Location: 101 Brandt Drive, Cranberry. 724-776-6760. www.chencranberry.com
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat. Noon-10 p.m.; Sun. Noon-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $2-8; entrees $9-17
Atmosphere: Aquatically Asian
Liquor: Full bar
When it comes to Chinese restaurants, we're like Charlie Brown running once again for the place-kick as Lucy gets ready to snatch the football away: We always come back for more. Despite all the times we've been disappointed by mediocre lo mein and boring brown sauce, we continue to peer into storefronts, pore over menus and hope that this time -- this restaurant -- will be different.
Chen's in Cranberry (no relation to Richard Chen, late of Shadyside, but instead owned by a local family which has been in the Chinese-restaurant business for 25 years), initially enticed us with its old-school Chinese-restaurant design. Even in the doldrums of winter, koi swam languidly in their heated outdoor pond, oblivious to our crossing a little arched bridge over them on our way from parking lot to front door. Inside, tropical fish tanks divided the dining area, and a glowing bar was obviously popular with locals. The menu was old-school Chinese-American, too, but the presence of hot pots -- touted as Chen's effort to bring authentic Chinese tradition to America -- and pictures of the family's ancestral house in China kept us intrigued.
The place was noisy and busy on a Friday night, a circumstance for which we make allowances in our expectation of swift service, but our server exceeded even these. When we finally had the opportunity to order, we decided to embrace the menu's Chinese-American classics and try its updates, too.
Hot-and-sour soup was a by-the-book take with just enough clear, bright tang to justify its thick broth. Unfortunately, after this somewhat promising start, our goal of a satisfying meal seemed to dim. The dumpling wrappers were thick and bland, surrounding heavy lumps of beef, which were not enlivened by the cabbage, scallions or other ingredients. To compensate, we reached for the dipping sauce, but found it contained too much soy and not enough sweetness or depth.
A couple of entrees allowed us to cling to our hopes for a few bites more. Though a bit greasy, mu shu pork featured crunchy vegetables, sliced thin, balanced against strips of tender pork. But the plum sauce, with a texture as thick and sticky as peanut butter, was hard to spread on the thin, crepe-like pancakes.
The beef hot pot featured a nice array of vegetables, including good-sized chunks of bright red pepper, crunchy disks of water chestnut and sweet if slightly overdone snowpeas, mingling with the hearty notes of boiled beef. The sauce was traditional, soy-based brown, but it wasn't so thick as to obscure the underlying flavors, and the dish as a whole was worth eating.
The lo mein, on the other hand, was woefully greasy, with very little flavor from the beef and vegetables which should be the stars of this dish. The peas and carrots in the ma po tofu similarly contributed little besides color; the carrots' even dice suggested they had been poured from a frozen bag, where a larger cut of fresh carrots would have done wonders for this dish. As it was, a little chili in the broth kept the flavor just this side of Blandsville.
Would our final dish, a "Sizzling Platter" of salt-and-pepper scallops, redeem our meal? As the scallops were poured, sputtering tantalizingly onto a hot platter of vegetables at the table, we thought that just maybe it would. But the black pepper promised by the menu was apparent neither to our eyes nor to our palates, and the scallops themselves must have been fully cooked in their sauce and then overcooked by the heat of the platter, because their texture was rubbery and their flavor fishy rather than delicately sweet. Nothing about the sauce or the vegetables suggested that they'd been thoughtfully paired with the seafood. Sadly, we left the dish nearly untouched, not even packing it up for a leftover lunch.
As Charlie Brown would say, AAUGH! But like the cartoon underdog, we won't give up. Charlie will try eternally to kick that football, and as for us, hope springs eternal that we will find truly excellent Chinese food in Pittsburgh -- someday.