Atmosphere: Low-key Chinese restaurant; pleasant.
Hours: Noon until 10 p.m. Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Price Range: $3.95 to $8.95.
Reservations: Not necessary.
Credit cards: American Express, Master Charge and Visa.
Special Facilities: Wheelchairs must negotiate one step to get to front door; restaurant itself is accessible; easy parking in shopping center lot; boosters and high chairs available; carryout menu.
The suburbs so abound with Chinese restaurants that if your passion is for egg rolls, you probably don't have to drive farther than your local shopping center to find a small Chinese place dispensing them. tThere probably will be a Chinese lantern hanging from the middle of the ceiling, Chinese waiters and waitresses who speak to each other in Chinese and to you in English that is better than your Chinese would be if you tried speaking that language and a predictable moo goo gai pan on the menu.
The Sampan Cafe in the Queens Chillum Shopping Center is just such a restaurant, but luckily for residents of its Hyattsville neighborhood, it is a cut above the usual local Chinese place. If its appearance is indistinguishable from a hundred other such spots, its menu suggests it is trying to do a bit more than dispense egg rolls.
Aside from the usual Cantonese offerings, there are a number of chef's suggestions, several of which feature ingredients and preparation in the Hawaiian style: Pacific shrimp, for instance, is combined with barbecued pork, tossed with Chinese vegetables and served in a piquant sauce. There are several lobster dishes and seafood combinations, as well as the more familiar Cantonese dishes, such as war shu opp and steak kew.
If you want to really do it up, a minimum of two people can order the royal house dinner, at $8.95 per person, and let the Sampan kitchen beguile you with special dishes from appetizer to dessert.Less elaborate complete dinners, including soup, dessert and beverage, are priced from $5 to $7.
Since we wanted to try some old favorites as well as new dishes, we avoided the set menu. The girls can never bypass wonton soup ($1) and they have become just as adamant about egg rolls ($1), so those were first priorities. Having heard of people who go to the Sampan Cafe just for the hot-and-sour soup ($3.75 for 2), my husband and I felt we had to try it. The wonton pleased the younger half of the family, and the hot-and-sour soup was as good as promised: savory, hearty and chunky with pork, ham, tofu and vegetables. Remember it for a night when the snow flies. Our bowl for two could easily have served three, perhaps four.
Egg rolls arrived next, looking perhaps a bit plumper than the suburban carryout variety but nevertheless predictable. They weren't. Although the ingredients looked similar they had a peppery flavor, suggesting a bit of chili oil seasoning. It was not overwhelming, and good.
We also ordered three dishes from the chef's list: crab meat macao, $7.50, woo hip ha, $7.45, and moo shu pork, $5.75. The dishes were delightful to look at -- each garnished with crisp pink, lavender and white curls that resembled spring flowers but turned out to be edible shrimp chips. Although they were largely flavorless, the girls had to try each color and consumed them all.
The crab dish, essentially chunks of king crab and Chinese mushrooms, had sounded different and interesting but was pretty unexciting, drowning, as it was, in too much of a bland egg white sauce. Moo shu pork was a fine rendition of the traditional dish, served with featherweight pancakes.
Woo hip ha was the best of our choices, however. We have had this butterfly shrimp dish before, served with vegetables and crushed almonds. The Sampan Cafe does not believe in gilding the lily, apparently. Their version consisted of eight large shrimp, deep fried and layered with crisp bacon, presented simply on a bed of sauteed onions. It was very good.
Dessert at the Sampan Cafe, as at many Chinese restaurants, is an afterthought. We settled for fortune cookies, orange sherbert and vanilla ice cream. But there is one final difference here. The curt service of many Chinese places is absent. The Sampan staff is attentive and pleasant enough to make you want to eat your egg rolls there and forget about carrying them out.