority. Mama-san's were highly regarded in Japan and Korea as being wise and in-charge, whether it referred to the lady in charge at a store, a bar or restaurant or even the lady cleaning the restrooms while they were in use.  It's a cultural thing, in Japan a guy could be just standing there doing his business and mama-san would just keep on sweeping or mopping around him. You got used to it after a while.

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