Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Atmosphere: Completely casual.
Price range: From soup for 65 cents to complete dinners for $4.95.
Credit cards: None; cash only.
Special facilities: Quick carryout service; wheelchair and stroller accessible; no booster seats; parking problems during business day.
Faster than a speeding bullet! More nutritious than a fast food joint! Able to feed crowds of hungry people with ease! Look, on 14th Street, it's the Orient Express!
Of all the fast-paced eateries burgeoning downtown to feed the time- and wallet-conscious office crowd, the Orient Express is heroic in its success. The food is wholesome and honestly prepared, portions are shockingly large and service is both friendly and fast.
As the name suggests, the cuisine is Oriental. Owner Steve Kim is Korean, but the kitchen is Chinese. All 21 main dishes, six combination platters and six appetizers are Chinese creations. You could dine here for weeks without repeating.
Opened in June 1980, the Express has grown into something of a legend downtown as a place where secretaries, lawyers, editors and construction workers can count on quick service and value for their money. Inside the Express there are about 100 seats: clean, plastic, functional furniture that will never win a prize for esthetics but is comfortable.
Many more orders are carried out of the Express, especially on those fair days when people take their plastic containers to nearby parks or back to the office. All patrons, inside or out, can count on paper cups and plastic plates, knives and forks. Everything for economy at the Express.
Kim conceived of this restaurant while visiting relatives in Korea. As a "diplomatic brat" here since the 1960s, he had gotten used to quick American food at rock-bottom prices. But in Korea he found that the same techniques that make American hamburger parlors so speedy and cheap were used by native restaurateurs with startling success cooking soups, noodles and rice.
Since most Americans are unfamiliar with the Korean kitchen, Kim chose instead to focus on the widely accepted Chinese food. And it's marvelous that he did, as we found one recent evening.
As usual the kids started off with won-ton soup (75 cents) and egg rolls (75 cents). There must be something irresistible about these little dough creations for kids, for they always order them and enjoy wolfing them down. The won tons were firm and the broth pleasant, while the egg rolls were crisp and very tasty.
We shared something called yat gaw mein, a filling noodle soup with shredded beef, chicken, shrimp or pork ($3.95). Then we ordered several entrees for communal eating.
We chose a delightful beef with broccoli ($3.95), a zesty kung pao chicken with peanuts ($3.95), Szechuan pork that brought tears to the eyes ($4.95) and shrimp lo mein ($3.09). All were hearty and well-prepared and served with heaps of fried rice.
There are no desserts at the Express, and since you pay when you order and carry the food to the table yourself, there's no hassling to get the check. Our tab for the evening came to $24.96, including several beers, and we carried home a tall bag filled with enough for lunch the next day.
If there is a sour note to the Express, it's the location. Situated on 14th Street near K, it enjoys a booming lunch trade every workday and in the early evening folks who work nearby stop in. But after 8 p.m. or so, the persons who normally cruise 14th Street begin to make their appearance. There was no problem, but in the future we'll visit the Express for lunch or early supper or perhaps while shopping during daylight hours on Saturday. The food is too good to pass up.