This is the Place
Red Lantern — I Won't Be Back
I saw that the Red Lantern had moved into the location of the old Chinese buffet (one of several) and wondered if it was going to be just one more in a chain of failed Chinese buffets at that location. First, the Red Lantern is not a buffet. Second, the food is much better than any of the buffets I had tried at that location.
Inside, the décor was very nice. The owners had remodeled pretty extensively, putting in a new wall separating a main dining area from one with larger group tables. The new furniture was very nice, even elegant, with dark-stained woods and red vinyl. Of course, hanging from the ceiling were various red Chinese lanterns. While the menus were very new, they were also very clean. A lot of restaurants don't put as much effort into that, which gets under my skin. It's one of the first impressions a restaurant makes — it should be a good one.
I was seated promptly and very pleasantly. The booth I was given was sparkling clean, although there were several others around that were not, still awaiting wiping down for long enough that some sauces had dried on the glass tops. Ick.
The list of Lunch Specials on the menu was pretty extensive, with 23 options, and five listed as being spicy. (Also more than a lot of other Chinese restaurants.) For my first visit, I went with my usual: Kuna Pao Chicken. A nice touch was that I had a choice in soups (I went with the hot and sour), that I had a choice in rice (I went with the ham fried), and that I had a choice between egg roll and foil-wrapped chicken. (I went with the chicken.)
Our waitress was pleasant enough, but didn't seem to know much about the menu yet, because her answers seemed either ambiguous or like she wasn't exactly sure of the answer. After taking my order, she returned with my drink very promptly, and I was disappointed to find that my Dr. Pepper was either very weak on the mix, or it wasn't Dr. Pepper at all. (Almost tasted like root beer.) My soup came quickly, and I was very excited to see that it was a hot-and-sour soup with some gusto! It was covered with fried wonton wrappers cut into small bites, had strips of mushroom, noodle, tofu and even some chicken!
First words out of my mouth on that first bite: "Awesome. It's not just broth with a few bits of stuff as an afterthought."
The flavor was good, although the spiciness could have been cranked up a notch, to paraphrase Emeril. And the bowl and saucer were simple, but elegant in design.
When the rest of my meal arrived, I was excited, because the soup had really helped ramp up my expectations. And it was really too bad, because the rest of the meal did not meet those expectations.
Although it was nice to see a variety of vegetables (including carrots) in the veggies with the Kung Pao Chicken, it also needed to be cranked up a notch. It had nice flavor, but I like things that are noted on the menu as being spicy to, you know, be spicy. It had a little heat, but I couldn't even feel it until the third bite. Crank it up!
The foil-wrapped chicken was different than I've had other places, which was a nice touch. It was not dark brown from the marinade, but lighter, and seasoned with herbs. It was also a nice-sized piece of chicken, compared to other places I've been.
The waitress returned at one point to ask how things were, and I mentioned the soda not tasting right. She didn't bat an eye, and left, returning a few minutes later with a fresh glass. I tasted it and it was the same. Bummer.
When she dropped off the check, it was in a folder, like she was going to pick it up. So I put my credit card in, and waited. And waited. And waited. She never returned. I don't know if she was on break, had gone home, or what. So I went up front to pay and ask for a bag for a couple boxes of leftovers. So, yes, the Red Lantern, even on a lunch special, leaves you with that life is good feeling.
Most negative thing about the experience was that my "spicy" dish wasn't.
For my second visit, I was excited to see what other kind of improvements they had made in their food. Unfortunately, I was going to learn something very different.
I was seated promptly and very pleasantly. The booth I was given was sparkling clean, as were the others I could see. In fact, it seemed to have just been done, because I was not greeted by the warm smells of good food, but the sharp, biting stink of disinfectants. Not what you want when sitting down to eat.
Since I got Kung Pao Chicken last time, and was pleasantly surprised, I decided to go bold and go for the General Tso's Chicken. Again, I had my choice of soups (I went with the hot and sour), went with the ham-fried rice, and I went with the egg roll.
The waitress was very pleasant, kind and polite almost to a fault. I got lemonade and my soup took quite a while to arrive. Again, I was very happy with the hot-and-sour soup. Lots of variety in textures and with some heat. Very good. An improvement from the last time.
The rest of my meal came after I had completely finished my soup, and then some. Slower than I can remember waiting at a Chinese restaurant in recent memory.
First words out of my mouth: "That's pretty."
The chunks of chicken were big, but the sauce seemed more light than others I've seen. The egg roll was about as big around as a hot-dog bun and the rice was in a perfectly formed mound in the center of the plate. It was beautiful. Wish it tasted as good as if looked. In fact, I wish it had been good at all!
First words out of my mouth after first bite: none ... a groan of anguish.
The chicken did not taste remotely like any General Tso's Chicken I had ever tasted. I've had some very bad versions of it, but this took the cake. It tasted like the sauce was equal parts honey and apple-cider vinegar. Absolutely horrible. There was absolutely no depth in flavor. Just as bad, there were flecks of chopped peppers visible, but it had no heat at all. Might as well have been shavings of red crayon.
I tried eating more, to see if it would grow on me, but it didn't. If anything, it got worse.
So I went to the ham-fried rice in an attempt to cleanse my palate of that cloyingly sweet vinegar sauce. And was met by something as flavorless and bland as the chicken was sharp and sweet. Finally, I turned to the egg roll. It was so perfectly formed, I figured that it had to have been store bought, so they couldn't ruin that, right? Wrong. Overcooked cabbage smells like sulfur. Worse, it tastes like it, too. Not only was I being assaulted by what was in my mouth, but so was a woman near me, who started looking around, asking, "What's that smell? Almost like sewage." Of course, that coincided almost immediately with the bite I had taken of the egg roll. Then she looked at me, then at my egg roll, I could see the realization in her eyes that she was reacting to the thing that I had in my mouth, then she looked away. I couldn't blame her. I don't know how I managed to keep it down. In fact, I wish I hadn't.
The waitress returned at one point to ask how things were, and I just asked for the check. I had barely made a dent in my meal, but I simply couldn't eat it. It was honestly some of the worst Chinese food I've ever had. But that wasn't the waitress' fault. She asked if I wanted a box, and I said, "No way. I'm not taking this home." She grimaced, a look in her eyes somewhere between a deer in the headlights and a spanked child, then she said she was sorry and came back with the check. Unlike the time before, she took it up to the register for me.
I can't remember the last time I left that much food on my plate when leaving a restaurant. Once every five years? Less frequently? Well, it won't be happening again at the Red Lantern.
Best thing about the experience? The hot-and-sour soup.
Most negative thing about the experience? Everything else.
You couldn't pay me to go back again.
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noun. Slang. A person who has an ardent or refined interest in food; a gourmet.