Jan. 15 2014 12:00 AM

Pleasant surprises await at low-key Haupei


Everybody loves Ray

Some folks will take one look at Huapei Restaurant and keep going. Its inconspicuous location next to a shuttered Shell gas station is one reason. Its exterior appearance, which gives you the feeling that maybe the place is closed for good, is another. The interior has all the charm of a storage room.

Yes, I had my doubts, but here I am, rooting for this hole in the wall. Why? Because Huapei has something so lacking in many restaurants. Heart.

My humble advice: Give Huapei a chance. Huapei (pronounced “wah-pay”) is a drab little building, but there is a sincerity about the place and what it serves, embodied by the only staff person I encountered in my two visits. I don’t know his name, but since my daughter and her friend instantly and in nearunison said “he sounds just like Ray Romano,” I’ll call him Ray.

He is definitely a ray of sunshine in this little place, and his kindness is genuine. On my second visit, when he saw me writing in my notepad while looking at the menu, he returned with a menu that I could take with me, and told me, “I saw you writing and I thought I would save you some work.”

On separate visits I ordered sizzling rice soup and hot and sour soup. Both arrived piping hot, a fine antidote for the cold snap we’ve had. The sizzling rice soup was made with a clear broth and bits of shrimp and crab. It had subtle garlic overtones, which I love.

The hot and sour soup was made with a rich chicken broth, laced with chunks of black mushrooms, tofu and a scattering of freshly chopped scallions. The menu says this soup contained willow tree fungus. Uh, OK. It was good, whatever was in it.

I’m a soup hound, so it was easy to pick the soups as my favorite foods at Huapei.

On separate visits I tried Huapei’s namesake chicken dish, the fried tofu and Chiang Pao Chicken. These were too spicy for my palate, but I was outvoted by others at our table who declared the dishes wonderful.

On the other hand, for a lunchtime visit I ordered sweet and sour pork, and was not disappointed. The pork was lightly battered, unlike the over-battered, over-sauced pork chunks you see on a steam table at a Chinese buffet. The sauce struck the right balance between sweet and tangy.

I also sampled my granddaughter’s Seafood Udon Noodle Soup. Delicious. Huapei has been around for years, and it’s clear from reading online reviews that this unassuming place has a devoted local following. It’s the Chinese restaurant equivalent of a working class bar.

And it appears to operate on a working class budget. From what I could tell, there was “Ray” and one other person working the kitchen — and that was the entirety of the staff roster. We heard someone chopping vegetables or meat in the kitchen, and on our first visit there was a baby fussing in the kitchen. So childcare was probably involved.

In short, these folks are busy, and despite manpower challenges, the service was relatively prompt.

But in a place with minimal help and presumably a modest budget, some things don’t always click. On one visit, we arrived slightly after 5 p.m. to find a darkened restaurant. Huapei’s posted hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays, then it closes and reopens from 5 to 9 p.m. On my next visit, I arrived a little past noon, and thought it was closed. Wrong. But I was the only customer.

Then there’s the entrance ... . While Huapei is not a drive-through restaurant, some distracted driver attempted to make it one in mid-2013. The car plowed into Huapei´s entrance, Ray explained. I thought this was a recent event, but was later informed the crash happened last year. Repairs are ongoing. As proof, a stepladder stands inside the door, serving as a makeshift barrier to prevent customers from tripping in the construction zone.

I don’t know Chinese cuisine well enough to claim Huapei’s is authentic. It strikes me as food you would eat in a Chinese home. In any case, the portions are generous and the prices are a bargain. For lunch I had tea, an egg roll and a plate of sweet and sour pork that came with rice and a cup of soup. All for $7.16.

Looks can be deceiving, and Huapei is Exhibit A in that regard. I like this place because it tries, it cares and, though forlorn looking, has a true heart.

—Mark Nixon

Dramatic dishes

I love sushi and the occasional order of General Tso’s chicken (the likes of which was enjoyed on our unexpectedly dark Christmas Eve this year), but neither Chinese nor Korean food figures prominently in my takeout rotation. I hadn’t been to Huapei in a while, and although a girlfriend of mine who knows food sings the praises of the restaurant, I wasn’t totally convinced that it was still in operation.

Over the course of a few recent visits I was happy to learn that Huapei is indeed alive and well, offers exceptional quality and quantity of food for reasonable prices and is a charming and independent place off the beaten path. Yes, structural issues remain after the restaurant was hit by a car. But the kitchen is fully functional, the restaurant itself sparkling clean and the staff is eager to please.

For our first visit, we stopped in for a Friday night dinner. We started with egg rolls, fried dumplings and sizzling rice soup. The vegetable egg rolls were hot and fresh and the browned dumpling wrappers were stretched around a generous portion of minced pork, cabbage and bright green spring onion. While both appetizers were slightly heavy handed on the salt, I’ve come to think of that characteristic as something that is intrinsic in Chinese food.

Our server came to the table with a big bowl of chicken soup and a plate of fried rice, which she promptly poured into the soup. When the hot, puffed rice met the broth, there was a sudden snap, crackle, and popping. I’m not sure if it was the dramatics of the dish or the comforting mix of chicken, shrimp, beef, crab and mushrooms, but the soup was my highlight of the meal.

For his entrée, the boyfriend chose sweet and sour pork. The deep fried chunks of pork were tossed with sliced onions, peppers, crunchy cabbage, snow peas and a light, slightly sweet brown sauce. He added some white rice to soak up the sauce and remarked that he was happy with the vegetables. The snow peas and cabbage in particular retained some of their snap, which he liked.

My sheng chow chicken kicked up the heat a bit. Chunks of fried chicken, roasted red pepper, green pepper, onion and slices of carrot were tossed in a soy-based sauce that sent me reaching for my water glass, but not so much that I couldn’t enjoy the dish. If you can eat hot salsa, you can safely order the items printed in red on the Huapei menu.

I thought the sauce was slightly too thick, but I’m traditionally not a fan of heavily sauced dishes.

Our entrees all arrived steaming hot and obviously freshly made, and the service was timed perfectly, with our table never being inundated with plates. We leisurely enjoyed our appetizers and hot green tea (which may have a touch of cinnamon) before our main dishes came out. A regular at another table started chatting with us about the restaurant, which opened in Mason years ago before relocating to its current location close to downtown. He told us to mix together the three sauces that our server had brought with our entrees — the vinegar, soy sauce and hot oil combined to make a knockout dipping sauce that had the acidity that the sweet and sour pork needed and the heat that I crave.

On a return visit for lunch, I was happy see that the menu offers affordable specials that all come with soup.

The offering that day was egg flower soup, which was substantially similar to egg drop with the genius additions of cubed tofu, zucchini and scallions. On one of the coldest days this winter, the egg flower soup was a bull’s-eye. The house wontons that we ordered were inexpensive ($3.50) and plentiful, with 10 to an order; there wasn’t a lot of filling in them, however, and they were mostly crispy wonton wrapper, which I discarded.

I chose the Szechuan beef special with fried rice for lunch. The thinly sliced beef was accented with green onion and red pepper and topped with copious amounts of a sweet and mild brown sauce. It was difficult to taste anything but sauce. My companion´s beef with broccoli sent me into entrée envy as I gazed at the hearty amount of green on his plate and the much lighter sauce. I snuck bites from his plate, but we still took home leftovers.

I could tell you that I will eat Chinese food more frequently, but I’m not sure that that will happen. I can promise that the next time I order Chinese takeout, it will be from Huapei. The place has its charms, none of which were lost on me.

 —Gabrielle Johnson