Nothing much had changed as far as I could tell as I took my seat at Hainan House on Bluffton Road.
It had the same attractive setting with Asian artwork on the walls, including that eye-catching, three-dimensional dragon mural, and the calming aquarium filled with tropical fish as the centerpiece of the dining room. And the menu had the same variety of dishes that made the restaurant in Quimby Village a semi-regular destination for me.
But something had changed since I last visited: the owners, who have been there for about a year now. But had anything else changed?
The tomato-beef soup hadnt. A signature of Hainan House that the regulars know is only available on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it has a thick, dark red, sweet broth with carrot, potato and celery, along with tiny bits of beef. It is not what you typically find at Chinese restaurants or any other restaurants for that matter.
The egg drop soup also proved to be a winner with plenty of bamboo shoots, mushrooms and carrots floating in its thick, creamy egg broth. It was much better than the rather basic wonton and hot and sour soup, which was neither hot nor sour.
The best entrée was the pork chop suey, which had chunks of tender meat and plenty of al dente vegetables in a flavorful sauce. A plethora of sprouts gave it some added crunch and made for a very nice dish, especially when paired with fried rice, which was light brown with a distinct soy flavor and dotted with bits of barbecued pork.
From there, the changes at Hainan House became more noticeable, and that wasnt a good thing.
The worst example was the sizzling triple delight, which was listed among the house specialties. It arrived sizzling with pieces of rubbery chicken breast, decent shrimp and some of the worst beef I have ever eaten. The beef had a mushy, gristly texture that was hard to stomach. It was almost as if someone had already chewed it up for me. The gooey pale sauce enrobing the rest of the dishs ingredients – broccoli, pea pods, Napa cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, baby corn, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots – was flavorless. The crisped rice on the bottom of the sizzle platter was OK, but the dish was barely palatable even with a heavy dose of soy sauce mixed in it.
The princess chicken had some flavor, but it was more sweet and did not have near enough heat to be a good princess sauce. The chicken was also not what I expected. It was coated in a soft batter much like sweet and sour chicken. I was hoping for bigger chunks of dark and white meat dredged and fried until crisp.
The only appetizers that found favor were the barbecued spareribs. The sizable ribs were coated in a sticky, sweet red sauce and the pork was tender and flavorful. The spring rolls were OK and could have been better had they not been a bit burnt around the edges from a little too much time in the fryer. But they were vastly better than the pot stickers, which, although perfectly steamed and then crisped on one side, were filled with what looked to be a once-frozen, precooked meatball.
Given all of this disappointment, I thought the best way to gauge how much had changed at Hainan House was to order the dish I found most impressive last time I visited – the willow beef.
Also from the house specialties portion of the menu, I described the dish as, Tender medallions of filet mignon coated with a robust, beef-infused sauce. The thickness of this sauce made it almost gravy-like and its rich flavor reminded me of good old American pot roast. Tender enough to be cut with a fork and melted in my mouth.
The new willow beef had three cutlets of what appeared to be skirt steak. The brown sauce was similar, but the meat was tough and required a knife this time, and a lot of chewing. And I mean a lot of chewing.
The service was admirable during both of my recent visits to Hainan House with cordial employees who were helpful even if just a bit tardy at times, so at least that hasnt changed. But, overall, the changes that I experienced there this time were not for the better.
Restaurant: Hainan House
Address: 1820 Bluffton Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Pot stickers ($4.75), spareribs ($5.25), egg rolls (2 for $1.95), willow beef ($13.95), princess chicken ($9.95), triple delight ($10.95), pork chop suey ($7.95), soup ($1.50)
atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
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