In the details

By Allan I. Ross

Restaurant offers hand-crafted Asian favorites

Chinese food and Christmas became inexorably linked with the release of the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story.” You know the part near the end: the Bumpus hounds obliterate the Christmas turkey, The Old Man schleps everyone to Chop Suey Palace for dinner and the Parker family is treated to a rousing chorus of “deck the harrs with boughs of horry.” Never mind that the Chinese language has no problem with the letter “l” (that’s the Japanese language, and all that “fa ra ra ra”-ing is just another sign of American xeno-ignorance) — watching that duck get its head lopped off after The Old Man says, “He’s smiling at me,” remains one of the most indelible Christmas movie scenes this side of Frank Capra.

Huapei Restaurant won’t be open this Thursday or Friday, so if calamity strikes your Christmas dinner, good luck. But if you’re looking for a place to take Aunt Clara when she starts craving some great mid- Michigan Chinese food, this is the place to go this weekend. Or any weekend, really.

“Most Chinese restaurants are all the same now — they’re all buffet style,” said owner/operator Eddie Wang. “Our food takes a little longer, but it’s all made by hand. It’s very hard to find a restaurant like this.”

Wang runs Huapei with his wife, Aiko, while his father, who founded the restaurant more than 20 years ago, handles kitchen duties. “Huapei” (pronounced kind of like “why pay”) is a region of Northern China, where a blend of Korean and Chinese food exists, so it was a natural name for the restaurant. (It’s kind of like calling a Tex-Mex place “Laredo.”) At Huapei, noodle dishes and soups from Korea are seamlessly blended on the menu with the bite-sized, ricethemed dishes from the Chinese regions.

Located near the corner of Mt. Hope Avenue and Cedar Street, Huapei may have an unassuming exterior, but the little restaurant serves as a veritable hub for anyone seeking this unique style of Asian cuisine. “There are a lot of international students in the area, and they seem to find us pretty quickly,” Wang said. “We get a lot of Chinese and Korean students in here, but we get a lot of regulars from the area as well. Most of them don’t even need to see the menu anymore. They know it by heart.”

You’ll recognize the names of a lot of the items on this menu, even if their preparation style and presentation look a little different. Take the crab rangoons ($3.75): fresh crab meat, cream cheese and green onions are wrapped in Chinese pastry and deep-fried — so far so good. But that handmade dough gives it a distinct crispness, and the rich cream cheese filling oozes flavor unlike anything you’ll find in town.

Wang said the pot stickers ($5.50) are native to his father’s hometown of Shangdong in China. The tender, porkstuffed dumplings are fried and served with a choice of several dipping sauces. You get six to an order, so the danger here is filling up before the main course arrives.

The Haupei Chicken ($9.50) will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had General Tso’s chicken. Battered, deep fried cuts of thick, white breast meat are tossed in a spicy orange sauce with red peppers, minced ginger, garlic and scallions. If you like your Asian cuisine with a little zing, this packs the heat and keeps it within reason. Due to its popularity, the dish was recently renamed to become the house’s signature.

For the vegetarians, the Family Style Tofu ($7.50) may be the way to go. Thick wedges of tofu are sautéed with pea pods and water chestnuts and tossed in a lightly spicy sauce. The Shandong Bean Sauce on Noodles ($8), meanwhile, comes with heaping portions of diced mushrooms, pork, chicken, shrimp and onions braised in a rich sauce and served on top of noodles. The bean sauce is thick and sweet, and it’s loaded with enough protein and carbs to get you through to spring.

As if the food wasn’t good enough, watching Wang and Aoki interact with their customers is reason enough to visit. The couple seems to remember everything about everyone, from what you ordered last time to how your grandparents’ dog is doing. They have a fun banter and genuine chemistry that’s fun to watch.

“I don’t speak Japanese, and she doesn’t speak Chinese or Korean, so the only way we communicate is in English,” Wang said. “It’s a fun challenge.”

Huapei Restaurant. 401 E. Mount Hope Ave., Lansing. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. & 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. & 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday; 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday. (517) 484-0846.