Hidden behind the facade of a generic Chinese strip mall takeout joint, Peking Quick One is serving unusually authentic Chinese cuisine.
Just ask the Chinese students from the University at Buffalo who discovered the place, and fill most of its 30 seats at busy times. Like Uncle John's No. 1, on Grover Cleveland Highway in Amherst, Peking Quick One does double duty, serving Americans and Chinese alike.
There's a stack of American Chinese menus on the counter with your usuals, the General Tso's Chicken, chow mein and egg foo yung that's everywhere. Here, though, Chinese customers and other savvy eaters ask for the Chinese menu.
If you don't read Mandarin, ask for the Chinese ("Home Style") menu translated into English. If they've run out of copies again, I'll give you a few names and numbers you might try. Or you can do what I did: Point out interesting-looking dishes going to nearby tables and ask, "What's that?" Depending on which staffer you're talking to, they might have to grab another staffer or even a customer to translate for you, but no one complained.
And it's worth a little work. Here's the dishes that had me wanting more:
The revelations started with "Hot & Sour Shredded Potatoes" (No. 13, $3.50). Fresh matchsticked potatoes are expertly stir-fried until flavored with smoky "wok hay," a Chinese term translated as "breath of the wok," then tossed in a tangy, faintly spicy sauce. It's a northern Chinese favorite, also available here with green pepper (No. 14, $3.50).
"Stir-fried Celery with Beef" (No. 19, $5.95), made me realize I've never seen celery as a vegetable with its own merits. Here, it's poached in a star-anise-scented broth and stir-fried to a smoky, tender crisp with a few small pieces of beef.
I first saw "Poached Spicy Slices of Pork" (No. 35, $8.50) go by on its way to another table. A big bowl of noodles, meat and spices submerged in broth, covered by a quarter-inch of brick-red chili oil, it reminded me of Szechuan hotpots.
Beneath the surface was tender sliced pork, a clump of glassine bean-thread noodles and bean sprouts, and I ate them all.
But despite the obvious load of chilies in the broth, plus a generous dose of black pepper, the fire of the dish died quickly without lingering aftereffects, far easier on me than my favorite hot chicken wings. I followed the example of the other table, and left much of the broth behind.
A plate of "Spicy Double-Cooked Pork" (No. 27, $8.50) drew the admiration of lunchtime companions. It's thinly sliced marinated pork belly, stir-fried with garlic, chilies, black beans, ginger and bell pepper until it takes on a chewy-crisp quality I found addictive. My fellow eaters thought it went particularly well with the shredded potatoes.
The dumplings here won praise from young and old alike. "Pork with Chinese Cabbage Dumplings, Steamed" (No. 4, $4.95) are 10 handmade dumplings with relatively thin wrappers and juicy fillings of ground pork and cabbage, served with tangy black vinegar dipping sauce.
"Pork with Leek and Shrimp Dumplings, Fried" (No. 7, $7.45) were up to the same standards, with chunks of fresh shrimp that added flavor of the sea to the dumpling bites.
"Poached Spicy Fishes" (No. 41, $9.50) followed the same model as the Poached Pork, with fish fillets in a big bowl of spicy broth with noodles and chili oil. "Steamed Handmade Noodles with Salty Brown Sauce" (No. 10, $5.95) turned out to be a platter of chewy thin noodles with a plate of things to mix in to taste, including matchsticked cucumber, carrot and bean sprouts, and a portion of thick brown sauce that included pork, black beans, ginger and garlic.
"Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs" (No. 32, $8.50 large) was hacked-up pork ribs and a few potato chunks braised to tenderness.
Choices from the American Chinese menu showed solid cooking but no surprises. Honey Chicken (No. 58, $7.50 large) was chunks of chicken and vegetables in a sweet honey glaze; General Tso's Chicken (No. S-5, $8.95) was chunks of chicken in stout fried shells, in a tangy, sweet, slightly spicy sauce; Beef with Oyster Sauce (No. 60, $7.80 large) was slices of tender beef and vegetables in a savory, slightly peppery sauce.
Take half a star off for some dishes being decent, competent cooking, but not terrific, and general scruffiness of the decor. Despite its name, you cannot expect to walk in the door and leave with Moo Shoo Whatever in 10 minutes. Order ahead or prepare to wait through busy times.
That said, there were no regrettable dishes in four visits. Peking Quick One served me several dishes I found outstanding, capable of holding their own against Chinatown competition. I plan to work through the rest of the menu, confident from what I've seen so far that other pleasant surprises await.
PEKING QUICK ONE
3.5 pennies (out of four pennies)
"Explore authentic Chinese."
WHERE: 359 Somerville Ave., Tonawanda (381-8730)
HOURS: 11 a.m to 10 p.m. seven days.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes