When Horace Greeley, the outspoken editor of the New York Tribune, penned a multitude of essays encouraging the settlement of the Western territories, it's doubtful that Hong Kong native Peter Sum noticed. But somehow the transplant took the homesteading advice, "Go west, young man, go west," to heart in the creation of his neighborhood Chinese eatery.
Sum six years ago staked a claim in a compact strip mall space and called it Sampan. After three years of shoe-horning folks into less than a dozen tables, he stretched his boundary to occupy a dying business space to the west. This gave him 12 more tables. Now, three years later, Sum has broadened his territory by another third, using additional square footage and another batch of 12 tables.Detect an orderly pattern in this expansion process?
It's the same order with which Sum operates a tidy, no-frills decor spot that offers friendly, efficient servers who often struggle to explain menu details or to awkwardly stack a multitude of serving pieces while clearing the table. Broad smiles almost compensate for the breech of etiquette.
The legion of plates, bowls, cups, burners and paddles that accompany a traditional Chinese dinner begins with a Bobo Platter ($8.95), a six-item appetizer that includes crispy egg rolls; deep-fried shrimp, crunchy on the outside but doughy inside; fried wontons with skins that seem doubled; tender, mildly seasoned, paper-wrapped chicken bites; and barbecue, in thinly sliced, chewy pork and spicy glazed ribs.
The appetizer comes with four sauces - and tread lightly on the hot mustard one. Potstickers ($4.25) with "potsticker" sauce, a soy blend, were lightly browned and stuffed with a flavorful but mysterious mound of filling.
Rather than sample the multitude of familiar, predictable entrees, we opted for a pair of "Chef's Suggestions": Dragon and Phoenix ($7.95), a pepper-hot blend of chicken and shrimp in a red ginger sauce. Surprisingly, there were many more shrimp than chicken pieces, but the combination of hot sauce and steamed rice creates interesting fare.
The House Special Sizzling ($8.95) arrived exactly as described - transferred to a sizzling hot cast iron platter at the table, and an evenly balanced grouping of beef, chicken, pork and shrimp with vegetables buried in a tangy sweet-and-sour sauce.
At the server's suggestion, we also sampled the popular Sesame Chicken ($7.25) deep-fried chicken chunks in another sweet-sour-type sauce.
Restaurant-served entrees appear with brightly colored vegetables, generally crisp to the tooth and steaming hot, but home delivery options suffer, even within a 10-block range. None of our four phone orders was warm, but even more disconcerting was the drippy sack that arrived at our door. Despite the fact that each carry-out container had been shrink-wrapped, every one oozed sticky sauces through the bag, onto the floor and counter. Once cleaned up, then punched in the microwave, the dinners seemed almost too worn to taste.
Stick to the strip mall for convenient, dependable, if mostly ordinary Chinese. Then watch for signs that Peter Sum and the Sampan keep movin' on to the west.