The postmodern condition

Plum Blossom

1830 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 443-8882

Walking into Plum Blossom, a new modern-looking restaurant and Chinese “bakery express” in Midtown, can be a baffling experience. By the door are piles of paper menus, which list categories of dishes by the times of day they’re available. Overhead are state-of-the-art flat screens with scrolling lists of menu items and photos. Behind the counter are steam trays of dispirited-looking Chinese food. Off to one side are glass cases full of self-serve bakery items—buns, cakes, custard tarts and cookies—plus paper bags and tongs. It’s unclear if you can order from the menu or only from the specials behind the counter. The relationship of both of these to items on the overhead screens is too confusing to contemplate.

If it’s not too busy, someone will come out from behind the counter to hand you a menu and walk you through it. On our visits, though, we noticed a lot of confused milling about (some of it done by us). Maybe those pretty, pretty screens should be devoted to explaining how to order, but until that happens, here’s the deal: You order off the menu by going straight to the cash register. At the counter (at least until 8:30 p.m.), you can order rice plates, also. These are heaping portions of fried or steamed rice, chow mein and your choice of stir-fry from the steam trays. They’re a good deal, in the sense that you get a ton of food, but the fresher food is found on the menu.

Plum Blossom’s Web site claims the restaurant is “authentic yet progressive,” but the steam trays are chock-full of Chinese-American standbys like beef with broccoli, and anonymous fried food coated in viscous, pink sweet-and-sour sauce. I like beef with broccoli, but I would hardly call it “progressive,” and I’m not sure to what tradition it’s authentic. Plum Blossom’s version was just OK. It was a bit bland, and the large pieces of broccoli were tough to eat with either a plastic fork or chopsticks.

The chow mein and fried rice on the side were unremarkable, though the chow mein was plenty salty. Plum Blossom uses no MSG, so all the salt may be one way of compensating. The hot-and-sour soup was lukewarm in temperature, but it’s one of the few renditions of the soup I’ve had that was truly hot in spiciness and sour. It also was pungent, with plenty of white pepper.

The unevenness of the food seems to reflect a postmodern sort of cultural confusion. Plum Blossom has a chef from China and an overlay of sleek technological sophistication that strains to feel like an ultramodern snack shop in Taipei or Hong Kong, but it relies heavily on the sweetened, denatured version of Chinese cooking that was developed to play to Western palates. I overheard one customer saying, “This is the restaurant of the future,” but he didn’t sound all that happy about it. There’s not much reason to be, because the food is mostly retread, from chow mein to Chinese chicken salad.

The salad, which you order off the menu, is fresher than the rice-plate stuff but is still old-school, with its puffy fried noodles and shreds of carrot. The menu’s promised “seasonal greens” were iceberg lettuce, and the “grilled chicken” was battered and fried, but the dressing was light and tangy.

The menu does have a tendency to over-promise. My husband’s sesame noodles were pleasantly spicy, but the “julienne vegetables” were nowhere to be seen. The “Blossom Platter” of appetizers, on the other hand, had the opposite issue: There were more kinds of appetizers on the Styrofoam plate than what the menu indicated. Highlights among them were the deeply soy-flavored foil-wrapped chicken and the slightly spicy, curry-flavored chicken kabobs, which were like a crunchy satay. (The latter were the extra item.) Spring rolls were crisp and well-seasoned. There were also fried prawns, undistinguished ribs and sweet cream-cheese wontons. The wontons were fried in a pretty flower shape, but otherwise, they were just like old-school crab rangoon.

Some of the freshest options at Plum Blossom are the snacks and extras. The tapioca drinks here aren’t tea-based, but rather freshly blended smoothies, made to order from chunks of fruit in the refrigerator case. The pineapple, in particular, is tangy, sweet and delicious. And the bakery case is definitely worth exploring. The roast pork bun has a sweet glazed-pork filling in an ultra-light, perfectly browned roll. I also liked the butter cake, an ethereal sponge cake split and spread with a little butter. All the bakery items are just 75 cents, and they’re a steal.

They’d be good for a late-night treat; Plum Blossom stays open until midnight during the week and until 2 a.m. on weekends. The late hours, tasty snacks and inexpensive but filling fare probably will make Plum Blossom a popular addition to the Midtown scene. But if it lived up to its claim to be “authentic yet progressive,” it could actually be the restaurant of the future—instead of just looking like it is.