My table at Sesame Inn in Station Square holds a pink carnation in a little vase. It's that sort of attention to detail that makes his restaurant number one, says owner George Lee.
"We have fresh flowers, a tablecloth and a liquor license. A lot of Chinese restaurants, they don't have booze."
Sure, there's that. And parking at desirable suburban locations too -- Mount Lebanon, the North Hills and McMurray.
"And generous portions also," Lee adds.
Yes indeed. But maybe it's the ability to surprise with a simple dish that makes Sesame Inn a winner.
I ordered lunch at the Station Square location, starting with egg-drop soup. I expected the usual orange-colored, viscous glop with about a thousand streaks of egg in it, probably floating in a sea of cornstarch. It's a Chinese restaurant version of comfort food, nonetheless desirable on this, the first wintry day of fall.
What I got was so different, and so good, that I had to rethink what I should expect from a Chinese restaurant. Sesame Inn's egg-drop soup is a light broth with chunks of tofu and tomato as well as peas and a delicate portion of egg. Who would have thought you could be pleasantly surprised by egg-drop soup?
And so it went at the Sesame Inn, packed on this weekday lunchtime despite the choice of so many other eateries nearby. The pink tables were set off by maroon banquettes and two bas reliefs, one of a bridge and streams, the other of children playing (I think), glinting in the distance of this large room.
Sesame Inn has everything we love about Chinese restaurants: the tea so dark it tastes black, dishes whose names could not be less appetizing -- "Dried sautÃ©ed string beans" -- but whose execution could not be tastier. I did not walk around the outside of this particular Sesame Inn, but I'm sure somewhere is a vent letting garlic-flavored steam into the street, causing uncontrollable salivation in passersby.
But Sesame Inn has something other Chinese restaurants do not have: amazing chicken. Or rather a dish that goes by that name.
Up to 80 percent of the dishes sold at Sesame Inn are chicken dishes, says Lee. Chicken with Vegetables. Hunan Chicken. The ever-popular General Tso's Chicken, normally made with dark meat.
But Amazing Chicken is chicken breast, lightly coated and fried in a sauce created by Sesame Inn's chef. The resulting taste is hot, oily, spiced and sweet without being overwhelming. And the white meat is moist. Chicken breast is so often dry and tasteless that "the other white meat" never sounded like a compliment. But Amazing Chicken redeems the very idea of white meat.
Amazing Chicken is George Lee's favorite, he says. It was a big mover at tables all around me. Lee believes his four restaurants do the biggest volume of business among Chinese establishments in the city. How can he tell?
"According to the suppliers," he says. They ought to know.
The restaurant took its name, Lee explains, from the sesame tree. "When the flower blossoms, the tree gets higher and higher," Lee says. In this case it refers to his quartet of restaurants, "growing and growing and growing.
"We have a lot of loyal customers," he adds.
The restaurant trade is a notoriously difficult business in which to succeed. Lee opened his first restaurant in 1986 and he's still going. Is it easy for him now?
"No -- restaurant business is toughest business," he says. "Long hours, stress, personnel problems always. I always tell my relatives and friends, the restaurant business is the last business you want to think of."
So why does he stick with it?
"Unless you succeed," he says. "Then you get a reward."