East of eatin’
China East Restaurant1086 S Virginia St.
Reno, NV 89502
China East Restaurant is just north of Vassar Street on Virginia Street—on the east side, appropriately—near Scotland Yard Spy Shop. My intel is that it’s been around for years and has apparently attracted a fairly committed local following.
The atmosphere is characteristic of modest Chinese restaurants, with maroon booths and green tablecloths. It’s also a bit cramped. The staff members garbed in dapper white tops over black pants seemed like an honest effort at elegance. On the other hand, the employee at the table next to us picking the stems off snow peas while his colleagues pulled plates and silverware from a central table that served as a sort of open cupboard added an element of what I’ll call “zaniness.” But we weren’t so distracted we couldn’t order.
We usually try crab Rangoons at these places, but China East offers a baked tart-like variation of eight crab cheese puffs ($5.50). It’s a good idea that fails, in my view. There was too much oil and, in concert with the ample breading, it overwhelmed the crab and cream cheese filling.
The entrées were somewhat better. My husband’s squid with black bean chow fun ($8.50) was an astonishing dish, not because its flavors were extraordinary—he added hot sauce and it worked for him as comfort food—but because of its astonishing quantity. By itself, it could have fed four respectably, and we took the vast majority home.
My Kung Pao seafood ($10.50) was nice enough, with crisp and fresh veggies and seafood accompanying a satisfactory spice blend, but it puzzlingly lacked the extra juice for soaking into the rice that I have come to expect with most Chinese dishes. It, too, was generous, and most of it also ended up in a take-home box.
I can see how China East would attract a niche clientele. It’s impossible not to admire owners who will, without shame, offer the “Pu Pu Platter” appetizer medley ($11.95 for egg rolls, etc.) along with the chef’s specialties crispy fried pig intestine ($8.95) and crab meat with pig brain soup ($8.50). My husband remembers without fondness variations on these from his visit to Taiwan in the early ’90s, and we demurred, but the authenticity is commendable.
I admit I over-generalize Chinese places in Reno as a bifurcation: A few really slick establishments going for the upper scale clientele willing to pay more for mood lighting, lavishly attired staff, and presumably more refined fare. Then you have the range of spartan operations, with economy of scale overwhelming aesthetics. China East is thus interesting as a kind of ’tweener, where you see the effort at fine dining and presentation tempered with the working class persona of the industrial-end places where a bushel of chow mein costs five bucks. The result is a satisfactory and abundant product that easily reaches my second tier for local Chinese without quite penetrating my first.