Photo by Amy TheligEnjoy family-style dining, where parties eat from various entrées? At Huntington Beach's new Lotus Chinese Eatery, the county's second Chinese Islamic restaurant, parties can do that from onedish. A plate of hand-pulled wheat noodles looks like a dun-colored eel farm. Green-onion-spiked sesame bread is thicker than a Chicago-style pizza and serves a Little League ball club. Lotus' gustatory generosity shames Hometown Buffet and—here's a twist—is actually delicious.
It specializes in the heavy platters of China's Muslim community. It's a cuisine borne out of the harsh realities of the country's northern region, with a strict adherence to Islam's freshness of halal dietary standards. Add to that the need to feed large families, and you get good, healthy food—and plenty of it.
It's also food that loves contrasts: cold snacks presented alongside scalding-hot pots, wheat breads and noodles in place of rice, slices of lean meat accompanying almost everything. And no pork—ever. "What do you mean you don't sell pork?" asked an incredulous customer recently as a lovely middle-aged hostess vainly explained that Muslims don't eat pigs.
Lotus occupies the same strip mall once occupied by a Taiwanese restaurant, but the new owners—formerly of Tustin's Jamillah Garden, the county's other Chinese Islamic diner—stripped away the Taiwanese eatery's mid-1960s exotic-East theme in favor of an updated, Chinese-chic décor. Elegant porcelain statues of dragons, Buddhas and horses stand sentry around Lotus; a delicate gold-threaded family painting greets eaters at the entrance. Booths are high-backed, dark-brown and cozy. The sole window is at the eastern wing of the building. Electronica softly pulses from behind a bamboo-lined bar—you can grub or club at Lotus.
Like almost every northern Chinese restaurant, Lotus trots out so-so egg rolls and egg-flower soup as appetizers. Better to start with chilled ox tripe: popsicle-cold; chopped into thin, ribbed sections; and tinctured a deep red thanks to chile. The tripe's consistency is as it should be—rubbery but soft and dissolving quickly in your mouth. The chile's surreptitious fire mitigates the funkiness that is gnawing on cold offal. A sprinkling of cucumber slivers provides another nuanced layer of flavor contrast to the most exciting appetizer I've plowed through this year.
If an ox's intestines are too much for you, Lotus also offers American favorites: fried rice this, kung pao that, orange everything. They're all quite tasty, but the waitresses will shoot a quizzical, disappointed look if you ask for those.
Look around the tables. Ask for the sesame bread, a two-inch-thick slab of wheat about the diameter of a preschool basketball hoop that steams from nearly every table. Dunk it into any of the warm pots, mini cauldrons that bubble angrily with translucent rice noodles, cabbage, intensely rich meat and spicy broth.
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Make like the hijab-covered kiddies and chopstick through the hand-cut rice noodles, magazine-thick wheat snakes pan-fried with your choice of meat. Or follow the recommendation of waitresses and pick the boringly titled honey-walnut shrimp. Foodies might dismiss this pick as slightly more adventurous than egg foo yung, but the honey-walnut shrimp is edible elegance: gnarled honey-glazed walnuts paired with deep-fried shrimp that are glazed with a fabulous mayonnaise-honey sauce that makes them resemble crystal balls.
In a nod toward its non-Chinese Muslim clients, Lotus also prepares some pan-Islamic favorites—supergreasy paratha bread studded with powerful green onions, curry chicken, even a couple of satays to please dem garrulous Malaysians.
But caveat comedor: if you want quick service this month, eat before sunset. Once the light of day fades, Orange County's Muslim community crowds Lotus to break their Ramadan fasting, grateful for something other than hummus and falafel. Then again, the night time is the right time to visit—nothing like enlisting the help of hungry, friendly strangers to tackle the bounties of this year's best new restaurant.
LOTUS CHINESE EATERY, 16883 BEACH BLVD., HUNTINGTON BEACH, (714) 848-4940. OPEN SUN.-THURS., 11 A.M.-3 P.M. & 4:30-9:30 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-3 P.M. & 4:30-10 P.M. NO ALCOHOL, BAR NOTWITHSTANDING. DINNER FOR TWO, $9-$30, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.