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Monday, April 15

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A couple of blocks west of the Irving Park Brown line stop there beckons a neon sign for Orange Garden. The lights were up high in this neighborhood Chinese spot where Ken, Andrew, Alice, Anne, Brian and I met. Dark wood paneling framed a large doorway, sectioning off the portion of the dining area closer to the kitchen. Large dragons painted in gold and green hovered above the doorway and red and green tassels adorned the gold wall sconces. The atmosphere was very comfortable and casual with typical black leather booths lining the perimeter and two tables pushed together to accommodate the six of us.

"Doesn't this remind you of every Chinese place you went to as a kid?" Brian asked after taking two seconds to scan the menu.

"I grew up in New Mexico," I said. "There were no Chinese restaurants."

"So, no."

"Yeah…I'll need a minute," I laughed, opening my menu to survey the vast array of "authentic Cantonese dishes." From chop suey and chow mein to fried rice and war mein, the menu offered a great number of dishes from which to choose. Most could be made with pork, chicken or beef, or made vegetarian with tofu. Oddly, there was also a selection of American fare hidden at the very bottom of the menu, listing hamburgers and chicken sandwiches for those who, I could only guess, were not so fond of Chinese food but had been unwittingly dragged to the restaurant.

"How about vegetable egg rolls?" Brian answered when Andrew asked for appetizer suggestions. "How about meat and meat with meat sauce?" I countered, poking fun at his recent turn to vegetarianism. While neither of our suggestions made the cut, we did order the regular egg rolls, fried wontons, and pot stickers to start our meal. Although the fried wontons were found to be surprisingly void of any filling, they were hot and crispy and, as Andrew noted, "fresh from the fryer." The pot stickers were enormous, triple the size of an average pot sticker, but thankfully the cooked meat and dough didnít suffer for taste and came with it's own bowl of soy sauce for dipping. The egg rolls, filled with shrimp and what we guessed was pork, were similarly huge and hot to the touch. We turned to Brian when we noticed the sixth meaty roll had gone missing. "I ate it. I was so fucking hungry!" he confessed, cursing the poor selection of vegetarian options at his work. "It can be pretty bad when you have a really disappointing lunch," Ken commiserated.

Our entrees arrived and huge plates of food were placed in front of us while Anne and I groaned that we were both already full from the appetizers. Ken was ultimately let down by his order of Orange Peel Beef -- breaded slices of beef served in a citrus glaze with steamed broccoli on the side. Though many pieces of the meat were fine, others were "sadly, too crusty and burnt-tasting," and the broccoli had cooled by the time the plate reached him. The high salt content "left me pretty thirsty," he said, expressing his overall disappointment with the restaurant. "But then again," he admitted, "I dislike most Chinese restaurants outside of Chinalite and a few in Chinatown proper." Andrew similarly found his order of Pressed Duck to be on the salty side. The preformed duck meat was breaded and deep fried and served with what Andrew guessed was oyster sauce, which "was not what I expected, and too salty to be really enjoyable." Aside from the sauce, Andrew did enjoy the duck itself and liked the mixture of stir-fried snow peas, bamboo shoots, onions and watercress that topped the dish.

"That looks like three Dunkin' Donuts apple fritters!" Andrew exclaimed when Alice's order of Chicken Egg Foo Young was set in front of her. "With gravy," Ken added. "It's like: This here," Anne said, pointing from the dish to her waistline. Having never seen such a thing, I had to ask exactly what egg foo young was -- "Chinese pancake," Brian jested. "Kind of like an omelette," Alice answered with Andrew and Ken agreeing. Alice thought the dish was good, despite not usually being a fan of it. "But there didnít seem to be a whole lot of chicken in it," she observed, "and the little scoop of rice that was served with it didn't seem proportional to the huge amount of egg foo young." Anneís meal started out good with Wonton Soup that she said had "good chicken-y stock and good tasting wontons," but her Ma Po Tofu and Chicken left a bit to be desired. Although the dish was tasty, the tofu was too soft. "I felt that I should be eating the dish with a spoon," she said, describing it as having the consistency of Jell-o. Like Ken and Andrew, Anne found the dish to be too salty, with perhaps too much MSG. "I feel dilated," she said after a few bites.

In an effort to finish the evening in veggie fashion, Brian left the menu behind and simply asked the waiter for something vegetarian. "Vegetable Lo Mein?" the waiter suggested. "Sure," Brian assented, requesting that it be spicy. What arrived was a heaping plate of thin fried noodles that I eyed in jealousy after being served my order of Chicken Chow Mein. Not that my order wasnít good. The steaming mixture of chicken, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, celery and bok choy was very flavorful in a way that I could only describe as comparable to a bowl of strong, satisfying chicken soup, but the noodles were small and soft and I had expected something more like Brian's plate. Sure, the noodles were described on the menu, but having never actually been to a Chinese restaurant you'll have to cut me some slack.

Brian's choice to spice up his dish, however, backfired. "I asked for it be 'slightly spicy' and ended up with a cauldron of noodley fire," he complained. "I couldn't taste anything at all." While Brian downed Alice's half-full glass of water, the rest of us commented on how inattentive the service had been. "Iím thirsty," Ken griped when he and Andrew were discussing the saltiness of their meals. True, some of our water glasses had never been refilled and our pot of tea remained empty through the last half of the meal, though it didnít seem to be a particularly busy night. Brian and I noted that the bathrooms, too, were disturbingly small and had barely enough room to turn around. It was with mixed feelings that we packed up the remainders of our meal to go. Alice was happy that she had enough for two more meals and liked the "family-owned, low-key, neighborhood atmosphere," while Ken wondered why, "beyond the cool, noir-like interior," the restaurant had earned its status as a local institution. Although I've lived in the city for a number of years, I rarely have Chinese food because, while it's always been fine, it's never been more than that. Orange Garden was the same -- fine, but nothing more. It was Anne, though, who left the restaurant in smiles.

"Best. Fortune. Ever!" she squealed when she cracked open her fortune cookie and read aloud. "Happy event will take place shortly in your home…"

"…in bed," we finished, and tipped our hats to the lucky bearer of the fortune.

Orange Garden is located at 1942 W. Irving Park Rd., at the corner of Irving Park, Damen, and Lincoln. Dinner entrees range from $6-10. Call 773-525-7479 for take-out. Closed on Mondays.

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About the Author(s)

Fork It Over is the result of weekly dinners with members of the Gapers Block staff. This week's review was written by Veronica Bond.

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