Not far from Route 32 on Freetown Road is the quaint Hickory Ridge Village Center, which houses a variety of small businesses, a Giant grocery store and a Chinese restaurant called Peking Chef.
It's a little bit of a walk, as the restaurant's front door is at the opposite end of the center from the parking lot, but the center is pleasant to stroll through. Even if it's raining, the awning above the sidewalks will keep you dry.
This family-owned restaurant opened in July 1992 and has been busy ever since. According to manager Sandy Sun, weekend evenings tend to be busiest. Peking Chef is open only for dinner Monday through Saturday, but on Sundays it is open for lunch as well.
The Peking Chef features Hunan, Szechuan and Cantonese cuisines. The restaurant has been honored with the title "Best Chinese Restaurant" three years running by the Columbia Association, but the food is only one reason to visit.
The interior is pleasant, with walls half-covered with beige wallpaper and half wood-paneled. Framed Oriental scenes adorn the walls. The restaurant's openness allows seating for at least 100 people comfortably. An extensive carryout menu is available.
Service is quick, quiet and efficient. From appetizers to desserts, the menu has more than 150 items to tempt the palate, including lamb and vegetarian cuisine. The portions are generous, and the restaurant doesn't try to mix in American fare.
The cups for tea are a traditional Chinese-style without handles. I was told years ago that the purpose in having no handles is if the cup is too hot to hold, the tea is too hot to drink. Pots of tea and refills are free.
At the end of the meal, diners are provided with warm, moist, lemon-scented towels to freshen their hands. An important feature of the Peking Chef is that it does not use MSG in its food - good news for migraine sufferers and those who might be allergic.
Where: Hickory Ridge Village Center, 6420 Freetown Road, Columbia; 410-531-2828.
Hours: 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Prices: Appetizers, $1.95 to $8.95; soups $1 to $4.50; entrees $6.95 to $11.95.
Credit cards: All major credit cards accepted.