Cheap food and good fortune

Oriental Wok

For some reason, I have a massive love for Americanized Chinese food. In fact, I’ve eaten so much of it over the past four years that I have over 150 fortune cookie slips. If you factor in the average price of a typical combination dinner, I’ve spent roughly $1,050 on food that is terrible for me. And most of that terrible-for-you-but-oh-so-good food I ate at Oriental Wok in the Essex Shoppes.

Granted, there are most likely better Chinese restaurants in the area. I do have a car, I can travel and it probably would be better for me if I ate somewhere else. But nostalgia and hunger keep bringing me back to this place time and time again. That and the ridiculous fortunes I keep receiving. Also the cheap food as a college student, cheap food that isn’t ramen is the food of the gods.

This past Saturday I had the craving for some nostalgia food and drove all the way from Johnson to Essex Junction, picking my brothers up along the way, just to get some chow mein. Nestled in the heart of the Essex Shoppes, next to a lingerie store and across from the movie theater, this restaurant stands out for the sole reason that its sign has the word Wok in it. No other Asian food place in the Shoppes has that word.

We opened the door and cautiously stepped in; the restaurant was more packed than usual. People were actually sitting down, which was weird considering that this is more of a take-out place. We looked at the menu, mainly for show, as we already knew what we were going to get. For the thrifty person, broke college student or otherwise, the fact that none of the dishes in that section exceeded $7 before tax was a godsend.

I got the pork chow mein – a mass of cabbage, bean sprouts, strips of carrots, sweet red pork and some sort of clear sauce that I’m not entirely sure contributed to the taste of the dish. As a side, I got the egg roll, thinking I’d try something that was “authentic” Chinese. It was a slight mistake on my part as I’d never gotten it before, I was hoping I’d be pleasantly surprised by some light, and delicate flavors. What I got was a blend of vegetables with a hint of pork, which I guess is good if you like veggies. On top of that, I’m fairly certain the dipping sauce went to my brother, not me.
As is customary, I received rice as an incorporated side dish. The girl at the counter asked if I wanted white or pork fried rice, as if that was a question that should have been asked. Sacrilege! Any type of Chinese food should be accompanied by pork-fried rice. If I wanted the healthy option, I wouldn’t have gone to a Chinese restaurant in the first place.

All of this food was packed into a Styrofoam container that was delivered to me and my brothers on what looked like a cafeteria tray. We decided to forego chopsticks in favor of forks, even if they were flimsy plastic ones. I’m just not that coordinated, and I didn’t feel like taking an eternity to eat my food, grain by grain of rice at a time.

To make up for this delivery system, the portions were fairly generous, the rice being packed to the roof of the container, hearty chunks of the sweet pork lying with some peas and shreds of carrot. And the chow mein was absolutely delicious, at least from my point of view it was. I may be biased as this is my favorite Chinese food place, but so be it.  

After adding some soy sauce as a finishing touch, I promptly scarfed the food down; its hot, slightly gingery goodness blending perfectly with the light sauce from the vegetables. Mixing the fried rice in every so often to aid in sopping up some of the sauce, I made quick work of the meal.

My brothers got pork lo mein, and sweet and sour chicken as their main courses, with beef teriyaki. Beef teriyaki is for some reason a dollar more expensive than the other sides. As I’ve had both dishes before in my long career as a Chinese food gourmand, I can say both have odd elements of sweetness in them.

The sweet and sour chicken consisted of chicken fingers that came with a typical red sweet and sour sauce, with one cherry and a chunk of pineapple suspended within. Ordering chicken fingers at such a restaurant is basically like saying “I want to try some Chinese food, but not really.”  

The beef lo mein is a spaghetti noodle looking dish, with veggies interspersed throughout it, a sweet note threading its way around each chunk of pork. And for some reason the lo mein came with duck sauce, which is like food-flavored sugar syrup. It was an unnecessary addition.

When asked about his lo mein after we left, my brother had this to say on the matter. “ It was pretty damn good. I felt really fat afterwards though. I had only had the pork lo mein once before so it was cool to try something new. The price wasn’t too bad, even though Luke (brother) chose the most expensive thing on the fucking menu.”  

And about the fortune cookie fortunes? One of the best I’ve ever received stated simply, “You have a pair of shining eyes,”which is one of the nicest compliments I have ever gotten from anyone.