Too often, Chinese take-out can be a boring experience – basic and bland food in ubiquitous white pagoda boxes. There is little to distinguish it from dozens of other take-put places, leaving much to doubt when the age-old “Where do you want to order from?” question arises.
Located on the outskirts of what most people would traditionally call “Wheaton,” Chin and Lee sits rather unremarkably in the Kemp Mill shopping center on Lamberton Drive off Arcola Avenue, but breaks that mold with both food and service that is remarkable.
While the storefront has ample space for a half-dozen or more dine-in tables, Chin and Lee is 100% carryout, and has been that way for more than a decade. Owner Tony Lin explained that they do not have public bathroom facilities, and the carryout business is doing so well that he doesn’t really think about remodeling to include a bathroom and tables.
The space is on the dim side, with little in the way of decoration, but the combination of terrific smells wafting from the tiny pass-though kitchen window and Linda Lin’s personality more than make up for the lack of any visual stimulation.
While maybe not on par with the “Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld, Lin can be disarmingly abrupt, and there is no question that she is in complete control of her surroundings. Often taking one order on the phone, another in person and still finding time to communicate with the cooks and drivers, she does it all with military precision, and often in a tone that would make R. Lee Ermey proud.
Lin is very personable, often making a comment that lets you know she remembers you. Typically, my order is for my family of four, but every so often, we’ll order from Chin and Lee when we have guests, and inevitably, she’ll ask “Why do you order so much food?” or “That’s a lot of food, you sure?” Other times, it might be a more topical comment, such as during one of our sweltering summer heat waves, lamenting “It’s too hot to cook today, huh?”
The food is reasonably priced, the menu is fairly typical of Chinese take-out, with the traditional appetizers, soups, chicken, beef, pork and seafood dishes, alongside noodle entrees.
The mini egg rolls are excellent, small enough to be eaten in two bites, and much less greasy than many other egg rolls. The curry beef triangles are a great choice for an appetizer as well – well-seasoned, but not overly spicy, although there might be a bit too much dough, as the corners tend to be a bit dry and a bit sharp on the roof of your mouth. The hot and sour soup is pleasantly flavored as well, with a rich broth and fluffy tofu a step above the bland and mysterious mixture that passes for hot and sour at some other places.
Where Chin and Lee really makes its mark is in their willingness to customize their selections. While you might hear a hint of exasperation in the order-taker’s voice, she will happily add or subtract and ingredient that doesn’t suit your palate. I often order the steamed chicken with mixed vegetables, with a sauce on the side – sometimes orange, sometimes brown sauce. But the real standout is black bean sauce. It is just a touch spicy, but by ordering the sauce on the side, you can add as little or much as you like, tuning it to your individual taste buds.
Whether you order in person or for delivery, you’ll quickly be spoiled by the speed – carryout orders are often ready in ten minutes, while delivery is generally faster than pizza. Either way you order, be sure to ask for a menu. And make sure to hang on to it, as Chin and Lee is one of the few remaining restaurants that doesn’t have their menu online.
Most entrees are available in small and large sizes, priced under $6.00 and $9.00 respectively. There are house specials that run as high as $11.95, including crispy fish and imperial shrimp. Lunch specials are available Monday – Saturday, priced from $5.25 - $5.95 and include one egg roll and fried rice.
Chin and Lee is located at 1331 Lamberton Drive.