Twenty years ago Duncan Hines described North Carolina as a gastronomical desert. Although far from the culinary equal of New York or San Francisco, Chapel Hill has come a long way since 1957. There are now six ethnic restaurants in town, all of which have opened in the last seven years: Tijuana Fats (Mexican), Krissa (Greek), Kobe (Japanese), China Nite (Cantonese), K.C. Hung’s China Inn and Mongolian Bar-B-Q (Chinese), and Peking Garden (Chinese).
I have eaten in each within the last two months so all my comments are based on current information. In reviewing these restaurants I have taken into consideration, in addition to the taste of the food, decor, quality of brands used, service, cleanliness of personnel and dining area, serving pieces, kitchen orderliness, recent additions in menu and design, as well as overall atmosphere.
By far the worst of the six is Kobe Japanese Restaurant in South Square Mall. Kobe, owned by Kenji Takasu and Kinji Uchida, opened in early January.
First the good news: the Ta Ta Mi rooms, intimate dining areas for groups of four to eight, are very pleasant. The bathrooms are the cleanest and neatest of these six restaurants. And the serving dishes are quite attractive.
Now the bad news: the food is terrible. And the prices worse — dinner for three plus a five-year-old child was $32 with no wine. One of my companions said the food tasted like a TV dinner. He was being complimentary. The best dinner was the Kiddie Dish.
The one good item served was an unusual ginger-flavored salad dressing. Unfortunately I had ordered soup. It was bland.
We ordered a “Chicken & Season Seafood” appetizer. The menu indicated it included oysters, scallops, chicken and seafood with special sauce. It arrived after we finished our inedible entrees, without oysters. Without special sauce. Without redeeming social value.
Beth had Shrimp Tempura “Dipped into a house-made batter.” I don’t know whose house it was but was no one’s home. The worst tempura I have ever tasted. Robert’s entree was Special Combination: Chicken teriyaki (tasteless), fried shrimp (frozen it seemed) and Kushiyaki steak (more tender than shoe leather). I tried (and it was very trying) their Suki Yaki. Done to perfection if perfection is overcooked, dry, tough, tasteless beef. Kobe could change tanneries and it would be an improvement. For desert I had a true Japanese delicacy — chocolate ice cream.
While the prices are high (from $3 to $8.50) and the food lousy, Kobe compensates for these shortcomings by serving small portions. This keeps the indigestion at a controllable level.
Robert, a professional musician, found the incessant off-key twanging of some Japanese stringed instrument to be offensive. Beth and I agreed.
Kenji and Kinji have another Kobe in Raleigh and plan to perpetrate this dining experience on unsuspecting Greensboro in the near future. If at first you don’t succeed. . . .
Tijuana Fats, located on West Rosemary Street, was opened in 1970. In deference to local tastes the owners, Art Lester and Clark Church, serve Mexican food that is not as spicy as that in the Southwestern United States. My personal preference is for slightly hotter foods, so I frequently add a little of their home-made jalapeno pepper sauce to whatever it is that I have ordered.
Menu items include tacos (Mexico’s answer to the hamburger), enchiladas (tortillas filled with meat or cheese), guacamole (an avocado dip), chile rellenos (bell pepper stuffed with chile), Sangria (a wine punch), and Mexican beer. The house specialty is Enchiladas Sabrosas — chicken enchiladas in a white cheese sauce. Superb! Their flan, a rich egg custard, is also excellent.
I have always felt that Tijuana Fats offers the patron a lot for his money. Although many might feel that Mexican food has a low food cost, this is not true when one takes into consideration shipping costs and other inconveniences in delivery encountered by a Mexican restaurant in this area. The most expensive item on Fats’ menu, the special dinner priced at $4.50, consists of soup, salad, taco, enchilada, chile relleno, chile conqueso, refried beans and rice. The rice is better prepared than at any of the Oriental restaurants reviewed below.
Recently Church and Lester redesigned a section of the dining area. They also added a parking lot adjacent to the building.
A tightly controlled Tijuana Fats franchise, the first they have attempted, will open in Greensboro in March.
Church and Lester are training the Greensboro staff and providing recipes and supplies.
Tijuana Fats is one of my favorite restaurants in Chapel Hill. Prices are fair, service is quick, food is consistent, cleanliness is adequate, and employees are amiable. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.
Krissa, located below Pizza Transit Authority and the Quick Food Mart on West Rosemary Street, is one of the most attractive restaurants to open locally in recent years. John Zevlakis and Gus Kastrenopoulos, the owners, have done a remarkable job of transforming the Endangered Species, a dreary bar, into a delightfully intimate cafe. Most notable in the decor is a series of three-dimensional frescoes made of plaster which depict typical Greek scenes.
The menu, consisting of only four entrees, is rather limited but everything is delicious. Especially noteworthy are the Spanacopita, a spinach pie, and the Taropita, a feta cheese pie. Both are made with several layers of paper thin pastry. The four entrees presently offered are souvlaki, shish kebab, gyro, and souzouki. Two flaming entrees as well as 45 pastries will be added soon. The Greek Peasant Salad for $1.25 is one the best values in town.
My only complaints were that the bathrooms could use a little work and the fluorescent lighting in the kitchen is harsh on the guests’ eyes. John and Gus told me that the bathrooms are to be remodeled and they also plan to build a partition to screen the kitchen from view.
Overall a fine, inexpensive ($1.25 to $4.55) place to eat.
Within the last two years three Chinese restaurants have opened in Chapel Hill: China Nite on Highway 15-501 South, Mongolian Bar-B-Q in Kroger Plaza, and Peking Garden on East Franklin Street near Estes Drive.
Don Yee, born in China 53 years ago, opened China Nite in 1975. Yee moved here from Detroit where he had eight years experience in the food business. The Yees came to Chapel Hill because there was no competition in Oriental cuisine here.
China Nite is my idea of a typical Chinese restaurant. There are five principal schools of Chinese cooking. China Nite offers only Cantonese, the one most commonly found throughout the United States.
The food is rather ordinary, although their hot mustard is the best I have tasted anywhere. Service is very good — hot foods are served piping hot. China Nite uses China tea pots which help keep tea hot. Both Peking Garden and Mongolian BBQ use stainless steel tea pots which lose heat quickly.
Fifty-three Cantonese and six American entrees are served. Prices range from $3.10 to $8.25. Family dinners, popular because they offer a variety of tastes, are $4.75 per person.
The four cooks were brought to this area from New York by Yee. All were born in the Orient. But the food is only ordinary, comprised primarily of dishes found in most Chinese restaurants in this country.
The dining area is clean and neat, although the decor is somewhat mundane. Chinese kitchens are usually in a state of disarray; China Nite’s is atypically orderly.
China Nite is open only for dinner seven nights a week.
K.C. Hung’s Mongolian Bar-B-Q introduced to Chapel Hill Mongolian pepper pot cooking. Guests have the option of being served by a waitress or going through a buffet line, selecting the meats and vegetables they want and having the chef prepare it to their specifications. The restaurant also offers 120 entrees representing both Hunam and Mongolian styles of Chinese cooking. And everything is quite good. But that is to be expected; Hung also owns China Inn in Durham, the best Chinese restaurant in Durham or Chapel Hill.
Both Hung and the manager of Mongolian BBQ, Frank Chang, have B.S. degrees in Hotel and Restaurant Management from Florida State University. Mrs. Hung assists in the management of both restaurants.
Specialties of the house include Tung Ting Shrimp (marinated and served with ham, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and vegetables), Hunam Honey Ham, Hunam Fried Pork, and Chiung Shai Lamb. The hot and sour soup is excellent.
Although the table appointments and serving pieces could be improved upon, the decor is attractive. In the entrance foyer are several beautiful pieces of Oriental furniture from China, Hong Kong, South Viet Nam, and Taiwan. There are also two mannequins dressed in costumes of a Mongolian Prince and Princess.
Before opening China Inn the Hungs had been in the restaurant business in Baltimore, Maryland. They moved to this area because they thought Durham could support a good Chinese restaurant. They were right.
Mongolian Bar-B-Q, open for dinner and lunch seven days a week, has private dining rooms for 15 to 50 people.
The newest Chinese restaurant in town is also the best: Peking Garden, which opened December 31. It is owned by Dr. Weng-ping Wang, a chemist, Norman Chen, a virologist, and Dr. Eng-shang Huang, also a virologist. Although none of the three had any experience in the food business, they wanted to demonstrate that people of different cultures and backgrounds could work together in harmony.
In September the owners bought the House of Chu Restaurant and began three and a half months of redecorating.
The most striking decor component is a colorful mural, painted by Afshin Meymandi, a chemistry student from Iran. It combines philosophical, historical, allegorical, and spiritual elements of Chinese life. Another feature is a section of booths with a pagoda roof. Even the bathrooms were redecorated. All remodeling was done by the owners, their families and friends, none with any construction experience.
The owners hired five Oriental cooks from New York. The chef, Fong-yu Lee, has been in the food business 14 years.
And can they cook! Most of the food is excellent. Peking Garden serves dishes from four schools of Chinese cooking: Szechuan (Hunam and Western China), Peking (Northern China), Foochow (Canton or Southern China), and Shanghai (Eastern China). There are 100 dinner entrees and ten for lunch. Most dinners are under $4; all lunch items are $2.25 or less except Shrimp in Lobster Sauce (outstanding) which is $3.25. A wide assortment of appetizers and soups is also available. I was not pleased with the spare ribs, but everything else was good.
The first time I ate there service was slow, but by the second and third time it had improved considerably.
Whether or not Chapel Hill will support three Chinese restaurants remains to be seen. At present Peking Garden is the best of the three. If K.C. Hung can maintain the level of excellence that he has at China Inn the Mongolian can be as good as Peking Garden. Where this will leave China Nite, time will tell.
I will gladly return to four of the six restaurants reviewed here, the exceptions being Kobe and China Nite. In comparing the other four, Krissa, Tijuana Fats, Mongolian BBQ, and Peking Garden, using a complex rating system which included bathrooms, service, food taste, food quality, cleanliness of kitchen, employees and dining room, overall ambience, price, menu selection, and an effort to constantly improve on the part of management, the four finished in a virtual dead heat. But remember, restaurants change. Cooks leave. Prices fluctuate. New owners take over. Managers are replaced. Menus are frequently revised. Turnover of waiters and waitresses is very high. Management attitudes and philosophies change with the vicissitudes of the American economy. So when someone makes a comment about a particular restaurant, find out how recently he has eaten there. His information may be outdated.
Ex-restauranteur Ralph Macklin probably knows more about the business than most food critics. In future issues, his column will include restaurants in Durham and Raleigh as well as Chapel Hill.
[Although they’re not strictly “ethnic” restaurants, Chapel Hill’s Leo’s and the Kwikee Takeout also offer Continental cuisine of varying quality.]