Crispier chicken than KFC or Church's

How a Chinese place with five tables lasts 25 years

Sesame seeds and lots of umami
  • Sesame seeds and lots of umami

"Mmm. Helps with the cold,” croaks Ria.

Liu's Chinese Restaurant

1850 Coronado Avenue, Imperial Beach

She’s leaning over the steam of her wonton soup. She fishes for a wonton that’s hiding beneath the cabbage and crispy croutons she dunked in the soup.

Then she catches the sucker, hauls it up to her mouth.

Strip mall lighting but Cantonese romance

Strip mall lighting but Cantonese romance

“Ayee! Hot! Burned by a wanton wonton!”

Ria says she always goes to a Vietnamese or Chinese place when she has a cold to cure. Now we both look at the mini dumpling, all wiggles and steam.

“Sure that ain’t someone’s brain?” I say.

“Careful,” Ria says. “In Chinese myth, wontons represent the ancient chaos of the cosmos. That’s why it looks formless. They say it’s your basic Faceless Being.”

“Ayee! Hot! Burned by a wanton wonton!”

“Ayee! Hot! Burned by a wanton wonton!”

Whoa. Ria and her best bud Carla have always been into this kind of thing. Spooks me. Doesn’t worry them. This time she slurps the wontons in, chews them, and releases them from their faceless misery.

W.C. and Zaire. “My daughter had 17 kids. You never get lonely in our family.”

W.C. and Zaire. “My daughter had 17 kids. You never get lonely in our family.”

Ria’s in a hurry. She ordered her wonton soup ($4.50) the instant we entered. It came in a big polystyrene container. Everything here is take-out, even when you’re eating in. She says she has to go pick up her guy Will from work at two. Twenty minutes from now. Gave me a ride here so I could get something for Carla. But I’m still dithering.

The Lucky sign

The Lucky sign

This is all happening at Liu's Chinese Restaurant on the edge of the spattering of strip malls around Albertsons and Rite Aid, between Saturn and 18th Street down at the south end of San Diego Bay. Egger Highlands they call it, because a family named Egger gave the land to the community back in the day.

“In Chinese myth, wontons represent the ancient chaos of the cosmos."

“In Chinese myth, wontons represent the ancient chaos of the cosmos."

I’d noticed this place when Ria and I had come to the other eatery next door, couple of years back. Crisp Fish and Chips. So-o good. I still remember their deep-fried mushrooms.

They’re still there, and prices haven’t changed. But, no. Today, we want good ol’ Chinese take-out.

Just a blip in a strip mall

Just a blip in a strip mall

So we came in here. Real simple. Five tables, pale blue and white floor tiles, cream tile skirting, white walls, acoustic ceiling, traditional carved-wood hanging lanterns between neon strip lighting, a big red-and-gold “Lucky” sign shining out from the kitchen, and a young bamboo type of tree with good-luck signs dangling from its branches. Oh, and a servery shelf laden with Mexican circus-prize figurines.

“Oh!” This is Ria. “Two o’clock. Gotta pick up my man. Bon appétit, dude.”

Wow. That was quick. Guess I’d better get with it as well. I go heads-down into the menu. Yes, it’s standard Chinese fare. Soups such as Cantonese noodle, roast-pork noodle, wonton noodle, or wor wonton. Notice that wonton noodle soup is $4.99 and wor wonton soup is $4.98. Wonder what makes it one cent cheaper. I thought wor (which means “everything,” right?) had “everything” in it, like veggies, egg, as well as broth and wontons. Maybe because it doesn’t have noodles?

Fried rice goes from $5.50 (vegetable) to $8 (Cantonese, with chicken, shrimp, BBQ chicken) to $8.80, about the most expensive dish on the menu, for shrimp fried rice. Chow mein soft-noodle dishes and chop suey (“bean sprout”) dishes are in the same range. Under “poultry,” green-pepper chicken ($6) sounds a possible, and, oh, here’s the top-dollar item: salt-and-pepper shrimp — or salt-and-pepper squid. Massive price of $9.99.

But, hey, most prices are like the $4.99 specials: BBQ fried rice or chicken Cantonese and egg roll; or kung pao chicken and green-pepper chicken.

Two “Today Specials” on the wall: sesame chicken or cashew chicken with fried rice and egg roll for $5.75

Better decide. I notice they’re getting a lot of phone orders coming in, and there’s a steady trickle of walk-ins, too.

I almost play for time with spring rolls (three for $3) or a sweet-and-sour pork appetizer ($6.50) but end up asking for the cashew chicken.

“Sorry. We ran out,” says the business-like gal. “But we have the sesame.”

That’s what I go for. Oh. Dang. Now I see they have sizzling shrimp (or chicken or beef) for $8.80.

Still, the sesame chicken is delish. The fried rice is, like, okay, but gets way better once you squirt it up with Sriracha. Bottle of Sangría Señorial ($2.50) helps, too.

Gal says they’ve been going here 25 years, and quite a few of the customers seem to know the owners well. They talk business and family. Yes, she says, they’ve had to raise prices. But, man, what could they have been before? Because, right now, this place is a deal. I’m guessing these guys succeed by staying bare bones, letting their food do the talking.

This older guy comes in. Name’s W.C. “And this here is my niece, Zaire,” he says.

W.C. says he’s grandfather to 27 kids. “My daughter had 17 of them. You never get lonely in our family.”

He orders a ten-dollar bucket of chicken. “I always come here. Not KFC or Church’s. These people’s chicken is crispier. Has a better texture than the others. And you can’t beat the flavor.”

Huh. Chinese cooking beating out the Colonel at his own game?

Also, I notice they have a curry beef dish going for $7. Curry. That’s Carla’s obsession. I call her. “They have a curry beef. Interested in splitting?”

“Ooh. Get it. But don’t count on splitting.”

In the end, we wait till evening, then do split it. Problem: Carla isn’t that moved by it. Me neither. The curry flavor seems a bit washed out. Maybe curry’s an Indian thing more than Chinese. Whatever, I’m already hungry again. Could sure do with some more sesame chicken right now. Or even Ria’s wanton wontons.

Liu's Chinese Restaurant

1850 Coronado Avenue, Imperial Beach

Hours: 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday–Friday; 10:30 a.m.–8 p.m., Saturday; 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m., Sunday

Prices: Three egg rolls, $3; wonton noodle soup, $4.99; vegetable fried rice, $5.50; Cantonese fried rice with chicken, shrimp, BBQ chicken, $8; pork chow mein, $6.50; green-pepper chicken, $6; salt-and-pepper squid, $9.99; BBQ fried-rice special, $4.99; chicken Cantonese, fried rice, and egg roll, $4.99; kung pao chicken with fried rice and egg roll, $4.99; cashew or sesame chicken, fried rice and egg roll, $5.75

Buses: 901, 933

Nearest Bus Stops: Coronado Avenue at Saturn Boulevard (901, 933); Saturn at Coronado (934)

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