Roll with It

Sometimes, for a restaurant to work, all it needs is one standout dish, something that, no matter what you think about the other offerings, you'll come back for again and again. If it's a fast-foodish sort of restaurant, it helps if that standout dish is something inexpensive. Think, for example, of the French fries at McDonald's. You may sneer at the burgers, turn a nose up at the fish sandwich, but as long as you come in for the fries, they have you.

Mings Cafe has just that sort of dish in its egg rolls. In a land of soggy spring rolls, in a world where far too many appetizers begin their life on a Sysco assembly line before being shuttled into the deep freeze, in a universe where the verities of old-time Chinese restaurants have taken a back seat to upscale Chinese cuisine, an egg roll that not only is fresh but declares that freshness with every bite is a compelling discovery. The egg rolls at Mings are not only compelling, they're close to addictive. A story -- unverified, but bearing the ring of truth -- has it that one customer came in, ordered a pair of egg rolls, then repaired to a table and began to eat. As each duo of wrapped vegetables and meat was consumed, he got up and ordered another. This went on, two by two, until the number of egg rolls moved into the low and then the high teens. He stopped when he got into the twenties and left. It's not remembered if he departed by rolling out.

According to Peter Ng, one of the three partners behind Mings, the egg rolls are the most popular item on the restaurant's extensive menu. Made daily, they've been known to run out. And if they do, well, you'll just have to wait until the following day to get one. Or else you can try the Ming wings, another appetizer that shows off Mings's fine hand with the fryer. Like the egg rolls, the Ming wings are cooked just to the level of crispness; the oiliness that can too easily testify to a lack of attention is missing.

Indeed, almost everything offered up at Mings testifies to careful attention, as well as to careful planning -- which is as it should be, given that Mings is a prototype for future Mings to come. Or so Ng, Fai Jow and Luan Pham hope. When the trio refurbished what used to be a Big Frank's outlet on Montrose near Westheimer, they had in mind creating a neighborhood fixture that would recall simple Chinese restaurants of decades past and act as a model for similar fixtures in other neighborhoods. As far as the first goal is concerned, they've succeeded; a few evenings at Mings reveal the same faces from the surrounding area coming in for yet another meal. As far as the second goal is concerned -- well, Ng will admit that three more Mings are on the drawing board, but won't reveal exactly where they're likely to be situated.

Wherever they end up, the people nearby should be happy. After all, a source of dependable, tasty and inexpensive meals is always to be welcomed. Such reliability, in fact, is part of what made Chinese food such a hit in America's cities to begin with. And anyone who remembers the mix of Cantonese and Hunan dishes that, for decades, was Chinese food to most people on this side of the Pacific will get a jolt of nostalgia from the menu at Mings: the redoubtable egg rolls, fried wonton, hot and sour soup, lo mein, fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, moo goo gai pan ... okay, so there's nothing particularly venturesome here. But if other restaurants can catch on by appealing to a wistful desire for the food of the past, why not retro Chinese? Especially when it's done with skill.

And with a few rare exceptions, everything I tried at Mings reflected skill. One could even argue that the dishes I didn't much care for -- a chicken in black bean sauce that had spent too much time under a salt shaker, a beef with garlic sauce that took the heat index a slight bit higher than I would have liked -- were prepared well enough. They accomplished what they were after. It's just that what they were after wasn't anything I'm particularly interested in.

That, of course, is the advantage of a large menu. I could eat at Mings on a daily basis for a month, changing entrees each time out, and still not have to confront the small number of selections I'd just as soon pass by. Actually, I'd probably spend most of my time in the appetizer, soup and lo mein sections. The egg drop soup and the wonton soup are admirable examples of their genre, but the hot and sour soup, like the egg rolls, approaches the transcendent. It's smooth and satisfying, with just enough of a nip to remind you that the sour part of the name has meaning. Mings's sweet and sour soup has the same sort of restorative power as the best chicken broths, particularly on a cool spring evening, and particularly if slurped on the Mings deck, with its pleasant vista of the passing world.

As for the lo mein, I'll admit to a particular fondness for Chinese pasta. Though my favorite, cold noodles with sesame sauce, isn't to be found on Mings's chalkboard menu, I'm happy to make do with roast pork lo mein and shrimp lo mein of the sort offered here. The servings are huge, easily enough for two if ordered with an appetizer, and put together with careful attention not only to the sauce and meat -- the latter of which reflects the freshness of practically everything else here -- but also to the noodles, which are done to an al dente turn that would be the pride of a good Italian restaurant (and is a reminder, after all, of where the Italians got pasta from).

However much I like the lo mein, though, I'm going to make sure not to completely ignore Mings's other offerings, whether it be the special-of-the-day dumplings or what Mings calls its "gourmet" offerings, such as the General Jows chicken. If I do, I may run afoul of Mings's owners, who are proud of everything they serve, not just a few select dishes. Indeed, I wouldn't want to fall into the trap of one of Houston's finest, who had developed a pork fried rice jones that he apparently could only satisfy by a daily dose from Mings. It had gotten so bad that the moment a counter person saw his police car pull into the parking lot, they'd start bagging up the order. Finally, Luan Pham put his foot down: No more fried rice until the officer tried something else. He'd simply refuse to serve him. The policeman took the denial in the same good spirit as it was given, and acquiesced, agreeing to the order of chicken with garlic sauce he was commanded to eat. He admitted, afterward, that he loved it. Only now he had two addictions. And that without even trying an egg roll.

Mings Cafe, 2703 Montrose, 529-7888.

Mings Cafe: egg roll, $.99; fried wonton, $1.50; Ming wings, $1.95; roast pork lo mein, $4.25; beef fried rice, $2.99 (small), $3.89 (large); General Jows chicken, $5.99; shrimp with garlic sauce, $6.49.


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