By Sabatini Jr.
I craved the Szechuan spiciness of kung pao chicken and the fruitiness of Mandarin-style glaze cloaking shrimp or scallops — but with the option of sizzling beef or chop suey in case of a sudden change of mind.
And the cheaper the better, provided made-to-order plates and full wait service were part of the equation. Panda Express wasn’t going to cut it this time.
Decades ago, finding such American-tailored Chinese dishes was as easy as scoring a burger. But the sit-down places that serve them have sadly dwindled, with many relegated to the memories of past generations that shook up their routine diets with what was considered exotic food.
Chopsticks Inn is one of the area’s holdouts, although not as antiquated as the 87-year-old Chop Suey|Peking House in San Diego, for example, but a fun step back in time nonetheless. It’s family-run and has been around since 1988.
Founded by Chinese immigrant Annie Chui, her lengthy menu also encompasses a handful of Thai and Japanese dishes in an effort to stay competitive. They include pad Thai noodles, red curry chicken, bento boxes and a few teriyaki choices.
Visiting as a twosome during lunch, when a host of combination plates sell for as little as $8.55, we stuck exclusively to the Chinese offerings.
An appetizer of six pot stickers filled densely with pork sated our hankering for the classic dumplings, which I prefer drizzled in hot chili oil. These were naked and came only with soy sauce on the side. But they boasted a hand-made quality and pleasing, cushy texture.
In another starter, we were smitten over the viscous sauce clinging to a half dozen Mandarin hot wings, which were some of the tiniest I’ve seen. They were delectably sweet and spicy, and I suspected star anise was in the recipe.
When I asked our animated waiter if that was the case, he responded with a mischievous laugh, “Ancient Chinese secret, but a good guess.”
He also tried steering me away from choosing breast meat in the kung pao chicken I ordered in lieu of the default thigh meat, insisting with a quirky, instructional tone that “breast meat isn’t suitable for the dish.” The same applies to sesame chicken, he said.
I completely understood his point, but in an effort to keep the dish lean I went against his advice and paid the extra $1.50 for what amounted to more peanuts than poultry.
The dark-brown sauce, however, was thick and addicting, though not as spicy as I would have preferred. I’m guessing it’s made with a base of hoisin sauce and pureed red chilies, the latter of which traditionally appear in whole form at other Chinese restaurants. But these we couldn’t see.
As a lunch combo, the kung pao came with decent white rice, a vegetarian egg roll that was crispy and excellent, and a chicken dumpling fried to a tough finish.
My companion considered ordering a dim sum platter, but was lured instead by the mango shrimp delight, which worked to my delight as well since what I stole from his plate fulfilled my hankering for Mandarin-style seafood.
Ordered also as a lunch combo, the medium-size shrimp were firm, fresh and bright tasting from a sweet and tangy sauce accented by wok-fried carrots, celery and snow peas. Water chestnuts were in abundance, adding further oomph to the favorable, crispy profile of the dish.
Chopsticks Inn feels frozen in time with its burgundy push-pin booths, kitschy décor and big, round tables geared for multiple dim sum courses. They’re among the elements I practically demand of Chinese restaurants serving as symbols of a bygone era, when families passed around platters of orange chicken and bowls of white rice while fumbling with their chopsticks.
Those times actually still exist in rare establishments such as this.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.