In honor of the Beijing Olympics, how about some General Tso's chicken or sweet and sour pork?
Of course, Baltimoreans are more sophisticated in their tastes than they used to be. We now have restaurants that offer authentic Chinese dishes as well as the standard egg rolls and orange beef, and that might be your preference.
But sometimes you just feel like good, old-fashioned Chinese-American food. When that's true, I can't think of a better place to go than Jumbo Seafood, a small strip mall spot that's been a favorite since it opened in 1993.
The name is weird, I agree. Interestingly, it's also the name of a successful chain in Singapore (not that there seems to be any connection). The small storefront doesn't look like much from the outside, given that it's one of the most popular Chinese restaurants in the area. In fact, the only thing in the curtained window to lure you in is a blow-up of a favorable review by one Elizabeth Large, written in 1994.
Reading it over, I see that some things have changed. Jumbo Seafood now has a liquor license and a new sushi bar. But much is the same. I've rarely seen so many tables packed into one space, and all of them filled on a weekday night. The decor isn't like any Chinese restaurant you've ever seen, with lots of mirrors and something that looks like a mid-century modern fireplace as the focal point of the room.
The portions are still jumbo, the food is good and the prices are more than reasonable. Best of all, the service is noteworthy. Everyone on the staff seems glad to see you and eager to please. If your waiter gets hung up at another table, the amiable manager is there in a flash to make sure your drink orders are taken or to answer questions. It makes you realize how rarely you're in a restaurant where the wait staff seems to enjoy what it does, and that good service has a lot more to do with attitude than knowing how to deliver your plate correctly.
This isn't the first place I'd come for sushi, but judging from the sushi sampler, the fish is very fresh. There are no surprises in the selection. With it comes a spicy tuna roll (or California roll, if you prefer). The roll was delicious, cut in bite-size pieces, which I appreciated. I liked the looks of the large bamboo leaf it was served on, but I was unnerved by the little pile of canned pineapple chunks and a maraschino cherry to one side. Raw fish and a maraschino cherry? I think not.
The sushi was brought to us first, followed by a course of four fat spareribs, spicy-sweet Szechuan cabbage (careful of the whole peppers) and best of all, delicate dim sum-style shrimp dumplings. The wrappers melted away at first bite.
I've had my best luck at Jumbo Seafood (the one other time I ate there recently) with ordinary stir fries and most especially mu shu vegetables, with the most extraordinarily delicate pancakes I've had. But this night we were sampling the more expensive Chef's Specials.
Our focus was on seafood, given the name of the restaurant, so we asked the manager to recommend a few dishes. The one dud was the Pepper Salt Shrimp with String Beans. You've heard me complain about oversalting in this space before; but this time I should have been warned by the name. Maybe you aren't supposed to eat the thick, salty batter around the shrimp.
Our other two seafood dishes weren't particularly attractive but delivered the goods on flavor. A whole rockfish had a crisp fried exterior, which sealed in the juicy white flesh of the fish. There was a lake of black bean sauce for it to swim in, thick and dark, but it had character.
The deep-fried soft shell crab arrived in a sweet ginger-scallion sauce, which isn't one of the choices. My bad, because I was ordering for the table (we were sharing). I got confused and thought that was one of its sauce choices. The manager who took our order didn't blink an eye, and it actually played well with the fat crab. The dish came with lo mein and more of the sauteed string beans with garlic.
Weirdly, the best of our entrees was the rib eye steak, described as "rib eye steak with steamed vegetables in chef's special mushroom sauce." I pictured it as a sort of upscale beef with broccoli.
Not so. The steak arrived whole, cooked medium rare, on a sizzling plate with steamed onions and a large steak knife. This piece of meat was as fine and as large as you'd get at a steak house for double the price. A little bowl of steamed broccoli came with it, as well as a large bowl of thick mushroom gravy.
Dessert is brought automatically at Jumbo Seafood, and you aren't charged for it: small scoops of orange sherbet and fortune cookies. When we asked if there was anything else, the waitress dismissed the idea. Just red bean or green tea ice cream, she said.
When I go back, I'll probably stick to the simpler dishes: stir fries and mu shu, the former because they are as good as the specials and mostly fewer than $15; the latter because I still dream about the delicate Peking pancakes that come with the mu shu dishes.
Jumbo Seafood Address: 48 E. Sudbrook Lane, Pikesville
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Price: Appetizers: $3-$8; entrees: $9.95-$21.95
Call: 410-602-1441; jumboseafoodpikesville.com
[Outstanding: **** Good:*** Fair or uneven: ** Poor *]
Atmosphere: ** 1/2