Jack Chen has been serving “distinctive cuisine of China” and “Hong Kong-style seafood” at his China Gourmet restaurant in Paso Robles for almost 20 years.
In 2007, the menu took a journey south to a second location in South County.
The Paso Robles location was established in 1992, and Chen — a recent immigrant from China with no restaurant experience — got a job there not long after. Soon, he had advanced to manager, and by 1999, he owned the place.
In 2007, Chen took over an existing Chinese restaurant in Grover Beach, giving both the inside and out a little TLC (including paving the dirt parking lot).
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The resulting interior is straightforward and welcoming. There are a couple of tables, including one that can handle a fairly large group, but the majority of seating is provided by comfy burgundy booths against the walls.
The menu was also overhauled to mirror that of the Paso Robles restaurant, and a couple of longtime employees from that location — “Some who have been with me 20 years,” Chen said — were brought in to establish and “maintain the consistency.”
There’s no buffet here, but China Gourmet does offer the ubiquitous lunch and dinner specials, which come with soup, a fried appetizer, and rice.
Amid these you’ll find all the usual, slightly Americanized tastes of General Tsao’s chicken, chow mein, egg foo yung, sweet and sour pork, and so on, as well as options such as Mongolian beef, Szechuan chicken, and Hunan pork.
“We use vegetable oil and quality vegetables, and we don’t use MSG,” Chen said.
On the extensive regular menus, some dishes bear striking names like Triple Salute Chicken and Basil, Emperor Prawns, and Sizzling Black Pepper Beef, but their flavors will probably strike familiar chords with your palate.
Fans of Thai food might note some similarities to chili basil chicken in the Triple Salute, and those prawns are wrapped in ham and served with a slightly sweet, creamy sauce — essentially the China Gourmet version of a bacon-wrapped shrimp recipe.
As for the Sizzling Black Pepper Beef (or seafood or black bean chicken), it will arrive duly hissing with heat and trailing steam to your table. You’ll think fajitas, but be ready for Asian flavors.
If noodles are your thing, go for the wide Chow Fun with black bean and beef or the spicy, curry-flavored Singapore noodles. Vegetarians can opt for Szechuan eggplant, sautéed spinach with ginger and scallions, or get the vegetable moo shu.
Chen and his staff always strive to provide friendly service at both China Gourmet locations, but this time of year, they’ll also be wishing everyone “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” — as in “Happy New Year!”
Feb. 10 begins the Chinese lunar calendar’s new year, though the holiday festivities stretch on for several days. Each year is characterized by an animal symbol from the Chinese zodiac; for 2013, it’s the Year of the Snake, but don’t recoil from the imagery — it can bode well!
Your personal forecast for the year depends on the snake’s relationship to your Chinese zodiac sign, which is determined by the year you were born. However, tradition also suggests augmenting your odds of good luck in the coming months by eating such New Year’s Day foods as oranges (for wealth), uncut noodles (for long life), and whole fish (for both abundance throughout and a good start/finish to the year).