By Robin Garr
When Oriental House posted the news of its reopening on social media earlier this month, it made me so happy that I wanted to “Like” it twice!
“We just want to thank everybody for the patience, love, and support throughout this journey,” the owners wrote. “This will be our first time opening our dining rooms to the public since the pandemic, so please continue to stay patient with us! Takeout will still be available as well.”
This was huge for me. I’ve been a fan of Chinese cuisine since, well, most of my life. Oriental House was not only one of the city’s longest-standing Chinese spots, it was a favorite stalwart of old-style Chinese-American fare since back in the ‘60s. What’s more, under new management in 2006, it became one of the first local eateries to offer Westerners full access to an “authentic” menu in both Chinese and English.
Yes, I was a fan. I went often, and when management shut down indoor dining at the beginning of the pandemic – and stayed closed for the next 2 1/2 years – Louisville’s Asian options just didn’t feel the same.
So I’m celebrating, and I hope you will too, the return of Oriental House in bright, pretty, beautifully renovated yet utterly familiar quarters.
Naturally I had to go. I skipped opening day to avoid the crowds, but held out for only a couple of days before rushing in. There was a good, not overflow, crowd, for lunch, and service was better than I really had any right to expect so soon in the re-launch of a popular place. And the food? Oh, yeah! It was good!
The renovated dining room won’t seem unfamiliar to old-timers. The old-school look of Oriental House (like its old-school name) remains unchanged. But it’s all shiny and sparkling, inside and out. The old, dark front entry passage is gone, now built into the building with easy access. Even the exterior, that exuberant Chinese-look building, appears to have been scrubbed and freshly painted. Inside, the floors, tables and chairs are all sturdy and new. The familiar round moon gate between the rooms and the pillars flanking the doors to the kitchen are bright and fresh, and pretty red-fabric lighting fixtures hang in rows overhead.
The menu appears essentially the same, with well over 200 items, including an 85-item “Authentic Chinese” menu that remains a built-in part of the huge bill of fare. That includes about two dozen dim sum snack dishes available at all hours.
While a few fancy dishes can range upward to $29 (for braised sea cucumber and shiitake mushroom on the authentic menu), most entrees are in the lower to middle teens, while many dim sum plates are $4.50-5.50. Depending on your tastes, you can go fully authentic with something like pig ear or pig stomach (both $9) or old-school with chow mein, chop suey, lo mein or fried rice ($11-$13), or pretty. much any level in between.
Everything we tried was very good, starting with fresh, steaming, and plentiful jasmine tea ($2 for a plentiful hot pot and two porcelain cups).
Egg drop soup is a good test dish for any Chinese restaurant, and Oriental House’s bowl ($4) passed with my “delicious” rating. It was warm and soothing with abundant quick-scrambled egg in a tasty, simple broth.
Another appetizer, vegetable spring rolls ($2.50), was rendered in Chinese as Shanghai rolls (thanks to Google image translate). An order included three slender, exceptionally crunchy fried-pastry rolls, served sizzling hot, Within they bore a payload of finely shredded cabbage and a bit of carrot, a whiff of anise and a hint of ginger.
One of our favorite dishes here is a simple but memorable plate of roasted duck with steamed rice, No. 53 on the authentic menu. A sizable duck thigh quarter had been coated with hoisin sauce and anise-scented five-spice and roasted to a dark mahogany color, then chopped crosswise into chunks. They were served with a bit of lettuce that had been quickly softened in duck broth, with a generous scoop of medium-grain white rice. The skin was roasted and firm, not crackling crisp, with a thick layer of juicy fat cloaking rich, succulent, tender dark duck meat. It was a substantial serving, and a startling lunch-hour value at just $11. It’s pictured at the top of this page.
Another favorite, one of the few meatless dishes on the authentic menu, and a hearty, warming dish for a chilly autumn day, was No. 33, eggplant with garlic sauce ($14). This is Yu-Shiang eggplant, a classic Sichuanese dish made with a spicy-sweet, intensely garlicky sauce whose name literally means “fish fragrant” because it’s said to go well with fish. Or eggplant! Long strips of eggplant were salt-marinated, then stir-fried until very tender and bathed in ample dark-brown Yu-Shiang sauce.
A hearty, delicious Chinese lunch for two came to $35.51, plus an $8.50 tip.
Noise Level: The room was crowded, but never ear-shattering. Conversation was easy at an average sound level was 72dB.
Accessibility: The attractively renovated dining room and rest rooms appear fully accessible to wheelchair users.