By Greg Marzullo, June 2016 Issue.
Pulling into the parking lot of House of Egg Roll at Alma School and Ray roads in Chandler, you might be hard-pressed to believe the unassuming strip mall houses one of Time Out magazine’s top Chinese restaurants in the country.
On a recent visit, a handwritten notice taped to the door said they were out of General Tso’s chicken and orange chicken that day, which was a relief. Chinese cuisine in America is often imprisoned in old standards that feel as tired as chicken parmigiano does at Italian cafés.
The inside would be as unremarkable as the exterior if it wasn’t for the palpable hum of energy in the busy restaurant. Pictures of various dishes line the beige walls, under which sat mostly young Asians this particular evening. (The dive’s rundown parking lot was packed with a high-end Mercedes Benz, alongside a Jaguar and a Maserati convertible – each driven by the 20-somethings heading here.)
With such prosaic menu items as “Sweet Fermented Glutinous Rice Ball Soup,” “Stir-fry Spicy Nape” and “Qishan City noodles with special ingredients,” it’s clear this is not going to be your everyday Chinese meal.
All of this actually feels like a good omen.
One of the great delights of House of Egg Roll is that the noodles are made on the premises. In the American pursuit for uniformity in our noodle dishes – be it Chinese, Italian or Japanese – we’ve come to rely on over-saucing as a way to mask a boring starchy base. Not so at House of Egg Roll, where the thick, tantalizing noodles themselves rightly take center stage. Their chewiness and flavor provide a perfect foundation for the large platters, which arrive piled with meat and vegetables.
My dining companions and I ordered what turned out to be mountains of food – some of it familiar to American diners and some of it not. There’s no doubt that you get more than your money’s worth, with most dishes hovering around the $10 to $12 mark. Even the more expensive offerings, which run from $16.95 to $19.95, come with enough food to feed two to three people.
The string beans doused in that mysterious and ubiquitous “special sauce” arrived first and were pitch perfect. They were bright green, but also clearly seared in a wok on high heat, leaving very slight hints of delicious char, which provided an earthy contrast to the garlic, chilies and fresh ginger that lit the dish up without setting it unpleasantly ablaze. They were addictive, and although they were served with rice, we enjoyed them more as an appetizer, sans the carbohydrate accompaniment.
Vegetarians might want to turn a blind eye to their own morals at House of Egg Roll. While we did order vegetable dishes, there was no guaranteeing the base sauces weren’t flavored with pork, beef or lamb broths. The fried bean paste was too unique-sounding to pass up, and when it arrived, it lived up to its mysterious moniker (think warm cubes of a translucent, salty Jell-O-like substance mixed with garlic and red chilies). Yes, the description sounds vile, but it was strangely addictive. Even with my absolute loathing of gelatinous textures, I kept heaping the warm goo on my plate, confounded by my own desires.
Next up was the spicy Mapo tofu, which came in a vibrant red sauce. Unfortunately, this was least appetizing dish of the evening (and I am a lover of tofu options, usually). This could be due to an admittedly uneducated palate when it comes to the subtleties of regional Chinese cuisine, but there was a curious spice, herb or combination thereof that left the tongue unpleasantly numb, as if one’s taste buds had decamped to fairer climes. Each bite I took in an effort to overcome the experience landed me in the same tasteless locale, until I finally gave up and declared myself beaten.
Along the lines of “more traditional” fare, I ordered the Mongolian beef, and found it to have a beautiful balance of flavor – the heat of the dish, mostly from fiery red chilies, was balanced by a subtle zing of rice wine vinegar, which not only added an astringent pucker to the tender beef and vegetables, but also a hint of sweetness.
The Shaanxi pan-fried noodles were combined with pork, onions and a variety of hot peppers, including jalapeño. Some Chinese-food fans might be accustomed to this dish with a crispy noodle, but here it ran more along the lines of Lo Mein, albeit a spicy one. Much on the menu is, in fact, meant to burn the tongue and throat, but the spice is carefully applied so that it doesn’t commandeer a dish. Instead, it’s one flavor in the midst of many which roll over the tongue like an excitable marching band.
The menu features lots of lamb, a nod to many of the dishes’ northwestern Chinese provenance, as well as some of the old standards you’d find at any Chinese-zodiac placemat eatery. Truly, though, the reason to go to House of Egg Roll is not for the same old fried rice or the absent General Tso’s chicken, but to experience a more authentic menu that will intrigue, confuse and, no doubt, delight your palate.
House of Egg Roll
961 W. Ray Road, Suite 11, Chandler
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m. Wed-Mon