ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Oriental Express
8010 Old Seward Hwy.
$7-$10 per plate
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday (lobby closes at 8 p.m.), closed Sunday
In my dining experience, I’ve come across two types of Chinese restaurants: full-bore, sit-down eateries like Panda or Ling and Louie’s Asian Bar and Grill in Midtown, and places that serve what I call “simplified Chinese,” emphasizing fast service and a limited selection of dishes -- think of the Asian deli at New Sagaya.
Oriental Express definitely falls into the latter category, situated on the Old Seward Highway slightly north of its intersection with Dimond Boulevard. The restaurant’s colorful signage makes it stand out in a crowded one-mile stretch of dining choices along Old Seward, ranging from the nearby Asia Garden to a full array of fast-food establishments and the Dimond Center’s food court; I visited on a quiet Thursday, curious about what it had to offer.
The restaurant is quite simply laid out, with its fast-food counter replaced by a buffet service containing about 20 dishes of Chinese food; its owners do a brisk trade in drive-thru takeout orders, which they pack from the buffet and hand over at a window adjacent to the cash register. The menu contains one-entrée and two-entrée beef, pork and chicken combos (no seafood dishes are listed) with rice at prices down to $6.99, but a lunch buffet ($8.99) available until 2:30 p.m. offers all-you-can-eat cuisine from the entire counter. I added a drink for an additional dollar, picked up a Styrofoam plate and started sampling items.
There weren’t many beef dishes in the buffet, primarily Mongolian beef and some egg rolls made with ground beef. The Mongolian beef was saltier than I’d expected but had a strongly marinated taste to it, almost teriyaki-like in its softness; there weren’t as many scallions mixed in as I’ve seen elsewhere, but it was perfectly serviceable. Far more intriguing was the beef egg roll I picked up from the counter, easily the size of a fist with a crispy-fried shell filled to brimming with beef and sprouts -- a side dish that would be intimidating if it weren’t so tasty.
Of the several chicken dishes I tried, easily the best was the sesame chicken, coated with the same breading as other versions around town but an extra touch spicier to give it an unexpected burst of attitude that lingered on my tongue. There wasn’t much beyond the color to distinguish the sweet-and-sour chicken from the orange chicken, although both were tangy and slightly sweet. Perhaps the least impressive item I tried was the teriyaki chicken, unadorned strips of meat grilled in a sauce so subtle it barely registered; it’s a common form of preparation, but one that was blown away by the version I encountered during a visit to Fukumaru Teriyaki in Spenard. The chicken fried rice was lighter and less heavily fried than some examples I’ve seen, making it a superior choice to accompany rather than weigh down a meal.
I also tried two types of pork, including a simple breaded pork dish that had some surprising savory hits of flavor, its muted and earthy tones taking a few moments to bring out as I chewed it. Far more intense was the spicy pork of which I picked up only a single spoonful, its medley of peas, mushrooms and onions soaking up its powerful taste and offering the beginnings of a rolling burn before I finished the small portion I’d taken.
The last thing I tried was a small bowl of egg flower soup, which I ate part of rather than trying to gulp the whole thing down on the heels of such a heavy meal. While I generally prefer the salty broth and submerged dumplings of a good won ton soup, the egg strands and tofu in the dish offer a quick way to heat up from some of the colder winter days we’ve seen in recent months.
All in all, I enjoyed my meal at Oriental Express. There’s a venerable niche in the market for fast Chinese cuisine, one that the restaurant fills very nicely for lunch. It’s also hard to do every item in a buffet justice, and while a few of the dishes I ate could have been made differently none of them seemed to have been made poorly. It’s definitely an option I’ll keep in mind when I’m nearby again, because there are plenty of places in town where you’d get less for your money.