Photo by Chris ZieglerYour better strip malls are stucco-splattered slice-o'-life amalgams of culture with a credit rating developed enough to secure a 12-month retail-property lease, and we kinda like that. You get uniquely strip-mall-ian establishments, attached remora-like to the side of a Stein-Mart or Target—and from these, you get the cuisine-unto-itself that is strip-mall Chinese.
The best strip-mall Chinese joints don't mess around with foofery—booths, signs that light up at night, restrooms—and you, the penny-conscious gourmand, are the better for it. All they really need are those washed-out glamour shots of orange chicken and chow mein above the register, a sneeze guard over the steam table, and tub after glistening tub of the best cheap eats you're gonna get this side of a Trader Joe's trash can. Forget cul-de-sacs and casual solvent abuse; it is in the strip-mall Chinese restaurant that we find a fundamental component of the suburban-sprawl experience.
At Huntington Beach's Hong Kong Bowl, wise diners will go for the three-bucks-and-change combo No. 1: chow mein with just the right amount of grease, steamed or fried rice, and one selection from the steam table, all piled so high you can barely shut the foam tray they serve it in. Ignore dictates of human decency and go for combo No. 2—with an extra steam table selection—and we guarantee you'll be breakfasting on leftovers. The fortune cookie report: "You will soon be crossing the great waters." Well . . . we did just clean our bathroom.
And we did cross Beach Boulevard on our way to Fountain Valley's Lucky Chinese, where they set the standard for more-bowl-for-your-buck. A bowl of rice and one selection from the steam table will knock you on your ass for less than $3. The sweet-and-supple barbecue pork somehow stays tender under those harsh fluorescents. The kung pao chicken had more kick than Hong Kong's, maybe even too much: we put our little baby bowl to bed before we hit the halfway point, already stuffed to the point of rupture. Bitterly cheap gluttons, this is your place. Our fortune: "Others admire your independence."
We took the cops out front of Fullerton's Kung Pao Bowl as a good sign: cops know where the best deals are, since they have to eat out on public servant's wages. We piled on the kung pao here, figuring we owed it to the name: the shrimp, chicken and beef are all nicely spicy, though the beef is the best. But it's the veggie chow mein that makes the meal. After a steady diet of strip-mall Chinese, the sprouts and mushrooms were a gentle prodding back to life we didn't even know we needed. Bonus points for the convenient to-go containers: try takeout on your next stakeout, officers! And the cookie? "Good things are being said about you." Was that what they kept muttering into their walkie-talkies?
By now, we were oozing sweet-and-sour sauce from every orifice not otherwise committed—it had been one brutally Sino-rific day—but we made it to Santa Ana's New Panda Chinese Food (not to be confused with Panda Express) for combo C: fried rice, chow mein and any three items. God love 'em, they gave us four just for the hell of it, so we plowed through fried tofu (uncomfortably chewy, but that's what you get for not eating meat), barbecue pork (Lucky Chinese prevails here), orange chicken (the weakest of the bunch), and sweet-and-sour chicken (that's the stuff!). And all for, like, $5—if you can beat that, you must be in China. Our fortune: "You are soon going to change your present line of work."
Hong Kong Bowl, 19077 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 596-3908. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $10, food only. Cash only; Lucky Chinese, 18525 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 962-4221. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $10, food only. Cash only; Kung Pao Bowl, 217 N. Euclid, Fullerton, (714) 680-9793. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $15, food only. All major credit cards accepted; New Panda Chinese Food, 3814 S. Bristol St., Ste. B, Santa Ana, (714) 540-2238. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $10, food only. cash only.