Take in Chinese without takeout at China Gourmet

China Gourmet offers takeout quality food in a setting better than your living room. Photo by Emily Waller/emily.waller@marquette.edu.

We’ve all been there: It’s the weekend, and you and your friends are craving Chinese takeout as if you’ve never had a string of lo mein in your life. So you run to the fridge, snag the takeout menu, order via phone, and, ages later, eat out of the box on the floor with a fork.

If this is starting to sound boring and cliché, you might want to give “real” Chinese dining a chance, with downtown secret China Gourmet, 117 E. Wells St.

While China Gourmet does offer delivery, like every other Chinese restaurant in the area, the draw here is definitely the restaurant itself. Right in the heart of downtown, across from the Pabst Theater, the restaurant is an excellent place to drop in on a night out.

The décor, including artwork and hanging scrolls, is generally enough to put you in an oriental state of mind — although the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling are a not-too-subtle reminder that you’re in Milwaukee — and the inside is huge, with lots of seating areas and space between the tables as well as a full bar. Even though it was a Friday night, the restaurant never got too crowded, offering a bubble of privacy that didn’t make you feel like the only ones there.

Of course, you don’t only go to a restaurant for the ambiance — you go for the food. In this respect, China Gourmet certainly isn’t measurably better than your average Chinese takeout, but it’s no worse either.

In the tradition of many Chinese restaurants, China Gourmet offers buffets for lunch as well as for dinner on Friday and Saturday. The lunch is by far a better deal — only $8.50 versus $13.95 for the dinner buffet — but if you’re especially hungry and looking for some variety, it might be your best bet.

And if the buffet offers an average-sized variety, the regular menu offers a multitude. As long or longer than any takeout menu, it’ll take you a while to get through, much less decide what you want.

Seeing their specialty was Szechuan-style cuisine, I decided to try out a plate of Szechuan wings as an appetizer before moving onto the main course. Unfortunately, they might have been the night’s major misstep. The wings were spicy to the point of eradicating almost all other flavors and weren’t a step above what you could get at any sports bar.

Better was their Governor’s Chicken, a less-common name for the dish better known as General Tso’s chicken. A staple of Chinese takeout, I personally find the dish to be either hit or miss at given restaurants, either nice and zesty or sickeningly sweet. China Gourmet’s version was the former, although the chicken itself seemed to have been cooked overlong.

The best of the evening, however, was their Honey Garlic Chicken. Listed as a chef’s specialty, the dish piqued my curiosity because it seemed to clash with their spicy Szechuan focus, and it wasn’t listed on their takeout menu or on any other menu I’ve seen since.

It certainly should be. The portion size was a bit small, but the dish made up for it. The honey was the strongest flavor, but the hint of garlic that crept in saved it from being a boring, tastelessly sweet dish.

There’s one major downside to China Gourmet: Most things seem to be marginally more expensive than your average takeout. Whether or not this leads to better quality seems to vary from item to item, so I definitely can’t recommend you order delivery from them.

However, if you’re looking for a different place to go out with friends, or you want to drop in for a quick bite before heading to the theater or a concert, I feel I can recommend it as a solid choice. Part of what China Gourmet is selling is the faux-authentic appeal of a Chinese restaurant setting, and since the quality of their food isn’t made worse because of it, it offers something its competitors can’t — a nice place to sit that isn’t your living room floor.