Atmosphere: Infomal, busy. Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:00 a.m. tom 11:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Price range: Moderate. Entrees: $6 to $10. Reservations: Accepted for two or more. Advisable during peak hours on weekends. Credit cards: None. Special facilities: Off-street parking around the neighborhood, no parking lot. Booster chairs and highchairs for children.Accessible to handicapped.
The North China Inn has had a face lft that has made it a pretty place indeed. The previously bare, somewhat seedy rooms are now a cheerful red and white, framed by graceful, decorative arches.
Menu and management remain unchanged but service seems to have taken a turn for the worse.
Sunday nights you see lots of families with children of all ages at the North China. A bowl of crisp won ton pastry strips is provided gratis, keeping children happy while waiting for dinner. The restaurant's large, wide-ranging menu (more than 100 dishes) will both satisfy children's love of egg rolls and won-ton soup and invite parents to explore more exotic dishes. oThere are plenty of Szechwan and Hunan specialties, such as crab sauteed in hot pepper sauce; kang pao chicken with peanuts and red peppers; and eggplant Peking style with pork and hot peppers.
This time our children were willing to try imperial soup, a cornstarch thickened egg-drop soup with crab meat and peas. Although the children enjoyed it, we thought it tasted fishy, as though soggy, half-thawed seafood that wasn't quite fresh had been added at the last minute.
A more substantial soup on a cold night would be the combination soup bowl, with shrimp, crab, snow peas, chinese cabbage, bean curd, ham, mushrooms and bean thread in chicken broth, $7.95 for four people.
We tried the barbeque pork appetizer, and found it a delicious, somewhat sweet combination of sliced pork and scallions in a molasses-based sauce. It was worth remembering at $2.20.
You probably cannot go wrong ordering the standard dishes at the North China. Spareribs looked fine, so did beef with peppers or broccoli, mooshi phi pork with pancakes and shrimp dishes such as deep-fried tempura and chow mein.
We decided to try some unusal dishes and were both pleased and disappointed.
Pleased because everything we ate tasted good. Disappointed because dishes were not as authentic as they might have been.
Take the Peking duck, for instance. Not only did our portion not seem to be a complete half duck as we had ordered ($8.50), but it was hard to believe that the duck had been treated in the usual elaborate way, which includes basting with a piquant honey-vinegar sauce, then hanging the duck to dry for at least 10 hours before roasting. The skin was nicely crisp, but it did not have the distinctive purplish-brown color nor sweetish flavor of the marinade, and there was a hefty layer of fat on the pieces that should have been rendered in the preparation process.
Yet the dish was pleasing, although mild. The duck was wrapped in pancakes and spread with sauce and scallions, and our children ate if for the first time and like it.
Other dishes also were mild. When we ordered pork chung king, our waiter said, "Very hot." But it wasn't hot. Yet, it was good, a delicious concoction of sliced pork with peppers, large pieces of crisp cabbage and big black forest mushrooms, seasoned with a little pepper.
When we ordered lobster Peking style, our waiter again said, "Very hot, very hot." That was what we wanted. But the dish was not hot at all, nor spicy. It was good, though -- plenty of lobster chunks in a crunchy, slightly sweet and garlic-flavored sauce of chopped water chestnuts and tomatoes.
A word about lobster at the North China: There's an impressive live loster tank inside the entrance of the restaurant, where large specimens roam about. Not mentioned anywhere is that you will pay $3 extra and wait if you want your lobster dish prepared with fresh lobster from the pool. We found our frozen lobster just fine.
A specialty at the North China Inn is whole fish prepared in either sweet and sour sauce or hot sauce.
And now about service: Our waiter struggled to keep up with 13 tables at the busiest time of evening. He was very impatient as we gave him our orders. tAlthough families were in line waiting to be seated throughout our meal, we waited more than 45 minutes before getting our fortune cookies and check. What should have been a one-hour dinner took two. Other diners complained that waiters did not seem to know how to serve groups, clumsily handing dish after dish to the same customer who then had to pass it to others at the tables.
As I sought to find the restroom with my youngest child, I was blocked by the long arm of management imperiously demanding to know where I thought I was going. Only after explaining my destination was I allowed to pass.
The North China attracts families with its comprehensive menu and mild, pleasing dishes. It would be more attractive, however, if management were less suspicious and more pleasant, and service more efficient.