Eat it and beat it

Something successful is happening at Eastside Chef Restaurant in West Sacramento. Certainly, something successful compared to neighboring businesses, which are starkly empty, adorned only with black-and-white “For Lease” signs in their windows. Eastside Chef, with its voluminous menu, steady stream of take-out orders, most tables filled most of the time and a cadre of greeted-by-name regulars, appears in no danger of the same fate.

Things move fast at Eastside. Orders are swiftly taken, often in clipped sentences. To aid efficiency, the menu exhorts: “Order by number.” Other than an effervescent bespectacled waitress with a droll sense of humor, the modus operandi is: Order processed, food prepared, delivered to table, diners then eat it and beat it.

Undoubtedly, Eastside Chef makes no pretense of being the region’s finest purveyor of subtly nuanced Far East fare. Despite 31 lunch specials, 16 luncheon “over rice” offerings, a half-dozen chow fun and chow meins and nearly 100 dinner possibilities, there’s nothing here that remotely pushes at the edge of the envelope of Occidental sensibilities. No braised sea cucumber or goat lungs with red peppers will be found here, for example. The dinner menu does include, however, Seafood Tripe Delight with Bird Nest, which is an acquired taste.

The hunan—any variety of it—isn’t terribly spicy, although it has a nice mix of red and green bell pepper slices. The salt-and-pepper chicken isn’t spicy either, despite the presence of bits of dried red peppers. The fried chicken pieces are delightfully oil-free, however.

In the main, all dishes flagged with a small red-pepper symbol are benign enough to demand several dollops of chili sauce and a judicious splash of yellow mustard—of which a fingernail’s worth jarringly blasts sinuses open. However, consider the source on the issue of spiciness. This space constantly strives to power through into the upper reaches of the Scoville, the yardstick for pepper potency. The standard lunchtime entree accompaniment is pork chow mein and pork fried rice, an obvious minus for the starch adverse. There’s soup, egg roll and fried rice with dinner.

If MSG is present, there isn’t a hint of its telltale saltiness in either the hot-and-sour soup, the buttery wonton soup, or any of the entrees. That said, the dinner offering of the $11 flaming appetizers for two, while a bit heavy on the fried—prawns, chicken wings and wontons—does exhibit a nifty presentation with a cylinder of flame at the center of tray that contains the goodies. Aggregate score: A notch or two above mundane, a farther distance from inspired.

What might be missing in culinary audacity is made up for by price and variety. It’s hard to crest north of $10 for a generously portioned lunch—even with a cup of soup on the side. Similarly, most dinner entrees are under $10—the seafood tripe being an exception at $12.95. The Style A and Style B family dinners with plenty of extras and an added dish for each additional person average $11 to $12 a head.

As to variety, there are at least 13 types of pork entrees. If that seems like a lot, consider the chicken possibilities: almond, cashew, curry, foil, garlic, general’s, hunan, kung pao, lemon, mandarin, Mongolian, orange, salt-and-pepper, sesame, sweet-and-sour, szechuan, and walnut. Plus, chicken with black-bean sauce, with mushrooms, with snow peas and with vegetables. And that doesn’t even count the chicken chow mein or fried rice.

There is something to be said for utilitarian and consistent. Certainly the number of repeat diners says that’s so.