For a great night out "on the wagon," we would like to recommend the Lotus Chinese Eatery, which is one of the few Islamic Chinese restaurants in Orange County. They feature halal meats and serve no alcohol. Although there is no pork, there are a number of excellent lamb dishes. Because this is the cuisine of Western China, varieties of noodles and breads replace rice as the staple food, since wheat grows abundantly in the colder northern and western parts of the country.
Another distinguishing feature is the very contemporary décor with beautiful mixed wood floors, dark brown walls, ceilings and spacious booths. Tasteful, soft red accents, bamboo shades, some well-placed plants and a few Tang ceramic sculptures complete the picture.
Not brave enough for the cold spicy ox tripe, we opted for the house-made chicken vegetable pan-fried dumplings. To be honest, we missed the richness created by pork, but the house-made dumpling dough was excellent and so was the very flavorful dipping sauce — a soy-based concoction made with rice vinegar, ginger shreds and red chilies.
Crispy fried duck at Lotus is similar to Peking duck but is steamed and deep-fried rather than baked. The result is extremely succulent flesh and wonderfully crackly skin, delicately seasoned with a star anise spice mixture. It comes with big fluffy white buns, shredded green onions and a hoisin-based sauce. You can put all the ingredients together to make delicious sandwiches or just dip the duck in the sauce and go for it.
The hand-cut noodles here are house made, wide and toothsomely chewy, a bit like Japanese udon. You can get them in a variety of preparations, or you might prefer the thinner pan-fried noodle dishes, also using fresh noodles but not house-made. We were in the mood for the crunchy-bottomed pan-fried variety, but we will come back for the soft noodles another time because they looked great. You can select your protein, and we chose chicken with assorted veggies. It turned out that there were eight different kinds, all crunchy and fresh; even the water chestnuts had never seen the inside of a can. The dish was lightly flavored with a classic, somewhat thick brown sauce. It was a pleasant mélange but a bit bland. We gave it a boost with chili sauce.
Our next entrée was fish in black bean sauce, and it was terrific. We were surprised to learn that the fish of the evening was swordfish, since that is clearly not the "go to" choice in Chinese restaurants. The sautéed pieces of fish were unbelievably moist and tender, yet didn't fall apart in the stir-fry. Zesty bits of jalapeno studded the dish and gave the sauce a pleasant lilt.
Lamb with leeks was another winner — a richly seasoned lamb stew combined with a profusion of sautéed Chinese leeks, which have their own special flavor somewhere between garlic and scallions. Once again, mild jalapenos warmed up the palate to a satisfying degree.
A non-traditional version of salt and pepper shrimp has the shelled crustaceans fried in a very light flour coating instead of frying them in the shell. They were large, very sweet and juicy with a delicate crispy exterior. Equally non-traditional was their pairing with an excellent Asian-style coleslaw with a slightly sweet lime dressing.
Garlic, crumbly dried shrimp and pickled vegetables gave lots of flavor to a mountain of perfectly sautéed green beans. This seems a good place to mention that all of the portions are generous, and the best way to sample the menu is to come with a crowd.
It should come as no surprise that in addition to fortune cookies, there is only one dessert, not the usual ice cream but a house-made red bean stuffed crepe meant to be shared, as it has 10 to 12 pieces.
Try Lotus for a slightly different and delicious take on Chinese cuisine at very reasonable prices.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
What: Lotus Chinese Eatery
Where: 16883 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday
Appetizers: $4.95 to $15.95
Entrées: $9.95 to $16.95
Information: (714) 848-4940