When we heard that Pinebrook Chinese Restaurant didn't take credit cards, we headed to the nearest ATM. One look at the menu, though, told us we shouldn't have worried about being short for cash. Prices are so low at this Hampden restaurant that four can eat for less than $30.
Yu Fong Chang and her husband, Bill Chang, opened Pinebrook years ago, working as a team in the kitchen seven nights a week. Yu Fong also waits on tables and manages the takeout counter. Remarkably, they haven't changed their prices in the last decade.
Their storefront decor hasn't been altered in a long time, either. Bright-green Formica tables have attached benches that are curved, hard and brown. The paneling is veined with aqua, a color choice we never knew existed. With the bright blue walls up front and the giant red lanterns hanging over the counter, the overall effect is one of bold color.
There's something shocking about the menu, too. Things are missing. There are no pupu platters. No shrimp toast. No sesame noodles. No General Tso's. Imagine, a Chinese restaurant that doesn't try to be all things to all people. But no egg rolls in Hampden? What do the locals think?
They don't miss them a bit, to judge from the delicious Chinese dumplings we tried. They were the only appetizers on the menu, offered boiled and pan-fried. These little crescent pillows of homemade dough, filled with moist pork and bits of celery, were among the lightest we've tasted. We asked for a dipping sauce in lieu of prepackaged duck sauce and mustard. A few minutes later, Yu Fong came back with the perfect accompaniment that she had whipped up just for us: a thick mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, scallions and hot spices. OK, you tightwads, here's the best part: Ten boiled dumplings will set you back $1.50. If you want them pan-fried, it will cost you another 20 cents.
The bargains continued with a family-size bowl of hot and sour soup that served four of us for just $2.50. This was a thinner version than what we're used to, with lots of cabbage, mushrooms and tofu. I liked the tangy soup, though my companions preferred something called long soup, a combination of egg drop and Chinese noodles in a beef broth.
We asked for our entree of Sichuan shrimp ($5) to be extra-spicy, and it was. Lots of fresh ginger gave additional spark to the stir-fry of carrots, peppers, celery, peanuts and small shrimp. The vegetables were cut by hand, giving a home-style feel to the dish.
Mongolian beef ($5) was full of big cuts of scallions and slices of tender beef in a dark gravy. The moo shu pork ($4.95), served with paper-thin pancakes, was a simple combination of cabbage, egg and pork in a thin sauce that wasn't overly sweet. We chose a curry sauce for our chicken and broccoli($4.85). The fragrant stir-fry must have included a full head of florets, although they were just slightly under-cooked.
Discretion was the key to all these dishes. They weren't the heavy, oily concoctions that Ralph Nader's food police got so fired up over a few years ago. Instead, they seemed to be the kind of fresh, wholesome dishes that you might be served in a Chinese home.
That's a meal worth seeking out at any price.
Pinebrook Chinese Restaurant
1011 W. 36th St.
Hours: Open daily for dinner.
Credit cards: None accepted.
Prices: Appetizers, $1.20-$2.50; entrees, $3.60-$5
Pub Date: 11/06/97