Jan. 15 2014 12:00 AM

Pleasant surprises await at low-key Haupei

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.