Chinese establishments share cuisine, but each draws different customers

Village center has room for both, proprietors say

Restaurant profile

November 18, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Elsa Chang and Mike T. L. Chao are each working seven days a week, trying to make their competing Chinese restaurants successful in Columbia's Oakland Mills Village Center.

Chang's smaller Lucky's China Inn has been a fixture in the center for a decade, although she and her husband, Andrew, have operated it for only the past several years -- including a nine-month hiatus last year while the center was undergoing renovation.

"That was very, very difficult," she said, adding that now "we're doing fine."

A small place

With just 12 tables and a friendly neighborhood feel, Chang was worried about what Chao's much larger -- 88 seats to her 48 -- Congee House would do to her business when it opened Aug. 27 in a former fast-food building in the parking lot.

She's feeling better now, though, and both she and Chao say there is enough business for both to prosper -- a testament to the enduring popularity of Asian food, even in Columbia's sometimes struggling village centers.

Chang's menu has all the traditional dishes, from sweet and sour chicken to chow mein, and at reasonable prices. Most entrees are about $7.

Chang said the key to successfully operating a smaller place is having few workers and putting in long days, with weekend help from her husband, a Social Security employee.

"Right now, so far, we're doing good," Chang said, noting that she's just obtained a liquor license and is serving beer and wine, although the numerous fancy cocktails on the menu aren't available yet.

She said she is in the process of deciding whether the drinks, with catchy names such as "Love Potion" and "Blue Motorcycle," inspire enough interest among customers for her to begin serving them.

Traditional Chinese

Chao also has applied for a liquor license and is awaiting a hearing Dec. 14.

His trade, he said, is more traditionally Asian, as evidenced by the separate Chinese-language menus and the several Chinese-speaking families dining there on a recent Monday night.

They come from all around the area, not just Columbia, Chao said, for his traditional Chinese food.

These first months have been a time for menu experimentation at the former Hardee's restaurant off Stevens Forest Road, Chao said.

"The first two months we had been trying things out, testing customers, asking them to tell us which way we should go," he said, describing his offerings as Cantonese, Hunan-style fare.

"We're doing OK," Chao said, adding that he, too, has been working 14-hour days without time off to get the business running.

Work paying off

Chao's transformation of the building created an attractive, roomy setting without major surgery. Different shades of a salmon-rose color are used on several kinds of window coverings, the modern tables and chairs. Dark carpeting adds to the soft feel of the place.

Congee features paper place mats, teacups and chopsticks as part of each setting, while Lucky's place settings feature more formal linen tablecloths under glass.

Congee's menu is also larger, with more offerings at higher prices.

Though most entrees are in the $10 to $13 range, a whole Peking duck is offered at $22.95, and a lobster/soft crab special was advertised recently for $16.95.

Lucky's China Inn

Where: 5865D Robert Oliver Place; 410-997-5454.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10: 30 p.m. Friday; noon to 10: 30 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 9: 30 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers, $1 to $4.95; entrees, $6.50 to $13.95.

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover.

Congee House

Where: 5810 Robert Oliver Place; 410-772-7843.

Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Appetizers, $2.25 to $9.50; entrees, $8.50 to $22.95.

Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, American Express, Discover.

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