The complaint I hear most often about the Duke City dining scene is that we have a lamentable lack of quality Chinese restaurants. This is a sentiment that’s been echoed ad-infinitum on Chowhound and other restaurant blogs.
In my years of reviewing Duke City restaurants, I’ve deemed only nine Chinese restaurants worthy of taking up space on my Web site. Considering Chinese restaurants outnumber those of any ethnicity other than New Mexican, that’s not a good sign.
I’ve tried dozens of Chinese restaurants in New Mexico (and continue to try them in hopes of finding a rare hidden gem), but only a few have the qualities I like in Chinese restaurants. Fewer still are those which execute consistently from visit to visit.
Now, it would be easy (and fun) to wax mean about the things I didn’t like about each of those Chinese restaurants–and it might even be a service to my readers, but that negativity could be summed up in a few points.
What I dislike most about Chinese restaurants–not just in New Mexico–is their homogeneity–the boring, stereotypical “sameness” that seems to typify each restaurant. It’s as if a sole template was created that defines how each Chinese restaurant will look and how its food will taste. Cultural anthropologists might call this “reciprocal expectations” in that many Chinese restaurants look and feel like the way we expect them to look and feel.
My second pet peeve about Chinese restaurants is the all-you-can-engorge-yourself-on buffets and the acres upon acres of troughs overflowing with every conceivable food item (and by the way, when did chocolate pudding, Southern fried chicken and spaghetti with marinara sauce become Chinese?). The Chinese buffet seems to be America’s answer to the Roman’s Bacchanalian feasts in which civility and propriety give way to lustful appetites and ecstasies in unbridled consumption that would shame a competitive gurgitator.
My third annoyance with many Chinese restaurants can be summed up with the tired axiom “you get what you pay for.” You can’t pay a pittance for a meal of any sort and expect high quality.
Before we travel anywhere outside New Mexico, I generally conduct painstaking research into the culinary condition of our intended destination. With few exceptions, that research generally reveals that cities across the fruited plain seem to suffer a deplorable lack of high quality Chinese restaurants. One exception appears to be Las Vegas, Nevada, a city with an expanding Asian population and a thriving Chinatown community in which commerce is burgeoning. Chinatown is reputed to be one of the few places in which authentic Asian cuisine can be found.
Ostensibly, you can also find great Chinese food at some of the city’s casinos, though it’s obvious many of them sacrifice authenticity and “dumb down” their offerings for their unacculturated patrons. Almost all casino restaurants specialize in the “experience.” Extravagant settings with lavish furnishings are obviously intended to perpetuate a stereotype and fulfill the diners’ needs for an experiential confirmation of what they believe a great Chinese restaurant should look like (my theory of reciprocal expectations).
One such restaurant is the oddly named Ping Pang Pong in the Gold Coast Casino and Hotel. Designed like a thatched hut, it is a beautiful milieu that provides that experience so many visitors crave. According to several sources, it also offers some of the best Chinese cuisine in the city. Ping Pang Pong is purported to serve up a “multitude of specialty dishes from the various provinces of China.” I also read that those dishes are “authentically prepared.” Could it be possible–authentic Chinese food in an over-the-top ambiance?
As with many casinos, the trek to Ping Pang Pong means having to walk past the billowing stench of cigarette smoke that seems to engulf the entire casino like an ominous shroud. Strike one. Hopefully your olfactory senses will have recovered from the malodorous emanations so you can take in the aromas of “authentically prepared” Chinese food.
The Ping Pang Pong is a beautiful restaurant swathed in elegance and class despite the unobstructed views of slot machines. Despite its ostentation, Ping Pang Pong seems to exemplify “style meets substance.”
In 2003, Gourmet magazine named the restaurant in its pullout “Guide to America’s Best Restaurants” in 20 U.S. Cities according to Gourmet’s critics. Ping Pang Pong was listed as a “neighborhood gem,” a sort of Miss Congeniality award for restaurants not among the best. Later that year, Las Vegas LIfe magazine published an article listing “75 things you absolutely must eat in Las Vegas.” Two Ping Pang Pong offerings were listed in the article–the restaurant’s famous night market fried rice and the walnut prawns. We had to try these.
The menu is replete with terrific sounding offerings, many of them nattily described. Deciding what to order is a challenge. Fortunately, there’s also a small dim sum menu from which you can order something to tide you over while you decide then while you wait for your order to be filled. On busy nights, service can be very slow.
Dim sum, by the way, is featured during lunch hours which run through 3PM. The dim sum offerings are reputed to be imaginative and delicious with a nice variety of “walk-by” dishes available at reasonable prices.
Standard dim sum fare always seems to include shu mai, a traditional Chinese dumpling engorged with several ingredients–typically seasoned ground pork, whole or chopped shrimp and miniscule bits of Chinese black mushroom. The “skin” is made from a thin sheet of lye water dough and may have a rubbery texture. Ping Pang Pong’s rendition of shu mai is nearly the equal of the shu mai we enjoy so much at Ming Dynasty. It is fresh, moist and delicious, but without the accompaniment of chili sauce, the flavors don’t quite reach their peak.
Night market fried rice is supposed to be evocative of the authentic flavors you might experience on a street market in China. At Ping Pang Pong, this specialty fried rice is crafted with sliced beef bean sprouts, diced tomatoes and fresh Thai chilies (red, orange and green) as incendiary as we’ve ever experienced them. These are tear-inducing chilies as lethal as mace.
Though we were able to tolerate the chilies well enough and enjoyed the relative simplicity of the dish, it would not have warranted mention as one of the 75 things we would most enjoy eating in Las Vegas. On the plus side is the moistness of the fried rice, a pleasant surprise considering more often than not, fried rice is as desiccated as the desert dust. On the down side, the prevalent flavor came from the chilies and those potent powerhouses made tasting anything else a challenge.
Much more flavorful are the minced squab lettuce cups, two savory minced squab and pork tenderloin lettuce cups flavored with hoisin sauce. It’s not everyday that you see squab (commercially raised young pigeons) on the menu so it was a treat to find them. Alas, the hoisin sauce and its vinegary sweetness is the most prevalent flavor on this dish. Lettuce cups have become a popular Chinese standard, thanks in kind to P.F. Chang’s. The Ping Pang Pong version of this starter is very similar.
As for the walnut prawns, I was reminded why I never order this entree at other restaurants. The butterflied prawns are impossible to taste as they are dressed with a dessert sweet sesame mayonnaise sauce that is applied thickly. The prawns have a nice texture and snapped when bitten into, a sign of freshness, but that sauce just overwhelms the dish. The honey-glazed walnuts, on the side, are also dessert sweet, but not as much as the “vanilla-like” sauce applied to the prawns.
Ping Pang Pong may not have delivered any of the aspects I dislike about Chinese food, but neither did it deliver a memorable meal–at last one that is memorable for its high quality.
Ping Pang Pong
The Gold Coast Casino & Hotel
4000 West Flamingo Road
Las Vegas, NV
LATEST VISIT: 27 May 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Night Market Fried Rice