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There was a time, back during this reviewer’s blurry 20s, when I valued quantity over quality.
As with most 20-somethings, it was a philosophy that extended into every facet of my life. Why have one beer when you can have five? Why have one slice of pizza when you can have three? Why sleep 10 extra minutes and be late for class when you can blow the whole thing off and sleep all day? You get the picture.
Given that, I was once a big fan of that most American of ethnic restaurants: the Chinese buffet. Only in America could we take the cuisine of some of the slimmest and most disciplined people in the world and turn it into a butter-smeared eating contest. And, for me, a contest it was: man vs. gullet. Feeling full? Get out in the parking lot and do some jumping jacks! We’re getting our $8.75’s worth of crab Rangoon, pepper beef and mystery meat skewers.
A funny thing happened on the way to eating Best China Hunan Dragon Balcony Buffet into bankruptcy: as my 30s dawned, I began to see the value of quality — individually prepared plates, as opposed to sneeze-guarded steamtrays.
That realization led to Chi’s Chinese Cuisine. One of the old hands of the Little Rock restaurant market, Chi’s is where buffet refugees can find what they’ve been missing all their lives: steaming hot dishes from the East, all so tasty and well-prepared that you’ll forget there was a time when you thought a potentially infinite amount of grub for one money was a good investment.
Though Chi’s has been a player in the Little Rock market for nearly 30 years, the Shackleford Drive location recently changed hands, with owners Bill and LuLu Chi selling the restaurant back during the summer. Reached there, a manager said the restaurant was taken over by entrepreneur Seung Noh on July 1. LuLu and Bill Chi retain ownership of the two other Chi’s locations, as well as their restaurants Sekisui, Koto and at least two local hotel franchises. Since the sale, Noh has left the Chi’s menu, cooks and most of the wait staff unchanged, though a number of new Korean dishes have been added to spice things up.
Situated on the hill above the intersection of Shackleford Road and Markham Street, Chi’s is a bit hard to get to (the owners of the neighboring parking lot ought to charge Chi’s upkeep, given the number of times that Chi’s newbies undoubtedly have to wheel around there and backtrack to find the restaurant). Once you do find it, however, Chi’s is a cozy place to share a meal, especially if you take one of the booths in the diner-narrow line of tables near the entrance, which offers a view of the hustle and bustle on the streets below. Too, if you’re lucky, sitting there offers you eavesdropping privileges on Chi’s lively kitchen staff, only a few feet away in Chi’s open kitchen. During our meal, a cook entertained himself by whistling a soft and warbling Chinese tune that sounded like something straight out of the soundtrack to “Kung Fu.” Ah, the things you can hear when you listen, Grasshopper.
On to the food: From Chi’s big-but-not-as-complicated-as-some menu (they provide a handy picture menu as well, in case you don’t want to be surprised when ordering an unfamiliar item), we first tried the potsticker dumplings ($5.95) and the crab Rangoon ($5.50) as appetizers. Though both offered no surprises, they were head-and-shoulders above anything found under a sneezeguard; six plump dumplings , each nearly as big as your fist, and 10 crispy crab Rangoon, served with a disturbingly red sauce as thick as maple syrup. We had to restrain ourselves over the appetizers, lest we not have room for the entrees.
For those I tried the Bulgogi Korean barbecue ($14.95), while my companion went for her tried-and-true: orange chicken ($8.50). Both arrived quicker than expected. The Bulgogi was especially dramatic at presentation: thin strips of tender beef and fried onion, dumped onto a sizzling hot skillet at tableside. Companion’s orange chicken wasn’t quite as spectacular, but it was no less well-appointed: a charger-sized plate of chicken, stir fried with red peppers and drenched in a thick, honey-orange sauce.
Not ones to judge books by covers, we dug in and found both dishes to be very good, especially the Bulgogi, which was tossed in a sweet and tangy sauce and served with a side of juliened veggies and lettuce leaves for wrapping. Companion, meanwhile, shared a bit of her orange chicken, which — while not as nose-running spicy as we like it — was a flavorful mix, not nearly as cloyingly sweet as some orange chicken we have tried in the past, with a nice zing of citrus flavor.
While this reviewer has yet to find anything on the Chi’s menu that we out-and-out disliked, we will say that most everything we’ve had there so far is light years beyond what’s to be found at even the best Chinese buffet. With a number of very affordable dishes — especially at lunch, when the prices are even more reasonable — you can easily get out of Chi’s with a check close to what you’ll rack up at the $8.75-per-plate-plus-$2-drink joints. What with that, the freshness of the food, and the cozy and attentive atmosphere, we really can’t think of a reason to hit the buffet again.
Chi’s Chinese Cuisine
No. 6 Shackleford Drive
At lunch you can’t go wrong with the Chinatown Rice ($6.75), a humungous portion of fried rice, topped with chicken, beef, shrimp, stir-fried veggies and a sweet sauce. For those looking for something a little spicier, try the Koreatown Rice, which is approximately the same thing, only more fiery.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
All credit cards accepted; beer and wine available; delivery in a limited area.