What's so neo about Neo China? Well, the neon in the window, the black-lacquered neo-deco chairs and the Art Institute-style gallery of moderno paintings are a far cry from the restaurant's original incarnation as Swan Den, the venerable Rice Village family spot. Swan Den delivered middle-of-the-road Chinese fare to a West U audience for almost three decades -- dating from a time before Houstonians knew how to say "Hunan" -- until rampant gentrification nudged it northward.
Now, having hearkened to the call of the '90s, the Hsu family has launched its rechristened restaurant in the same Kirby Drive center that houses Miyako and Auntie Pasto's. While the newly Hunanized menu runneth over with health-conscious verbiage of the lean-meat, l00 percent-vegetable-oil, no-salt-sugar-or-MSG-on-request variety, Neo China seems like the same old Swan Den at heart -- from its old-fashioned dropped ceiling of acoustical tile to its essential middle-of-the-roadness.
There's something to be said for middle-of-the-roadness, of course. Particularly when it takes the form of Neo China's duck with pan-fried noodles, a swell and savory pasta dish in a serviceable brown sauce. Serviceable brown sauces are quite the thing here (not exactly a neo concept). One of them turns the rather exotic-sounding jalapeno steak into a very ordinary pepper steak onto which a number of fresh green chile slices have been deposited; the whole, which is of a chewy persuasion, adds up to less than the sum of its parts. It only makes me long for the glory days of Uncle Tai, who really knew what to do with a Texas jalapeno.
The novel ideas on Neo China's menu seem less than novel on the plate. Mu shu vegetables, a fine notion, are muffled by their tinge of sugar and the sweet hoisin sauce that the waiter is all to eager to slather upon the pancake wrappers. Lui Tze shrimp, borne forth in a foil tent that resembles a two-headed sea dragon, emits a billow of aromatic ginger and packs a polite hot-chile punch, but it suffers from average little shrimp of indeterminate taste and texture. In its chicken version, though, this could be the kind of dish that justifies the Neo moniker.
Not so the pedestrian (and weirdly named) Cheese Rango, a stodgy fried wonton of the type most places call crab Rangoon. The sweet goo that comes with it? Don't ask. And be prepared for the unglamorous reality that is the Tossed Green Four Season Salad, a perfectly passable bed of tartly dressed iceberg bearing some cold shrimp and (as our waiter informed us with charming directness) imitation crabmeat. Dong Ting it ain't.
Unpretentious, family-friendly Chinese it is. No shame -- and nothing particularly neo -- in that.
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-- Alison Cook
Neo China, 3910 Kirby Drive, 522-6559.
duck with pan-fried noodles, $10.95;
Lui Tze chicken, $7.95