After midnight

I first went to Lai Wah over 10 years ago. My initial acquaintance with the place was due to the frequency with which I used to find myself famished at around two in the morning on certain weekend nights. Lai Wah is open until 3 a.m. on weekends, which alone is reason enough to account for its longevity. For who among us late-night gourmands and trenchermen won’t quickly tire of the standard choice between fast food and the microwaved misdeeds of Denny’s?

For late-night dining, Lai Wah is easily the best Chinese restaurant in town. Of course, it may also be the only one open. In other words, the food won’t leave you angry or anything; in fact, you’ll probably like it—particularly if you’re in the kind of half-stupor that most of the customers seem to be in.

Plus, beyond the food, the menu itself is an ingeniously constructed visual feast, adding much to the pleasure of an evening out. Although previously I’d thought no menu could challenge the unsettling peculiarity achieved by China House with its menu entry of “Donut Beef,” Lai Wah comes in a close second—at least—with its bold inclusion of such inscrutabilities as “Cheef How Gnow-Nom,” “Bamboo Fungus w/ Eel Pike” and “Beef with Green Chow Mein.”

But it need not be only the late hours and entertaining menu that recommends Lai Wah. There’s some kind of crazy deal they’ve got right now where, for $25, you can get a five-course meal! Apparently, as our waiter suggested, we were lucky to get this price because, as he put it, “the boss is supposed to raise the price, but she’s too lazy.” As far as I’m concerned, anyone who’s too lazy to raise prices should be canonized as a saint of progressive benevolent capitalism. Just think how easy life would be if everyone adopted this laissez-faire attitude toward their own income!

Anyway, the feast included a tasty soup with niblets of beef and simmered Chinese greens, half a crispy-skin chicken, a whole fried flounder, stir-fried beef with sprouts, spicy salt-baked prawns and roasted quail. This is a good deal, because these obviously aren’t your average cheap Chinese greasy-spoon dishes, but more commonly high-dollar items.

That said, do you notice anything odd about the selection? At the time, we didn’t; it just seemed like an amazing deal. As we ate, though, a glaring omission became apparent. There were virtually no vegetables. We had four platters of salty fried meats and seafood, which—though tasty—eventually left us with an overwhelming craving for something lightly seasoned, something green, something from the plant kingdom.

In addition, the portions of each dish were just a bit skimpy and there was no attempt at presentation, just meat piled onto plain white platters.

That said, however, I can’t really complain about the execution of each of the dishes. Well, I could complain about the quail, which seemed excessively salty, but I couldn’t tell if it really was salty or if there had already been such a buildup of saltiness from the other dishes that the quail simply pushed it over the edge.

As for the other dishes, I thought the fried flounder was quite good—delicately seasoned, with a nice and slightly sweet soy and scallion sauce for dipping.

Crispy-skin chicken and spicy salt-baked prawns were as expected. You can get this stuff at virtually every Chinese restaurant and at Lai Wah, they were pretty much identical to what I’ve had elsewhere.

But we all ended up fighting over the beef dish. Of delicate texture and subtly flavored with ginger, it was also the only dish with anything vegetable in it. The sliced beef sat above a pile of sautéed green sprouts, and as our vegetable deprivation and salt saturation built up, our eyes and utensils settled on this one tip of the hat to the world of vegetables.

Still, though, it was good food—just too many meat dishes cooked by the same method. If you’re more attentive than we were, you can easily put together a more rounded meal. As it used to be, so it remains; Lai Wah is the perfect place for a low-dollar, decent alternative to the usual late-night fare offered in Sacramento.