True mom and pop restaurants are like rotary phones — you may remember what they are but can’t remember the last time you actually saw one.
Chung Ching Chinese restaurant, located on the main drag in College Hill, is one of the best examples I can offer of a real mom and pop joint. There is nothing fancy at Chung Ching. The décor is dated, to say the least. When seated at one of the well-worn booths at Chung Ching, you half expect to see Ralphie and his family from A Christmas Story sitting next to you, still reminiscing about having their dinner ruined by the neighbor’s dog.
It’s that kind of place. It’s definitely old school; it’s gonna take awhile to get your food; there aren’t any fancy POS systems; hell, there isn’t even a visible cash register. But did I mention that the food is awesome, and it’s cheap? Yup, great mom and pop cheap Chinese food.
On a recent post-Christmas weeknight, a friend and I ventured out to Hamilton Avenue to find Chung Ching. I’d never been there, but I have always heard rave reviews about the place. There was a large party seated in the front of the restaurant and the server/hostess/busser/cashier (let’s just call her Mom) was busy with that group, but she seated us in the last remaining booth in the restaurant and immediately produced a pot of piping hot tea as we began scouring the menu.
The menu of typical Chinese food is large but not overwhelming.
The first thing that I noticed was the low prices. Almost everything is under $10. The four-page menu features family dinners and all the usual suspects of noodles, rice, chicken, beef, pork and seafood, but on the first page they list their specialties. If Mom and Pop think that these are the best, I say go for it.
I started with Hot and Sour Soup ($2.25). Usually, if a restaurant makes a good Hot and Sour Soup the rest of the meal is going to be good. Chung Ching offers an excellent version of this classic. The broth was perfectly layered, not too much vinegar, spicy but not overwhelming, and rich with flavor.
My dining companion went all out adventure-wise and ordered an eggroll (two for $3). Incredibly, this was the only dish that wasn’t top notch. In fact, the eggroll was simply awful. While it looked large and nicely deep-fried, the inside was beyond boring. It was simply bland boiled chicken scraps with oily cabbage and celery. Skip the eggroll and try the Fried Jumbo Shrimp (two for $3 or four for $6).
After a really long wait (but we couldn’t complain because Mom was working her butt off in the dining room and I am sure that Pop was equally busy in the kitchen), our entrees arrived. I ordered Governor’s Chicken with Stir Fried Mix Vegetables (yes, that is what the menu called it) for $8.95. Regardless of the grammar, this was one of the best Chinese dishes I have ever eaten. Governor’s Chicken is basically a spicier version of General Tso’s Chicken, as it features habanero pepper sauce and hot oil, along with soy and oyster sauce mixed with crispy chicken cubes, napa cabbage and peapods. The flavors were fresh and vibrant. The sauce was stunningly delicious and the portion was pretty damned big. At $8.95 this is one of the best food buys in town.
My friend ordered the Beef with Scallop ($12), and it was almost equally as good. The beef was tender and the small scallops were not overcooked or rubbery. The brown sauce was rich and flavorful and the veggies tasted fresh and perfectly cooked. There are several dishes on the menu that I want to try, including Szechuan Crispy Duck or Szechuan Crispy Shrimp (each $12). In addition, I watched Mom deliver plate after plate of fried rice, and it looked really good. All of the fried rice dishes are $6.25 to $6.95 depending on the added protein.
When Mom brought out the hand-written check at the end of the meal, she seemed quite happy that we had totally cleared our plates. She also brought us those classic plastic-wrapped fortune cookies. Too bad my fortune didn’t read “Mom and Pop make good food. Come visit us often.” ©
Go: 5842 Hamilton Ave., College Hill
Surf: No website
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and 5-10 p.m. Sunday (closed Monday)
Entree Prices: $6.25-$12
Red Meat Alternatives: Many
Accessibility: Fully accessible