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There are great meals, there are terrible meals, and we understand each — it's meals that jump between those extremes that truly leave us perplexed. Such is the case with Fantastic China in the Heights, a clean, well-lit dining space that showed us moments of brilliance while also serving up some truly bad dishes. Call it the agony and the ecstasy of Chinese food.
Fantastic China has one of the best server/kitchen units we've come across in the city. A rotating cast of servers keeps an eye on the entire dining room, buzzing by with refills, unobtrusively asking if the meal is going well, and serving food with a classic sense of style and flourish that we found very appealing. Unlike many restaurants, dishes hit the table exactly when they should, meaning that our recent lunch was a leisurely and orderly affair. They've been in the game for a while, and it shows.
We started things off with two bowls of soup, the Hot and Sour ($1.75) and a bowl of Egg Drop ($1.75). The Hot and Sour was decent, if not quite as spicy as we like, but the Egg Drop was fantastic: thick, rich, and the perfect medicine to cure the recent cold snap that had us bundled up and needing something hot. And, for under two bucks, the portions were quite generous.
No sooner had we scooped the last spoonful of soup from our bowls, an order of Szechuan Dumplings in Hot Sesame Sauce ($5.75) hit the table, and it turned out to be the best dish of the meal. Huge handmade dumplings arrived swimming in a thick, dark, fragrant sauce that provided us with the spicy bite we missed with the Hot and Sour soup. Our second starter, a plate of Fried Dumplings ($5.75) didn't work nearly as well — while the filling was just as tasty as the Szechuan-style dumplings, the fried versions didn't stay in the pan nearly long enough, leaving us with a doughy, greasy mess. Our final starter, an order of spring rolls ($2.55), was good, but no different from any other spring roll found in Little Rock.
Again, the staff seemed to have a preternatural sense of when we were ready for our next course, because just as soon as we set our appetizer plates to the side, our entrees showed up. First up, Beef Lo Mein ($7.95), which we found to be tasty, if not very exciting. The noodles were good, though — firm with a good texture, and while we would have liked to have a few more vegetables and larger pieces of beef in the mix, we can't say there was much wrong with the plate.
Where things did go horribly wrong, though, was with our final entree, the Kung Pao Chicken ($9.25), and we're not even sure where to start with this one. Kung Pao Chicken should be spicy; this was not only bland, but seasoned strangely. In fact the whole dish had a very odd smell to it (like an old pair of socks), and a couple of bites of the rubbery chicken made us think that maybe the protein was a little past its prime. It's been a long time since we had a dish that held us to only a couple of bites, but this foul mess returned to the kitchen nearly untouched.
We like to put restaurants through their paces by ordering basic dishes that should be standard to their repertoire. For Fantastic China, the quality was all over the board: basic dumplings that were either great or terrible and entrees that ranged from decent to outright awful. Many times, we can admit that a dish that we didn't like is merely a matter of personal preference, and that may be true here as well — but it's hard to think of anyone who could stomach that Kung Pao, and we wish we had just stuck with those spicy dumplings and been done.