Scene in South Bend: China House
Matt McMahon | Thursday, September 17, 2015
Drive far enough south of campus on Eddy Street, past the typical college town restaurants and their uninspired culinary variants, past the familiar Notre Dame flags, and you are prompted by a series of exit-like signs towards downtown South Bend. Follow the first sign’s winding ramp to Mishawaka Avenue, running along the area’s uniformly low storefront skyline and by the Indiana University South Bend flagpoles, and you will reach China House, a modest, ordinary Chinese take-out restaurant boasting the best Chinese food in the area.
Wedged between a couple of clothing and art boutiques of varying occupancy and across from a corner 7-Eleven, China House is predictable in almost every way; it’s a tiny, square, walk-in joint with four of those uncomfortable fast-food booths, a standing cooler housing some cans of soda — free with any order over $10 — and a half counter, over which hangs pictures and prices of some of the restaurant’s dishes. Their menu includes all of the staples of a standard Chinese restaurant, but it’s in its execution that it sets itself apart from the other local eateries.
Of their staples, the sweet and sour chicken is by far the best, and the dish argues to be ordered every single visit, even at the known risk of never discovering the quality of anything else they have to offer. The simple, uncomplicated plate includes light, puffy, tempura-battered fried chicken bites and a straightforward, but effective, sweet and sour sauce, which leans more towards the sweet. The dish comes with a small side of white rice, like most of the protein and vegetarian orders. And the rice shines just as much as the proteins: soft, sticky and perfectly cooked — necessities if it is to be coupled with most orders.
Orders containing vegetables are usually just as successful. The pepper steak and onion features crisp, tender accompaniments, the fried rice is bright and fresh, with the perfect ratio of carrots and peas. The mei fun is complex and not overly saturated. The only dish that I have ever been disappointed by from China House is the shrimp and snow peas, and the disappointment could have been as much due to personal preference as the cooks’ execution; slightly undercooked snow peas provided too much of a bitter flavor and coarse texture, but they were certainly better than would have been the alternative.
China House provides exactly what’s expected of it as an unassuming Chinese takeout place and then far exceeds expectations through its surprisingly superior food. To be completely candid, I have no idea how the dishes are plated when they are prepared for dining in, besides those I have seen pictured on their in-store menu. I also am not sure whether the restaurant has air conditioning or heating, despite having visited it at times when either would be useful. What I am sure of, though, is that China House has all of the qualities I look for in a Chinese takeout restaurant.
None of the dishes China House offers have that slimy MSG coating, the cooks do not have to overcompensate for lack of flavor through over-salting, and the prices are not exorbitant in the least. In fact, in addition to the aforementioned free soda with a $10 order, which can be substituted with a free egg roll, orders over $20 dollars get a complementary pint of fried rice, which can be substituted with a soup of choice. Still, for students on a tight budget, the combination plates, starting under $7 and served with an egg roll and fried rice, are often more than enough for a meal. However, for the leftover-minded, the dishes are nearly as good out of the refrigerator later in the night or the next day as they are at their freshest.