For a hungry diner looking for a quick, cheap Chinese-food fix, I suppose China Doll might be a suitable choice. But it wouldn’t be mine.
Like a Panda Express for your parents’ generation or a food-court cafeteria at a metropolitan shopping mall, this east-side Bend restaurant prepares ample quantities of Asian fast food seven days a week.
But the fare is not exceptional in any way.
You might already suspect that to be the case as you approach the Crossroads Plaza establishment. From the stoplight at the intersection of U.S. Highway 20 and 27th Street, its large sign on the northeast corner may appear inviting, but to reach the restaurant requires numerous twists and turns through a meandering parking area.
The principal view looking out from the China Doll is of the adjacent Taco Bell drive-through. But the perspective within the 34-seat restaurant is no more inspiring. Upon its wall — painted a soft rose pink on their top halves, burgundy nearer to the floor — hang a pair of 2008 calendars and a couple of strings of New Year’s firecrackers. A single television, high in one corner of the room, is depressingly left tuned to CNN News.
To make matters worse, all of its food is served in compartmentalized polystyrene containers, considered by some to be a hazard to the environment and human health.
The serving line at China Doll begins the moment you enter from the parking area and walk in the front door.
Immediately you’re beside the counter, where servers dish up one combination meal after another from a selection of about eight trays. Nearby, a large blackboard announces daily specials.
Combination meals ($4.75 at lunchtime, $6.50 at dinner) include a choice of rice or noodles, or a half-and-half split between the two. They also feature two entrees (you can pay extra for a third); dinner portions are larger, and the evening meal includes a cup of soup.
Unfortunately, I was less than thrilled with either of the starch options. I would, however, opt for the noodles over the small-grain rice, which I found quite dry and boosted only by the addition of a sparse few frozen peas and carrots. The wheat-flour noodles, much like Japanese soba, were pasty, but they were supplemented with fresh bits of onion, cabbage and zucchini.
Dishes are best here when they are simple and fresh. I like the barbecued pork, an appetizer priced at $5.75. Chopped, bone-in ribs are cooked in traditional “char siu” style, seasoned with a mix of honey, five-spice powder, hoisin and soy sauces, and other ingredients. This application gives the outside of the meat a dark red color.
A crab puffs appetizer works well for those who like this sort of thing, such as my dining companion. Eight fried wonton wrappers were stuffed with lots of cream cheese, but just a taste of artificial crab flavor.
Some of the entrees fell far short of the local norm.
Orange chicken, for instance, was mushy with heavy breading, and lacked any sort of orange flavoring or orange-peel spice.
The seafood in the shrimp lo mein was lightly breaded and fried, rather than simply and quickly sauteed. As a result, it tasted greasy and less than fresh.
In other dishes, I appreciated certain elements.
In beef with broccoli, for instance, the buds of broccoli were fresh and crunchy. But an uninspired brown sauce detracted from the taste of the meat.
Mushroom chicken came with fresh, whole button mushrooms. Onions, carrots, red peppers and water chestnuts were also part of the mix, which again was served in a light brown sauce.
Perhaps the most telltale dish was a house chicken-and-shrimp concoction, although the lightly breaded shrimp were few and far between. Tender white strips of chicken were wok-fried with an assortment of fresh vegetables — broccoli, carrots, onions, zucchini, cabbage and red bell peppers — and canned baby corn, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. But the breaded shrimp detracted from the overall flavor.
Bend-o Bento Japanese Kitchen opened Sunday on Bend’s east side. Operated by Keiko Wysuph and Yukiko McLaughlin, the restaurant specializes in $10 bento, the single-portion meals common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables, served in a box-shaped container. Net profits and donations from the restaurant’s first week in business go to assist continuing relief efforts following last year’s earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. Open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday. 1375 S.E. Wilson Ave., Suite 105, Bend; www.facebook.com/BendOBentoJapaneseKitchen or 541-323-3357.